Two students from the University of Costa Rica want to reduce the number of wasteful solo car trips by making carpooling with strangers safe and easy.
Last December two computer science majors from the University of Costa Rica, 22-year-old Mario Alberto Barrantes Quesada and 23-year-old Wagner Alberto Alvarado Quesada, were stuck in a traffic jam. As they inched along in their car, they heard a radio program talking about the benefits of carpooling. The duo decided to put their tech skills to good use and designed Carpooling Mate Finder, a mobile phone app that will make it easier to find someone to ride with based on common routes and schedules. Their app won a finalist spot in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, the world's premier technology competition for socially conscious high school and college students happening next month in New York City. I caught up with Mario and Wagner via Skype.
GOOD: Why exactly did you decide to tackle the carpooling problem?
MQ: Traffic and pollution are problems all over the world. People in every big city, here in Costa Rica or even someplace in the United States like Los Angeles or New York City, say they go from their homes to their workplaces and there's only one person in the car. But, we know if people can share the ride there will be less cars on the road, so less pollution, and people can save their gas money. We hope this idea can really take off so we can help people and also help the environment.
GOOD: How exactly does the application work?
MQ: Users will register their phone's GPS location and then they can put in the routes they take and their schedule. If you go from your home to your work at the same time every day, maybe you have have a neighbor that travels the same route at the same time and you don't know it. But if you both register and share your routes, you can search for possible travel mates and partner up and only take one car. If you don't have the phone application, we also have a website where you can upload your travel route and we made it so you can register using Facebook.
GOOD: It can be pretty scary to get into a car with a stranger you don't know, so how does Carpooling Mate Finder address safety issues?
MQ: One of the most important concerns is the privacy and the security. We made the application so that users can send each other requests to be a travel mate and then you can review them and decide if you want to accept them as a travel mate. Then users can rate travel mates so other users can see if they should accept someone as a trusted driver.
GOOD: Do you have any investors interested in Carpooling Mate Finder so that we can get it here in the States?
MQ: We do hope that some businesses will invest in the software so we can make a commercial version for it because if we can get it out to more people, we can really help the environment. We have some business plans but we want to keep the application free for the user. If we don't make it easy and free for people, they won't use it.
GOOD: How have your professors helped you with your project?
MQ: We're lucky to be working with professors that are really brilliant and although we did all the work ourselves, they suggested more features for the application that we are working on right now. One of our professors is actually going to New York with us to help us and support us.
GOOD: What do you think schools and governments should be doing to get more students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math?
MQ: Costa Rica’s government has some good initiatives to get more students interested. They are working on it, but we also need teachers to have more training so they are able to explain the most-up-to-date things to the students. The children are all interested in learning about it, but the gap is with the teacher's access to learning the most current methods. We also need more equipment in the schools and more scientific tools in order to make learning about technology more exciting.
We'll be interviewing our other top picks of the best student projects competing in the Imagine cup over the coming weeks.