Engineering student project wins British Airways prize

A Penn State engineering student project was recently selected a winner of British Airways' 2010 Face-of-Opportunity prize.

The project, WishVast: Building Trust and Social Capital Using Cellphones, is a cell phone-based network that harnesses the pervasiveness of cell phones in Africa to build trust, optimize resource utilization and supply chains, connect people and expand their social networks, facilitate peer-to-peer trade and help people emerge from poverty.

The British Airways prize includes travel anywhere in the world for a representative to conduct vital business meetings and admission to the airline's Face-of-Opportunity business conference in New York and London.

Thirty students across seven academic colleges at Penn State have worked on the WishVast team, which is part of the University's Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program.

The students field tested their technology in Kenya last summer by connecting employees looking for ad-hoc work with potential employers. A beta test of the system is planned for East Africa this summer

The WishVast team has also partnered with North Carolina State University's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management to adapt the system for connecting rural tourism groups with independent tourists in South Africa. Electrical engineering graduate student Chanakya Mehta, the group's technology lead, will travel to South Africa later this month with the North Carolina State team to conduct pilot testing of the system.

Mehta will attend the British Airways Face-of-Opportunity conference in New York on Feb. 2 and London on Feb. 3. The conference will allow Mehta the opportunity to receive advice from top international business experts while networking with venture capitalists, renowned entrepreneurs, media members and small business owners.

British Airways will fly Mehta to India later in February to meet with key partners, including the country's Self-Employed Women's Association and the National Innovation Foundation, to discuss possible adoption of the WishVast system. He will also discuss other HESE ventures and logistics for Penn State students who will be working on HESE ventures in India this spring and summer.

The WishVast team's previous awards include a $1,000 Carter Academic Service Entrepreneur grant from the International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering and a $4,000 award from the Clinton Global Initiative University Program.

Students are invited to join the WishVast team through the EDSGN 497C Design for Developing Communities and EDSGN 452 Projects in Community Service Engineering courses.

More information on WishVast can be found online at and on the British Airways Face-of-Opportunity program at

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Last Updated January 11, 2011