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An innovative tool that allows businesses to see what people are saying about them on social media platforms has won three University of Johannesburg computer science students and their supervisor a place in the final of a global technology competition in Russia later this year.

Dr Ian Ellefsen, Jan van Niekerk, Lorenzo Boccetti and Merrick Bengis beat off the challenge of South Africa’s top computer programming students to win the local leg of the Imagine Cup, a Microsoft-sponsored technology competition which pits the world’s best student programmers against each other. As part of their prize, they will be jetting off to St Petersburg in July to compete in the global finals.

Now in its 11th year, the Imagine Cup challenges the world’s best student programmers to create applications to solve real-world problems. More than 1.65 million students across the globe have participated in Imagine Cup during the past decade. Locally, this year’s local Imagine Cup drew 78 entries from universities across the country. Sponsors included the Department of Science and Technology/ CSIR Meraka Institute, BBD and Nokia.

The winning solution, SentiMeter, uses the power of affordable cloud computing to let businesses of any size track what is being said about them on social media platforms at very low cost, and analyse their brand sentiment.

SentiMeter was born a few years ago at the start of the social media boom, and the team realised that brands needed a way to take charge of what is being said about them – or face brand decimation.

“We believe our platform will save companies not only in rands, but also in reputation management,” said Van Niekerk. “The award means so much to us. As the tool is currently in Beta phase, we can now continue to grow our start-up even further.”

The tool combines sentiment analysis derived from an identified location anywhere in the world and various social platforms to provide companies with detailed reports, trends and insights, said van Niekerk.

The head of Microsoft South Africa’s developer and platform team, Clifford de Wit, said Imagine Cup was a cornerstone of Microsoft’s commitment to providing opportunities for young people, by providing a platform to inspire and showcase innovation and to encourage entrepreneurship.

The event saw entries across three categories - Gaming, Innovation and World Citizenship. Microsoft also included an additional App Challenge, where students were challenged to build Apps for the Windows 8, Windows Phone and Windows Azure platforms.

“These students all have one thing in common – a passion for technology and a desire to change the world for the better, starting with their innovations. Students’ work reflects immensely valuable solutions to real problems out there while giving them the opportunity to compete for generous cash prizes and the chance to build their own small business,” says De Wit.

De Wit says the competition each year is so competitive and is proud to be associated with the leaders of tomorrow. He says there is a continued need for smart technology in public and business sectors. For a competition such at the Imagine Cup to have touched more than 1.65 million students ages 16-24 from 190 countries over the past eleven years is incredibly impactful.

Michael Ofori-Appiah, Imagine Cup judge and Senior Technologist at CSIR’s Meraka Institute believes this year’s challenge was very competitive. “The submissions and presentations were of excellent standard, which reassured us that South Africa is on the right path of developing skills in software development to compete with the rest of the world. Team building among peers of diverse skills was prominent and recipe for developing IT entrepreneurs who will soon be creating jobs for the youth.”

Another judge from BBD, Peter Scheffel, agreed. “In our industry it sometimes happens that we take significantly longer to adopt and build similar solutions. However, the students often produce entire end-to-end solutions on new technology with all the add-on features like mobile access, using technology that they have only just learnt. And it is often available on the internet for anyone to access. This is just incredible.”

The complete list of winners is as follows:

App Challenges

Best Windows Phone App

App Name: SignPro

Developer: Linda Nyoka

University: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Best Windows 8 App

App Name: Noted

Developer: Brian Campbell

University: University of Free State

Best Windows Azure App (Best Use of Windows Azure in Solution)

Team: SentiMeter

University: University of Johannesburg

Competitions

Best World Citizenship Solution

Team Superstiens

Solution: eTute Mathematics Tutoring System

University: Nelson Mandel Metropolitan University

Best Innovation Project

Team SentiMeter

Soulution: SentiMeter

University: University of Johannesburg

Best Games Project

Team Sumo Development

Game: Pillar: Revenge of the Mad Scientist

University: Nelson Mandel Metropolitan University

Overall Imagine Cup Winner to represent SA at the WW Finals in Russia July 2013

Team SentiMeter

Solution: SentiMeter

University: University of Johannesburg