Texas Students Win IBM Watson Competition With App Expanding Access to Social Services

AUSTIN, Texas  Students from The University of Texas at Austin won $100,000 in seed funding for developing an idea for a smart phone app that would use artificial intelligence to help Texas residents get information about health care, food assistance and other social services in partnership with the United Way for Greater Austin's 2-1-1 Navigation Center.

The Watson University Competition prize from IBM and The Entrepreneurs' Fund was awarded after students developed a prototype app, CallScout, that would use IBM's automated question-answering system Watson to streamline the delivery of information about social services available through 2-1-1.

With the app in place, Central Texas residents, regardless of home Internet access, could find information about community services. For example, those seeking to know more about signing up for Medicaid or CHIP health care could get information on their mobile devices about hours of operation for sign-up, bus routes and necessary paperwork to bring to appointments. They could also receive notifications on their phones about relevant deadlines.

The winning student team worked with Professor Bruce Porter, who was one of the computer scientists initially responsible for contributing expertise to the construction of Watson. Unlike search engines that yield an array of results from a keyword search, Watson works out specific answers to questions using complex artificial intelligence operations. In an upper-division class titled "Automated Question Answering," Porter and colleagues at UT Austin and six other universities work with students to build applications that harness Watson to solve industry-specific challenges.

"One of the things that set the UT team apart in competition is that they found and nurtured strong, viable partnerships with leaders in the social services field," said Porter, who is also chair of the Department of Computer Science. "It was not just a class project. It broke out of the classroom. None of the other university teams in this competition had a partnership like that."

Porter said the CallScout app will be available this spring for the general public to download through Apple's App Store. If the CallScout app is successful in Central Texas, it could also be rolled out by other 2-1-1 systems throughout the state.

"It was a privilege to partner with these intelligent and creative students," said Kay Garza, vice president of the United Way for Greater Austin's 2-1-1 Navigation Center. "We are excited to see this mobile app make a difference for residents of our local communities by bringing the convenience of 2-1-1 directly to their fingertips."