Trio of sophomores moves to CGI U bracket semifinals

and | News Editors

Courtesy of Dan Feinberg

From left: Dan Feinberg, Caitlin Lee, Maddie Welsh. The trio of sophomores are in the semifinals of the CGI U bracket challenge for their proposal “Stay in Touch.”

While March Madness may be the bracket challenge most people are obsessing over, three Washington University sophomores have reached the Final Four of this year’s Clinton Global Initiative University Bracket Challenge.

A year after Bill Clinton brought his pet project to campus, the University has once again landed in the forefront of the conference intended to support student initiatives—in the form of “Commitments to Action”—seeking solutions to global challenges.

Daniel Feinberg, Caitlin Lee and Maddie Welsh wrote a Commitment to Action intended to address the inability of disaster victims to stay in touch with their families and friends. Their idea is for a mobile-phone-based service titled “Stay in Touch,” with which victims can check in and leave a message on an automated system that will relay updates to people they know. The advantage of the system would be that victims could quickly notify large numbers of people about their whereabouts and condition without reaching out individually.

Similar services currently in existence require Internet access, and “Stay in Touch” takes advantage of the fact that cell phone access has become far more widespread in many parts of the world.

The three students are vying for the top spot—and $5,000 in additional startup money—in this year’s challenge that sets student teams and their respective proposals in competition with each another. In previous years, students advanced in the bracket by receiving student votes while this year, teams move forward by receiving the most donations on a crowd-funding website.

Feinberg first conceived of “Stay in Touch” when bouncing ideas against his older brother.

“We were probably discussing major issues in the world—and I think it was around when [Typhoon] Haiyan had hit the Philippines—how it just didn’t make sense that every single way that families had to locate each other was involving the Internet,” Feinberg said. “People realize it’s a very important issue because the prevalence of cell phones has increased dramatically.”

He then brought Lee, his girlfriend, and Welsh, a friend from his freshman floor, into the fold, and they worked together on the proposal, which was due at the beginning of January. They found out that they had made it into the conference in the middle of last month and more recently about the bracket challenge.

Feinberg said they have already received almost $3,000 in online donations and an additional $1,250 for making the Final Four. He said that the cost associated with creating the platform will depend on whether they are able to connect with people at the conference willing to work pro bono or if they need to hire a programmer.

Lee said the project is particularly meaningful to her because of her experience on a service trip to New Orleans.

“It is scary to see the lack of services available as well as the inefficiencies and irregularities,” Lee said. “Just knowing that in most countries, the majority of people have access to cell phones, it’s shocking and a little sad that there still isn’t any texting services that can reunite families after disasters.”

While they crafted their proposal on their own, the three students have since received support from the Gephardt Institute for Public Service and the chancellor, who are covering the group’s travel expenses to Phoenix this Friday. This year’s CGI U conference is being hosted by Arizona State University from March 21-23.

The lineup of speakers includes Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, Jimmy Kimmel and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Welsh said that while it may be less convenient to attend the conference when it isn’t hosted on campus, it ultimately may make it easier to connect with other student CGI U delegates, which is the main purpose of attending.

“We’ll be staying in close proximity with all these people for the entire weekend, so we’ll get to meet tons of new people, which will be great,” Welsh said.

Welsh said that she was initially uncomfortable asking people to donate to the project, but positive feedback made the fundraising process unexpectedly painless.

“People tend to become really interested in our idea when we explain what we’re trying to do,” Welsh said, “and they’ve been reaching out for us too because they believe in our idea.”

Voting for the Final Four round opens at 11 a.m. on Thursday and closes on Friday.