Global Learning Xprize splits $10M purse for best teaching app for disadvantaged kids

Kids need a good education to have the best chance of succeeding in the world, but in distant parts of developing countries that may be neither schools nor teachers. The Global Learning Xprize aimed to spur innovation in the tech space to create app-based teaching those kids can do on their own — and a tie means the $10 million grand prize gets split in two.

The winners, Onebillion and Kitkit School, both created tablet apps that resulted in serious gains to literacy rates in the areas they were deployed. Each receives $5M, in addition to the $1M they got for being a finalist. Elon Musk and Xprize co-founder Anousheh Ansari were in attendance to congratulate the winners.

Funded by a number of sponsors including Elon Musk, the prize started way back in 2014. Overseen at first by Matt Keller (previously at the famous but sadly unsuccessful One Laptop Per Child program), and later by Emily Musil Church, the prize asked entrants to create free, open-source software that kids could use to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

After soliciting teams and doing some internal winnowing of the herd, a set of five finalists was arrived at: CCI, Chimple, Kitkit School, Onebillion, and Robotutors. They came from a variety of locations and backgrounds, and as mentioned all received a $1M prize for getting to this stage.

These finalists were then subjected to field testing in Tanzania, where 8,000 Pixel C tablets generously donated by Google for the purpose were distributed to communities where teaching was hardest to come by and literacy rates lowest.

Among the participating kids, only about a quarter attended school, and only one in ten could read a single world in Swahili. By the end of the 15-month field test, 30 percent of the kids could read a complete sentence — results were even better among girls.

I asked about the field test process itself. Church, who led the prize project, gave a detailed answer that shows how closely the organization worked with local communities:

The field test was a very unique and complex operation – the field test included nearly 2,700 children and 170 villages in some of the most remote parts of Tanzania over the course of 15 months. XPRIZE worked closely with its partners on the ground to implement this unique 15-month field test – UNESCO, World Food Programme, and the Government of Tanzania. In total that required over 300 staff members in Tanzania from all levels – from the regional educational officials to village mamas — women from each village who have been empowered to ensure the smooth functioning of the test. This was truly a ground-up, community-driven operation. Logistically, this required identifying and sensitizing communities, conducting baseline and endline assessment of all the children prior to tablet distribution, installing solar charging stations in all of these villages for the tablets, and physical data collection and tablet distribution by our heroic Field Assistants on motorbikes (just to name a few of the critical activities).

Once the tablets were in the hands of the children – the general approach was to be very “hands-off” as we wanted to see whether or not the software itself was leading to learning gains. We instead relied on village mamas to create a safe environment in which a child can use the tablet when they chose to. In short – we realize that in order for this work to scale globally – hands-on instruction is hard to do.

The winning teams had similar approaches: gamify the content and make it approachable for any age or ability level. Rural Tanzania isn’t hurting literacy-wise because of a lack of worksheets. If these kids are going to learn, it needs to be engaging — like anywhere else, they learn best when they don’t realize they’re being taught.

Onebillion’s approach was to create a single but flexible long course that takes kids from absolutely zero reading knowledge to basic competency. “Onecourse is made of thousands of learning units, some could be on reading activities, some could be on numeracy activities — it’s a modular course, it’s built around the child’s day and adapts to their needs,” explained the company’s CTO, Jamie Stuart in a video about the team.

“When the child is not yet at a stage when they can read, the story can be played back to the child a bit like an audio book. When the child starts to be able to decode words we can offer them assistance, and then later on they can attempt to read the story by themselves.”

Kitkit School came from Sooinn Lee and her husband, both game developers (and plenty of others, of course). She points out that games are fundamentally built around the idea of keeping the player engaged. “Sometimes in education software, I see there is software too much focused on what to deliver and what is the curriculum, rather than how a child will feel during this learning experience,” she said in her team video.

“We create gamified learning with a mixture of high quality graphics, sound, interactions, so a child will feel they’re doing a really fun activity, and they don’t care if they’re learning or not, because it feels so good.”

All the finalists were on the ground in these communities working with the kids, so this wasn’t just an fire and forget situation. And if we’re honest, that may account partially for the gains shown by these kids.

After all, the main issue is a lack of resources, and while the tablets and curricula are a good way to bring learning to the kids, what matters most is that someone is bringing it at all. That said, pre-built fun learning experiences like this that can run on rugged, easily distributed hardware are definitely powerful tools to start with.

As for the communities involved — they won’t be left high and dry now that the testing is over. Church told me that there are plans to make the apps part of Tanzania’s education system:

Our UN partners on the ground (UNESCO and WFP) have worked hand-in-hand with the Government of Tanzania to develop a plan regarding how to continue to use the software (deployed in Tanzania as part of this project), the tablets in the project, and the solar stations installed. This plan will be implemented by the Government of Tanzania in late June in conjunction with UNESCO and WFP. Part of this plan is to get the content in all five of the applications approved to be part of the formal education system in Tanzania, so it can be integrated. We laud the foresight of Tanzania to see the value in tablet-driven learning as a way to reach all children.

And the devices themselves will stay put, or even be replaced. “The staff on the ground will work with the communities to ensure each child as part of this project receives up-to-date software and a new tablet,” Church wrote. “In addition our partners are actively working with communities to teach them how to maintain and continue to use the solar stations in their villages beyond this project.”

Not every needy kid has a rich western organization to drop a state-of-the-art tablet in their hands. But this is just the start of something larger — here’s hoping programs like this one will grow to encompass not just Africa but anywhere, including the U.S., where disadvantaged kids need a hand with the basics.

XPRIZE names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

XPRIZE, the non-profit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning XPRIZE .

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

XPRIZE set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists including: New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based, learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning, and human computer interactions, and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion, merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary ad secondary school level. Some research, cited by XPRIZE, indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15 month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, XPRIZE said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

After its first attempt botched the landing, SpaceIL commits to second Beresheet lunar mission

The minds behind Israel’s SpaceIL attempted lunar landing convened today to begin planning for a second lunar mission.

In an announcement yesterday, the chairman of SpaceIL, Morris Kahn, said that the leaders of the group behind the Beresheet launch would begin meeting to find a new group of donors for another run at a lunar landing.

On Thursday the first Israeli mission to the moon ended in failure when the organization’s spacecraft Beresheet (which means Genesis in Hebrew) crashed on the lunar surface.

“This is part of my message to the younger generation: Even if you do not succeed, you get up again and try,” Kahn said in a statement.

At a cost of $200 million the Beresheet mission would have been among the cheapest lunar landings ever attempted — and the first legitimate attempt by a private organization to make it to the moon (even though the SpaceIL organization had significant backing from the Israeli government).

The project started as an attempt to claim the Google Lunar Xprize, which was announced over ten years ago and was not awarded because no team could make an attempt at a landing within the timeframe specified. But, Beresheet’s developers labored on with help from Israel Aerospace Industries — the country’s state-owned aviation business.

In part, the cost of the lunar landing was defrayed by using existing launch technologies. Beresheet started its voyage by hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

After spiraling out of earth’s orbit for a month and a half, the Beresheet spacecraft entered lunar orbit just over a week ago before making its attempted landing last Thursday.

The final maneuver was an engine burn that would slow the spacecraft’s descent onto the lunar surface so that it could park on the Moon’s Sea of Serenity.

The vehicle made it most of the way to the moon. It took a picture of the blue marble from about 22 kilometers above the lunar surface and — a few minutes later — was lost.

Both Peter Diamandis, the founder of XPrize, and Anousheh Ansari, the foundation’s current chief executive, spoke to TechCrunch about the landing last week.

“What I’m seeing here is an incredible ‘Who’s Who’ from science, education and government who have gathered to watch this miracle take place,” Diamandis said. “We launched this competition now 11 years ago to inspire and educate engineers, and despite the fact that it ran out of time it has achieved 100 percent of its goal. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the ground fully intact it has ignited a level of electricity and excitement that reminds me of the Ansari Xprize 15 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Ansari emphasized the potential to reinvigorate commercial interest in lunar exploration and experimentation that the landing could evoke.

“Imagine, over the last 50 years only 500 people out of seven billion have been to space — that number will be thousands soon,” she said. “We believe there’s so much more that can be done in this area of technology, a lot of real business opportunities that benefit civilization but also humanity.”

Water Abundance XPRIZE’s $1.5M winner shows how to source fresh water from the air

You may remember that back in May, the Water Abundance XPRIZE  href=””>named the five finalists in its contest to demonstrate the sustainable and scalable collection of water from the air. Interestingly, none of those finalists were the winner — after one dropped out, an eliminated team stepped in and took the prize.

The goal of the program was to  collect “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” No simple task! In fact, I would have guessed it was an impossible one.

But many teams made the attempt anyway, and with a variety of approaches at that. The runner-up, Hawaii’s JMCC Wing, combined a large, super-efficient wind turbine with a commercial condenser unit.

The winner was Skysource/Skywater Alliance, which has already deployed many of its units abroad (and, apparently, at Miranda Kerr’s house). They can run off the grid or alternative power sources, and use an extremely efficient adiabatic distillation method.

It’s cheaper and more efficient than desalination, and doesn’t require the presence of nearby water sources or rain. Skywater boxes, which range from somewhat smaller to rather larger than a refrigerator, can produce up to 300 gallons per day; that’s about 1135 liters, so two of them would meet the contest’s requirements if the cost was low enough and it was running on renewables.

That was sufficiently demonstrated to the XPRIZE inspection teams, it seems, and the team was this weekend awarded the $1.5 million top prize despite not making it into the finals.

“It has been pretty intense but it’s really been exciting for me to see water come out of our system, because this is connected to real lives in the world,” said team member Jay Hasty in an XPRIZE video.

This doesn’t mean water scarcity is a solved problem — by a long shot — but competitions like this are great ways of promoting new development in a space and also creating awareness of it. Hopefully Skywater systems will be installed where they’re needed, but development will almost certainly continue on those created by the other teams competing for the prize.

Xprize is relaunching its Moon challenge without Google, but they need a new sponsor

The deadline for Google’s Lunar Xprize passed just days ago without a winner, but the lengthy 10-year competition to send a robot to the Moon’s surface had known for months that none of the five teams were ready for launch by the extended deadline of March 31, 2018. As a result, back in January, Google announced it was taking its $30 million in prize money back, leaving the exciting challenge with a bit of an anticlimactic end.

Xprize is back however, announcing today that the show will go on without a cash award or Google support, though they’re looking for a new sponsor to step in and float the prize for the Xprize.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to Google for funding the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE between September 2007 and March 31st, 2018. While that competition is now over, there are at least five teams with launch contracts that hope to land on the Lunar surface in the next two years,” said Xprize founder Peter H. Diamandis, M.D. in a statement. “Because of this tremendous progress, and near-term potential, XPRIZE is now looking for our next visionary Title Sponsor who wants to put their logo on these teams and on the lunar surface.”

The big focus of the whole scenario was to give private companies a chance and major incentive to join the host of government orgs that had landed a craft on the Moon. Xprize says that Google’s pledge and support eventually netted the teams involved as much as $300 million in investment to fund the missions.

Though Google Lunar Xprize stretched on through many deadline extensions only to end without a winner, with this new launch competition, the organization hopes they can capture the public’s imagination once again while hopefully soon also capturing the support of a mega-donor to put their name on the competition.

“At this point, we don’t want to give up on these teams, these teams are going to make it,” Diamandis said.

Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams that can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists.

The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” Is that even possible?!

For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250,000 “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order:

Hydro Harvest: This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity.

JMCC Wing: This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy.

Skydra: Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.”

The Veragon & Thinair: Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. U.K. collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals.

Uravu: Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though.

The first round of testing took place in January, and round 2 comes in July, at which point the teams’ business plans are also due. In August there should be an announcement of the $1 million grand prize winner. Good luck to all involved and regardless of who takes home the prize, here’s hoping this tech gets deployed to good purpose where it’s needed.

Global Learning XPRIZE awards $1 million each to final five teams

 The Global Learning XPRIZE, an international competition to create educational software, has reached its penultimate stage: 5 teams out of an initial pool of nearly 200 have been selected to receive $1 million and compete for the $10 million grand prize. Read More

Literacy XPRIZE starts field tests of semifinalist apps in LA, Philadelphia and Dallas

 Literacy is a serious problem all over the world — even in our little utopia. While a touch-up of our education and support systems would probably be the best fix in the long term, we all know that’s not likely. So in the meantime we have creative private attempts to alleviate the issue: Today, a $7 million XPRIZE for literacy-improving apps enters the field-testing phase. Read More