International engineering conferences have the power to bring together top researchers, scientists, students and educators in one place, creating a hub of shared knowledge and expertise.
What better opportunity to harness such power for good?
Two professors who specialize in software engineering saw the potential to leave an imprint on communities hosting conferences, spearheading an initiative – Requirements Engineering (RE) Cares – that has become an integral part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ events in the field.
Requirements engineering involves defining and documenting what a system needs to do, ensuring everyone understands its goals.
“We wanted to find organizations or nonprofits at the site of the conference who needed software but didn’t have the means,” said computer science Professor Alex Dekhtyar who co-founded RE Cares in 2018. “Our goal was to jump-start the development process, then hand the stakeholders something they could give to their team of developers.”
For five years, RE Cares has aided communities near and far – from Jeju Island, South Korea, to South Bend, Indiana – as participants apply their skills to show they care and to do good.
“RE Cares is one of the opportunities we can offer to our students who want to do something useful with computing,” Dekhtyar said. “Students are drawn to those projects where they can develop software with their heart.”
Launching RE Cares
The drivers behind RE Cares are Dekhtyar and computer science Professor Jane Hayes from the University of Kentucky who met in 2001 while working at the campus in Lexington, bonding over software development and the desire to make a difference.
Years later, Hayes visited Dekhtyar in San Luis Obispo, and the two had a lengthy conversation about the annual IEEE International Requirements Engineering Conference and how it could benefit the host site.
“There is a whole group of international experts who come to the locale of a conference, then they are just gone,” said Hayes, likening the effect to a circus that leaves town as if it was never there.
The professors weren’t content to leave without a trace, so they hatched a plan: A team of educators and students would work with a philanthropic or nonprofit group to discuss their software needs prior to collaborating at the conference where they would pinpoint early features for a prototype.
RE Cares was launched in 2018 when conference attendees gathered in Banff, Canada, under a blanket of smoke from wildfires in British Columbia. Fittingly, RE Cares’ first client was Mutual Aid Alberta – a nonprofit group that trains first responders and needed a mobile app for internal communications in a crisis.
By the end of the conference, the RE Cares team helped Mutual Aid Alberta define the app’s requirements for which students later developed a prototype that was delivered in open source.
“This was a useful exercise for the organization as it helped them understand what they wanted,” Dekhtyar said. “The prototype guided the future development effort.”
In 2019, RE Cares helped an office of development on Jeju Island, South Korea, decide the requirements for an app that would alert a tourist with mobility challenges when an accessible bus reached a particular site on the island.
“Our goal was to engage people at the conference and help someone at that location jump-start a project that wouldn’t cost them money,” Dekhtyar said.
For Hayes, she had found the answer to the question she’d long asked herself: “How can we do better and how can we give back?”
Cal Poly students join the effort
In 2020, computer science students from the Cal Poly CS + Social Good club joined the RE Cares effort to set parameters for an app that would enable non-tech-savvy small business owners in Zurich, Switzerland, learn basic computer technology. The 2020 conference shifted to a virtual format due to COVID-19, but the project was still completed.
The CS + Social Good club continued its involvement as RE Cares partnered with Goodwill Industries in South Bend, Indiana, near Notre Dame – the host site of the hybrid conference in 2021. Beyond running thrift stores, the nonprofit actively engages in community outreach that includes efforts to counter gun violence and gang activity in cities such as South Bend.
Case workers wanted a better system for documenting the addresses, court orders and interactions with residents, so they turned to RE Cares, ultimately connecting with Kenny Lau, technical lead for the RE Cares team.
Lau, a computer science master’s student, spent the months leading up to the conference in discussions with Goodwill about the notetaking app.
“This was my first time doing requirements engineering and it was a meaningful experience,” said Lau, adding he gained skills working with clients and professors from around the world.
Lau spent the next year building out the project with other computer science students, including Andrew Eller.
“Making a meaningful impact for social good was the main drive for me,” said Eller, who signed on as a programmer for his senior project. “With our skills in software development, we can make a larger impact on a broader audience.”
Lau agreed, adding, “It can be easy to get caught up in the technology and lose sight of the impact on users, but we can affect people for good.”
Eller graduated in December 2022, and Lau handed off the product soon after. Hayes highlighted the Cal Poly students’ impressive work to a new customer during the most recent conference in Hannover, Germany.
She and Dekhtyar will continue their work with RE Cares, with the hope that more conferences adopt their model.
“There are dozens of engineering conferences and there is no reason each one of them couldn’t have a Cares component,” she said.
Dekhtyar added, “Students want their computer work to matter, and we can give them that opportunity.”
Help send students to a conference
Computer science Professor Alex Dekhtyar is seeking donor support to send Cal Poly students to the 2024 IEEE International Requirements Engineering Conference at Reykjavik University in Iceland.
“Being at a conference for a week is incredibly powerful for our students,” he said, adding their involvement in RE Cares makes them an integral part of the event.
Cal Poly has yet to send a group to the conference, which has mainly been a virtual event since COVID. Now that the conferences are in person again, Dekhtyar sees the perfect opportunity for his students.
“I really like these types of experiences for our students,” he said. “To witness it is pure joy.”
To help students attend, visit HERE and include “2024 RE conference” in the special requests section
By Emily Slater