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How Innovative Students Used Tech to Drive Regional Revitalization in Saikai City

Tech-savvy students offered cost-effective solutions for regional revitalization and also gained hands-on experience in app development.

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Saikai Bridge, which connects Seihi town in Saikai City and Hario Island in Nagasaki prefecture.

A recent study has demonstrated that students skilled in developing applications for computers and smartphones can make a positive impact on regional revitalization. The study also highlighted that utilizing technology provided by major IT companies can further reduce the costs associated with revitalization.

The research team that conducted this study comprised Professor Edmund Soji Otabe from the Graduate School of Computer Science and Systems Engineering at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Yusei Hyodo, the CEO of IT company YouLib, and Takafumi Miyasato, the CEO of Saikai Creative Company in Saikai City, Nagasaki Prefecture

Their findings were published in the Journal of Digital Life, an interdisciplinary online journal covering digital technology.

App Development

Application software is tailor-made for computers or smartphones to serve specific purposes. For instance, Google Chrome serves as a web browser, Microsoft Excel aids in organizing numerical data, and Adobe Photoshop is used for photo editing. In contrast, software designed to operate a device, like the Microsoft Windows operating system, is referred to as system software.

Creating an application from scratch is both time-consuming and costly. However, in recent years, IT giants have been sharing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and some of their service data with third parties through application programming interfaces (APIs).

The widespread availability of APIs, coupled with advancements in app platforms, has made it easier for developers to release apps without necessitating substantial capital or advanced technical expertise. 

Professor Otabe says he saw "a marked improvement in students' app development skills around 2015." The internet now provides high-quality IT resources in abundance, enabling many students to acquire app development skills and knowledge. 

However, Professor Otabe points out that many apps, despite their increasing sophistication, lack a clear purpose. Consequently, the Kyushu Institute of Technology, where Otabe works, is exploring ways to harness students' technical skills for a specific purpose: regional revitalization.

First, the research team conducted a survey in Saikai City to identify regional issues. Saikai City faces problems that are typical of a Japanese suburban city, including an aging and declining population. The team selected three issues to investigate whether students could address them using technology.

Yukinoura in Saikai City in 2022. (©Saikai City Office)

Local Broadcasts on Smart Speakers

The first challenge involved improving the way the city's local broadcast was delivered. It was often difficult to hear due to its low volume. People at home would close their windows during bad weather, making it even harder to receive crucial information, such as evacuation instructions. 

To tackle this issue, students developed a solution using Amazon's smart speaker, Amazon Echo, creating a new skill for the virtual assistant Alexa. This skill, named "Varygood-kun" after Saikai Creative Company's mascot, allows users to listen to voice messages from Saikai City Hall via Amazon Echo. 

The skill allows Alexa to respond to prompts like "Tell me today's local announcements." Users can listen to messages again by saying "Please repeat." Amazon Echo is small enough to be placed on a tabletop, which means users can listen to local broadcasts indoors. This solves the problem of bad weather as well as sound reverberation commonly encountered with outdoor speakers in mountainous regions. 

While the Alexa skill "Varygood-kun" has proven effective during a two-month trial in Saikai City, it is not yet accessible to the general public.

Outdoor speakers (file photo)

Transcription with OCR

The second challenge was to simplify the digitization of printed text at Saikai City Hall, which previously required manual input by staff. The city's staff were unfamiliar with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems, which utilize cameras to recognize text shapes and convert them into digital data.

To address this issue, students developed "Transcription Varygood-kun," a system that utilizes the messaging app LINE, widely used in Japan. By combining LINE with OCR technology, the system digitizes printed text when sent as a photo to a dedicated LINE account. Although initially developed for city hall employees, it quickly gained popularity. It had over 270,000 users (LINE friends) as of August 2023, surpassing the city's population of approximately 25,000 as of March. It remains available for use on LINE.

The system relies on Google's image recognition system, so users are advised to exercise the same caution as they would when using the latter. Therefore, it may not be suitable for transcribing confidential information.

E-commerce for Agricultural Products

The third challenge involved creating a user-friendly e-commerce system for Genki Yasai Miyabi, a farm seeking to sell its agricultural products online. Many existing online shopping websites were not suitable for elderly users. 

Once again, the students turned to LINE, as many seniors in Japan are familiar with the messaging app. Using LINE, the students created an e-commerce system that was named "Genki Yasai Miyabi Varygood-kun." The system was later integrated into a platform called "Feel free EC Lea = rare," which allows users to easily launch their own e-commerce websites.

Through these three initiatives, the research team underscored the value of collaboration between students and municipalities in promoting revitalization. Students gain practical experience in addressing social issues through app implementation, while municipalities benefit from new, cost-effective apps. Additionally, the team anticipates that emerging technologies, such as the metaverse and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) utilizing blockchain technology, will continue to accelerate regional revitalization.

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This article was first published on iza! by the Journal of Digital Life. You can read a related article in Japanese.

Author: Taketoshi Noma