//oneweek hackathon project aims to help parents protect – and connect with – their children

Sofia and Maya Guidi de Almeida, along with members of the "Safer Kids" team (Photo credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Sofia and Maya Guidi de Almeida, along with members of the “Safer Kids” team (Photo credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Parents can’t always watch over their kids – especially when they go online. But what if there was a service that could help bridge the technological gap and bring you closer to your children? And what if it could do that without hours of setup and monitoring?

The //oneweek hackathon for Microsoft employees allowed a team of 41 people from around the world to raise the visibility of online safety efforts already in progress around the company. The vision is for a compelling and comprehensive service that could one day fit into daily family life as a part of a Microsoft operating system, continuously updated in the cloud and synced across all your devices (including Xbox). This eclectic team responded to a call to action called “Safer Kids, Saner Parents” and has worked together for almost all of July. The service focuses on giving parents an easy way to understand their children’s lives online.

“They get my phone and use it, and even though they’re three and six, they have no problems using Netflix and watching videos,” says Alfredo de Almeida, a localization architect for Microsoft Business Solutions products such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM and a member of the “Safer Kids” team. His girls, Sofia and Maya, he says, “learn very quickly. When my older daughter was one, she couldn’t even speak, but she could flip through pictures on phones.”

He says that one of the best things about the group coming together were the discussions, which due to the aggressive hackathon deadline schedule, cut to the chase early.

“We’re moving so quickly in technology and this helps lay down a foundation for how we might manage that as parents,” says David Laves, a senior solution manager with User Experience Services and one of the “Safer Kids” project managers. He’s also a father of two young sons. “I’m close to my kids and monitoring what they’re doing, what they’re watching and what apps they’re interested in. As they get older, they’re going to have more freedom with apps and I want to have an idea how they’re using them, where they are, just to give me a better idea on how I can connect with them.”

“It’s also about how we help keep our children safe in the ever changing world of technology. As a parent you worry about everything and control nothing,” Laves laughed. “This is trying to bridge those two.”

Draft mock-up of "Safer Kids" service

Draft mock-up of “Safer Kids” service

The group voted to produce a short commercial during the hackathon that they hope will tell stories through mini-vignettes and connect with families on an emotional level.

“In the 50s, you lived on a street where you knew everybody and their friends and what they were interested in. Now, parents say they are disconnected from kids’ lives,” says Tracie Higginbotham, a security program manager in the Microsoft Security Response Center who is overseeing the design aspects of the service. “They want to engage with them and be better parents.”

For instance, a parent could ask personal digital assistant Cortana to set up accounts for the family, including recommended settings for the children. Then through Bing Maps and indexing, machine learning and big data analysis, parents would receive alerts and check into a dashboard that could tell them when their kids are researching discussion-provoking content online (such as online bullying and anorexia), when they’re not where they’re supposed to be and when someone who isn’t age appropriate friends or follows their child. It could also flag social network posts that could be considered harmful or questionable, depending on how fine-tuned the settings are.

“I consider myself a very technical person, but I can already see that technology is picking up speed ahead of my ability to catch up. I keep wondering how I will protect my kids from things I don’t know about,” says Adi Miller, a senior developer lead on the Bing personalization team and father of three young children, who joined to contribute to the development of the project. “But with this kind of service, I wouldn’t need to understand Instagram or other apps. It’ll do the interpretation for me.”

The service could also be the bearer of good news, too, if coordinated with schools, to deliver special recognition, awards and grades, says Jacqueline Beauchere, Microsoft’s chief online safety officer and the overall project manager for the “Safer Kids” team.

(L – R): David Laves, Jacqueline Beauchere and Tiffany Teichrow

(L – R): David Laves, Jacqueline Beauchere and Tiffany Teichrow (Photo credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

The experience of working together on the team has also produced positive benefits, Beauchere says, including bringing together subject matter experts from Bing, Xbox, Windows and other groups to generate traction in making this idea a reality. They answered the call to work together on family safety and extend existing work, as well as provide innovative new ideas, approaches, perspective and insights. The team recognized the importance of customization of such services to ensure the age and maturity of the child, along with the family’s values, are taken into account.

“The whole idea of the hackathon is how we’re moving the culture forward, breaking down traditional work styles and silos. I wanted to be involved in this project as a way for me to express my creativity,” Laves says. “I’d like to see this underlying service baked into our products, the differentiator that parents would choose for an ecosystem, because it would have the best way to help keep their kids safe.”

Prabhat Tandon, a support escalation engineer, took the lead on development on the team, and used Visual Studio 2013 and universal projects that can run on multiple devices. Jorge Carrillo brought his expertise in Skype security and online services to the table, and says that for him, this project and working as a team exemplified what One Microsoft means.

“It’s been absolutely tremendous. I don’t write code – at least not yet,” Beauchere says with a smile, “but no matter what your skills, you could lead or join a project and still feel like you made a contribution. You don’t have to be a coder, but you do have to have a vision; set that vision for the team, and then get out of the way as everyone steps up to do their part.”

This list shows everyone who contributed to the project.

Athima Chansanchai
Microsoft News Center Staff