Tides awards the $10,000 2016 Pizzigati Prize to software developer Cristina Lopes

Cristina Lopes

Public interest computing’s highest honor is going to a veteran programmer who’s helping nonprofits access the world of 3D virtual reality.

Some software developers are making millions off the new high-tech frontier of virtual reality. Cristina Lopes is making social change.

Lopes has been the moving force behind OpenSimulator, the noncommercial software that’s opening the 3D virtual world to nonprofits all across the globe.

For that selfless contribution, the Tides Foundation has just named Cristina Lopes — or Crista, as fellow developers know her — the tenth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.

The decade-long effort behind OpenSimulator has involved hundreds of programmers, but no developer has been more central to that effort than Crista. She has personally designed much of OpenSimulator’s core architecture. Crista has also — as coach, mentor, and host of the first ever virtual OpenSimulator conference — nurtured the vibrant open source community that has evolved around the software.

The $10,000 Pizzigati Prize honors software developers who are working to fashion open source applications that aid activists and nonprofits involved in struggles for social change. Tides, a partner to philanthropists and activists worldwide, hosts the prize selection process.

OpenSimulator is advancing social change on a number of fronts. Crista’s work, notes her University of California Irvine informatics faculty colleague Andre van der Hoek, is helping the virtual world become accessible to “traditionally underrepresented groups.”

One set of OpenSimulator users, for instance, is now using virtual reality to amplify the voices of marginalized youth caught up in the juvenile justice system. These young people are telling their stories, as life-like avatars, and hoping to raise public awareness of the plight of kids getting caught up and lost in an unresponsive system.

Three-dimensional virtual environments, Crista believes, can advance social change by helping people “visualize future reality like nothing else can.”

Urban planning offers one example. Suppose planners proposed replacing private cars in Los Angeles with fleets of autonomous on-demand vehicles. A change that sweeping would be almost impossible to visualize with standard media. But technologies like OpenSimulator make visualizing an L.A. without private cars conceivable and could actively involve the public in that visualization.

The virtual reality world, says Crista, can “give us the power of seeing possible futures before making important decisions.”

Her work with virtual reality, Crista believes, also has important environmental implications. The third dimension that OpenSimulator makes so readily available is helping online meetings become a real alternative to environmentally damaging business travel.

“I’m a firm believer in the benefits of immersive virtual environments for conducting online meetings,” Crista explains. “The third dimension opens up a lot more options for capturing the meeting experience, with higher fidelity than simple two-dimensional video images.”

Reducing the need for business travel, in turn, will create more opportunities for women because so much of today’s business travel, Crista notes, often forces women to choose between their jobs and leaving their families in burdensome situations.

The open source community overall, Crista adds, has had its own problems encouraging women’s participation. Until her selection, no woman had ever won the annual Pizzigati Prize.

Women have been actively involved in OpenSimulator’s development. But in general, Crista points out, open source projects have had “a dismal presence of women.”

“It’s a complex issue, so I don’t have easy answers for how to make things better,” Crista adds. “Raising awareness about unconscious bias would be a good first step.”

Crista, a native of a small town in Portugal, now lives in Irvine. She has been programming since the mid 1980s, and her involvement with virtual reality began in 2007. She first became active with the open source OpenSimulator project a year later.

Why the interest in open source?

“I believe in public infrastructures,” Crista explains. “Open source projects can be the equivalent of public roads or public schools or publicly funded research, but for innovations in computing. When society has a common shared base, everyone wins.”

This year’s Pizzigati Prize judging panel included Joseph Mouzon, Julian York, and Amy Sample Ward, all veteran national leaders in public interest computing, as well as software developer and investor Ben Wen, community computing expert Ed Cable, and previous prize-winners Donald Lobo and Vishwas Babu.

“We had another strong pool of nominations,” observes Sonya Watson, the Pizzigati Prize coordinator for Tides. “The judges had some tough choices to make.”

The deadline for next year’s Pizzigati Prize nominations will be December 15, 2016. Applications forms and background information will be available later this year at the Pizzigati Prize Web site.

About The Pizzigati Prize

The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest goes annually to an open source software developer who’s adding significant value to nonprofits and social change movements.

The prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Tony spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the world-famous MIT Media Lab. Tony died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.

To learn more about Tony, the prize, and its judging criteria, visit www.pizzigatiprize.org.

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