Two Ottawans nominated for Manning Innovation Awards

David Sali
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A pair of Ottawa residents are among the candidates for a prestigious national award that honours innovative thinking.

From left, Natasha D'Souza, Ian Graham, deputy mayor Mark Taylor and Ralph Serin pose with Zeely, a mascot used in Ms. D'Souza's therapy app.

Natasha D’Souza and Ralph Serin have qualified as nominees for the 2015 Manning Innovation Awards, the local chapter of the awards foundation announced this week.

Ms. D’Souza, an engineer who founded technology consulting company Virtual EyeSee, created a virtual therapy system designed to help children with special needs better understand and interpret facial expressions.

Her system, which is available to parents, teachers and counsellors on iTunes, uses real images to help children with conditions such as autism develop facial recognition skills and valuable social skills.

Mr. Serin, an associate psychology professor at Carleton University, devised a more structured decision-making framework for members of the Parole Board of Canada to use when considering whether to grant a criminal’s release. He analyzed crime data to come up with a more consistent and objective approach to assessing inmates’ likelihood of reoffending.

Ian Graham, president of local incubator TheCodeFactory and chair of the Ottawa chapter of the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation, said while the two ideas might not seem related at first glance, they are strongly linked.

“The problems that they are solving are really different, but the solutions have so much in common,” he said. “Technology is actually in both cases a minor player in the solution. The big part of it is the people part of innovation.”

For example, according to Ms. D’Souza, research shows that special needs children often face social rejection because of their inability to respond to non-verbal forms of expression. Later in life, that can lead to difficulty holding down jobs, substance abuse and, potentially, criminal behaviour.

That’s where the connection to Mr. Serin’s work comes in, Mr. Graham explained.

“People with challenges can often end up on the wrong side of the tracks, too,” he said. “In a way, if Natasha and Ralph could talk, we could apply the therapy early and they wouldn’t need Ralph’s decision-making framework.”

Named after former Alberta premier Ernest Manning, the Manning Innovation Awards were first presented in 1982. Nominees are eligible for four awards, with the winners chosen by a panel of academic and professional leaders from across Canada. Prizes range from $10,000 to $100,000.

This year’s winners will be honoured alongside four Young Canadian recipients at a gala in Saskatoon on Oct. 2.  

Organizations: Carleton University, Parole Board of Canada, Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation

Geographic location: Ottawa, Alberta, Canada Saskatoon

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