As society's reliance on information technology surges, software has become an indispensable component of any disaster response effort. This includes programs for maneuvering robotic subs (as with the efforts to contain BP's Deepwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) or sophisticated mapping tools for emergency-response crews using mobile devices to assess earthquake damage (as in Haiti). With the understanding that emergency, health care and other services' reliance on software will only grow over time, Microsoft has for the past eight years hosted a global competition that challenges high school and college students to develop applications that address some of the planet's most urgent needs.

The company's Eighth Annual Imagine Cup finals wrapped up Thursday in Warsaw, Poland, with 400 students vying for $240,000 in prize money. The Imagine Cup, of course, serves as a major promotional event for Microsoft, with the dual purpose of trying to ensure that the company's products are the tools of choice for the next generation of computer programmers.

The event's popularity has expanded rapidly—about 325,000 students from more than 100 countries registered to compete this year (with 400 students advancing to this week's finals). That is a far cry from the 1,000 or so students that the company says it signed up in 2003 for the inaugural competition in Spain. Imagine Cup projects are aligned with the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty, promoting education, improving health care, and providing clean drinking water by 2015.

Projects in this year's competition trended toward education and global health, although several teams tackled another pressing problem worldwide—traffic management—with applications for improving bus routes and a social networking tool for organizing car pools, says Jon Perera (pdf), Microsoft's general manager for education.

As one might suspect, a prerequisite is that all competitors develop their programs using Microsoft products, including software writing tools, databases and the Windows operating system. Increasingly, students designed their software to be hosted at Microsoft's data centers rather than on their school's local computers. This so-called "cloud" model meant the teams did not have to worry about whether their schools had enough servers, storage devices and networking capacity to meet their needs. This is the first year of the competition where students could use Azure or Windows 7 (both of which debuted in the past year—Azure is an operating system optimized for remotely hosted computing).

Some of the apps are finding immediate use in critical situations worldwide. Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic developed the Geographical Information Assistant (GINA), which has allowed rescue workers in Haiti use mobile devices to overlay emergency locations on multiple maps, pull global positioning system coordinates for the places they need to go, and use touch technology to make notations on their maps, according to Microsoft.

Another application submitted for the Imagine Cup competition that is already being used in the field is a project to help Jordan's Ministry of Environment study how the desert in that country is expanding. German-Jordanian University's Project OaSys is designed to monitor and help solve that country's problem of "desertification," where once-green land dries up and is no longer agriculturally productive.

The Imagine Cup competition invites entries in five categories: software design, embedded software development, game design, digital media and IT challenge. These categories are a reflection of where Microsoft thinks the jobs will be when these students graduate. It is interesting to note that Brazil, a country whose economy is on the rise, contributed nearly 25 percent of this year's competitors (or about 80,000 students), Perera says.

The projects are judged based on a number of criteria, including how the students defined the problem, how well they designed their software, the quality of the user interface with that software, business viability, and a presentation during which the students describe and pitch their project to the judges. This approach reveals how well students understand the problem they are trying to solve and the demand for a potential solution, Perera says.

View a slide show of 2010 Imagine Cup finalists