Temperatures reach triple digits in California’s Central Valley — searing enough to cause second-degree burns for anyone who dares to walk barefoot across a road.
Human beings aren’t built to spend long stretches of time in temps that top the body’s own 98.6 degrees. Yet migrant farmworkers often toil for 10 or more hours a day in their outdoor oven. At least four U.S. farmworkers die from heat annually — 20 times the rate in all non-military employees, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Determined to break the cycle, a team of students in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science developed an app that can literally save lives. It’s called Calor — meaning “heat” in Spanish — and it was originally designed to send automatic heat warnings to workers in the field. But now it does much more.
The app was developed in a class taught by computer scientist Barry Boehm, who holds the TRW Professorship in Engineering. The course is a real-life software development project involving real-life clients. After students are split into teams of six, they choose an idea from a list of stakeholders in need of code and are given a year to develop and launch it.
The brains behind it
Supannika Koolmanojwong Mobasser, a researcher at the USC Center for Systems and Software Engineering, who advised the team, said that a client approached her software engineering class.
“With 90,000 farms in California, Calor’s main motivation is to change from “work or health” to “work and health,” Koolmanojwong Mobasser said.
Her student, Akshay Aggarwal, said the proposal immediately jumped out at him because it brought together social impact and cutting-edge technologies with a clear path to delivery.
“It was so sophisticated and so well put together,” he said. “Surely, I thought, there’s a brilliant team behind the project.”
When the graduate students eventually met their brilliant client, they were surprised to find that it was a senior at La Cañada High School.
Faith Florez spent part of her childhood in Shafter, a small California farm town without a hospital, where she witnessed the plight of migrant farmworkers. But the inspiration for Calor came from somewhere deeper.
My great-grandmother was a farmworker. Back then, they sprayed pesticides over the fields and wouldn’t alert the workers.
“My great-grandmother was a farmworker,” she said. “Back then, they sprayed pesticides over the fields and wouldn’t alert the workers.”
Her great-grandmother, Estella Florez, eventually developed pancreatic cancer related to overexposure to pesticides and died before her 73rd birthday.
The Florez family tree is dotted with farmworkers who came from Mexico to the Central Valley to harvest and to dream of better lives for their children. Faith’s father, Dean Florez, eventually broke away from the family tradition.
“My dad decided he wanted to go to college. A lot of people didn’t even graduate high school,” Faith Florez said.
Dean Florez spent two years at Bakersfield College before he transferred to UCLA and from there, to Harvard University. He later became a California state assemblyman and state senator, representing the Central Valley and fighting on behalf of his constituents for overtime pay and reducing pollutants.
While they were prototyping, Faith Florez and the USC software development team went out into the grapevines at Fabri Farms in Central Valley to come face to face with farmworkers and their work, and to ask for their input.
It isn’t simply the extreme temperatures, the team discovered. Heat sickness is a symptom of an agricultural system where laborers can’t speak up about unsafe field conditions, in part because many are undocumented. Some of the challenges the team faced were lack of good data services on farms, which makes it difficult to get accurate locations for fetching and delivering weather information; keeping the data usage as low as possible for workers who don’t have data plans; and protecting the anonymity of workers through a registration system.
“We wanted to tailor the app to their specific needs without overburdening the problem,” Florez said.
In addition to the heat warnings, the team added an educational component to the app that delivers rich media content in English and Spanish to inform workers about their rights and how to safeguard their health. Calor also gives workers access to 911 and a direct hotline to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA.
Moving forward, the team has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $60,000 to jumpstart the pilot program and move the app to a wearable device such as the Apple Watch.
“We have all the features we need — it may be the method of delivery that we need to focus on,” said Aggarwal, who graduates in December with an M.S. in computer science and has joined Apple’s Siri team.
Florez continues to champion the work while she works on college applications.
“For now, I intend to be an English major,” she said. “I’m also applying to USC.”