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Ask HN: What are problems that enterprising college students could solve?
80 points by ups474773 on Aug 31, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments
Hi HN, I'm looking for your help to brainstorm problems that need solutions. I'm in a program where we create teams and find challenges that the world or community around us is facing; however, many of us struggle to find realistic or 'not too broad' problems due to a lack of real-world experience. Based on your personal or anecdotal experience, what types of problems would you like to see a solution developed to? Are there places or websites to source ideas from? Thank you.

Scoping out the right problems is a highly non-trivial skill in itself. For example, a significant component of a PhD is learning to do this with regards to research projects (that is part of what it means to be an independent researcher). Typically, the only way to learn this is by calibrating one's experience with one's ability, and the scope of problems will evolve with the increase in both. It really helps to have a mentor to provide guidance along that path, and to help set/refine goals and to calibrate expectations and provide feedback. The reason I'm explaining all this is that it is very difficult to generically suggest "problems" without knowing your background/interests/orientation. (eg: Coming up with good student projects is an art unto itself; something that professors are expected to learn along the way)

So maybe provide some more information about yourself?

Appreciate the initiative; good luck! Maybe we should develop more of a culture of sharing "problems" openly (formulated constructively) so that others with a suitable background might take a crack at them! :-)

Turn to the nearest problem that you see, that you have a strong drive to solve.

This world needs refining.

Everything in order at home? On your street? In your neighborhood? Your City? Your State? Your Country?

Here in Africa we have plenty of issues needing attention.


Personally I was introduced to the poor standard of early childhood development in my city by a friend, and since then we have built 3 schools. Just in my immediate area, there are around 40 that need attention, and across the country of South Africa there must be thousands. The cost of a simple building to handle part of the problem is around $25k. Another problem we face is high unemployment, so we pay people from the community to help build the schools.

Lack of access to quality education, skills and funding are the challenges we face.

A lot of research still needs to be done on extent of the problem. I have been dreaming of an app that maps all of these ECD centers and rates them on various metrics, like quality of education, building, and nutrition. An app that would allow professionals who would like to give their time a list of options of places that need their help. Like crowd funding, but for skills. An app to allow the greater community to see, engage and solve the most pressing problems around us, all over the world.

Also and app like Uber or Airbnb, but for artisans and skilled contractors, with similar rating systems.

There are many crowd funding sites, but it’s time to go deeper and actively seek out and solve issues.


I like Bucky Fuller’s advice on figuring out what to do:

“The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done—that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.” — Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

Are you in an area with homeless people? In my neighborhood, there's a homeless guy named Mike. His wheelchair has been stolen 4 times in the last two months, and he can't walk without it. I was thinking it'd be cool if there was a municipal registration system for wheelchairs, like there are for bikes, that would work for homeless people. Just an idea. No clue how practical it'd be!

Related: Malcolm Gladwell's Homelessness is Solvable


Since, my comment got a few upvotes, here's a pic I took of him a few days ago.


For context, Mike effectively can't walk. He can lean on a wall and sort of push himself along for a bit. But imagine "crawling" along a way, having to take a break every 10 or 20 feet, and then getting blocked by coming up to a window that you can't lean on. And then imagine someone stealing your wheelchair. Talk about messed up.

I first read “musical” registration system. Left me wondering for a bit.

Social media is in need of a major upgrade. A team of designers (as in user experience and information design) and programmers could work on new patterns for social media. You could use Hacker News as the test subject. Challenges you may consider:

    1. excessive influence of amateur opinions ( I'm not a doctor, but let me tell you what I think about treatment for acute renal failure -- this gets upvoted to the top )
    2. astroturfing (are praises within the comments section really just insiders shaping the narrative?)
    3. considerate, alternative points of view are buried at the bottom of the comments section
    4. moderator biases
you get the idea!

Find ways to get college-age students involved in government (local, national, etc), especially voting.

Young people are a large, yet chronically underrepresented demographic. Just because it's true now doesn't mean it'll always be.

Only vote if you're actually willing to understand what the policies are and what is currently being done. Otherwise you end up having people vote based on superfluous surface level details -- e.g., I'd have a beer with them.

This. I'd say young people should focus on educating themselves about the various issues in an academic sense, particularly if they're in college.

Don't just read blogs, read studies and learn the statistics/background so you actually understand what they mean. Look up primary sources to get perspectives from people who have lived through whatever issue you're grappling with. Learn to write and how to think about the issue before jumping to forming an opinion, and know that the process may take years of work before you have an opinion worth hearing.

You have your whole life to fix problems if you want, take the time to get prepared first so you don't just make things worse.

From my own experience it's cringey to remember how easy it was to talk about "how willing I'd be to pay more in taxes for X" back when I was single and not paying any taxes. And I considered myself educated on the subject! Climate change is real after all, how can people not be willing to sacrifice for the greater good when the coastline is literally shrinking?!! :)

I blame most public school systems. They tend to reward very shallow reasoning for the first 12 or so years of a person's education, particularly in this age of standardized testing. So most students arrive in college thinking all problems are just as shallow.

I’d say older people should focus on educating themselves about the various issues in an academic sense, particularly if they haven’t been exposed to the many new issues facing younger people that are often ignored by the many politicians catering to older groups.

Don’t just listen to cable news and partisan radio shows, read studies and learn the statistics/background so you actually understand what they mean. Look up primary sources to get perspectives from younger people who may face very different circumstances than you did at their age.

You have a whole life of experience that can help and hinder; take the time to understand the changing world instead of clinging to the past so you don’t just make things worse.

From my own experience it’s disappointing to see older people ignore or stall on a variety of social issues that no longer affect them because they’re set. Even worse, some ignore or pooh-pooh serious long-term problems just because they’ll be dead when the ill-effects kick in.

I’m not sure what to blame for this selfishness and myopia, but it’s important to remember that “uninformed” is not just an adjective that applies to the young.

And? As someone in their early 30s I'd agree.

The discussion was what should college-age people be doing with their time. I'm simply pointing out that young people entering college typically have little academic knowledge and little real-world experience. So outliers aside, how are they fit to solve problems again? Most of them are white belts when it comes to adult life. That's not bad, just a statement of status.

Given that college provides years of uninterrupted access to scientific journals, never mind classes and a myriad of other education resources, I'd recommend that they maximize the opportunities in front of them and maybe work their way to to at least purple belt before setting out to save the world.

Also, I find it sad how eager you were to pigeon-hole me as some cable-TV-watching boomer who's refusing to change just because I pointed out there are economic nuances to the climate change argument. You sound like one of the victims of our shallow public education system I mentioned in my previous post.

Learn to think, he says, and then he blames the school systems (instead of blaming the myriad fundamental problems that lead to screwed up school systems).

That only works if everyone follows it, which they don't for a host of good and bad reasons.

Imagine 100 informed people understand the issue; 60 vote for it and 40 against. But 500 uninformed people like the celebrity who opposes the issue so the final vote is 60 to 540.

At this point, I'd be happy just to see that could-vote demographics are proportional to did-vote demographics. We're nowhere close, and it shows.

What is the value of a low could-vote:did-vote ratio in the absence of informed voters?

I can see why keeping this ratio high appeals to governments and politicians. It grants them more legitimacy, even if the votes are entirely uninformed. I also see why motivating particular demographics to vote appeals to certain candidates: voters in particular demographics tend to vote for particular candidates/causes/parties. But as an informed voter I'm better off if there are fewer uniformed voters, because my vote becomes more powerful. And as a citizen, I'm probably better off if the majority of voters are informed, even if they don't always vote in my personal best interests.

You may mean well, but anyone who is discouraging our youth from voting will not get agreement from me. We have a large demographic of older voters who vote they same way they have been for decades, along partisan lines based on dated world views. (And I'm old, so I include myself in this.) We need the youth to vote.

Yes, educated votes are better than uneducated votes. So plan to vote, and plan to learn.

Adding to this, understand the difference between long term success and short term project success. The SAT, college, future big co employers, have taught all of us how to achieve ephemeral results that grant bonuses or other validations but do little to nothing to help the world we live in. When trying to improve youth voter turnout, think instead why the efforts made have failed so drastically despite tens of thousands of individuals going around with clip boards since the ‘70s...

There was something very powerful that happened in Christchurch, New Zealand after the major quake in 2011, the Student Volunteer Army. I wonder if it's a good model, though sadly it may need to be triggered by disaster.


You should check out https://www.polimorphic.com -- its a civic media site we built for young people to be informed on what's actually happening in politics (votes, legislation, etc.). Plus we're working with a growing number of college politicial groups and other civic groups. Would be happy to elaborate more on it, if interested

The best help young, inexperienced, energetic folks can be is to follow someone who is aged, experienced, and lacking bandwidth. Romantic notions aside, young people are not particularly equipped to lead, and would do better to watch a leader work for a while instead of trying to dive in themselves.

Go find a group that actually has a mission and help them, rather than searching for a problem to solve. Plenty of animal shelters, churches, and soup kitchens would love a group of hands to help.

If your program specifically requires you to lead something, create a program to coordinate causeless volunteers with organizations that need them.

The best advice I can give us to build something for pain you feel. Maybe it's edtech integrations or a part of your workflow or life that needs optimization.

If you build something for other people, you'll need user discovery and project management skills up the wazoo if you don't have a team with that expertise. And you're at risk of building Facebook for Cat Owners or something like that. Start with your own pain until you have more experience transforming user pain into something they'll pay for.

I just want to second this. The most satisfying work I've ever done, and the work I'm most proud of (that I speak of with interviewers etc) is work that scratched a real itch that I had.

Nearly all the most interesting start ups I’ve seen around me have done this. They identified something that was frustrating and clunky, then picked away at it until there was a useful alternative and then kept iterating.

This sounds like a problem in your community: a large group of people every year trying, probably often failing, to find concrete ways to actually help out.

Go out and interview folks running non-profits, research labs, churches, health clinics, legal clinics, schools, anyone else who fits into your colleges definition of "community around us".

From those interviews, build a large list of project-sized problem/solution statments for future groups of students. Include skills needed, points of contact, possible adoption challenges, etc. Validate those project descriptions with the people you interview.

Identifying and describing problems that need to be solved and what it means to solve them is something lots of people build careers around

Facebook, which has eaten the world, started in college dorm rooms. I'd love to see a not-for-profit social media option that emphasized connecting people to join up in the real world, to solve real problems, rather than encouraging addictive behavior. You could start with a social network for your college only or your city only and work from there.

The problem is that most people only care about themselves, and are not interested in solving real problems. That's why Facebook/Instagram/any other platform prioritizing self promotion are massive.

There are problems everywhere that need solving, from a few lines of code (bug fix), all the way to completely new solutions unlike anything known in existence. The real questions back to you are:

1. What are your resources? (Time, money, people, space, hardware, software, etc.)

2. Does the problem need to be profitable or is this philanthropy?

3. What motivates you to work? (World issues, local issues, tough mathematical problems, etc.)

Trying to find something that falls within the cross-section of all these problems, I would suggest working on problems that curve energy usage. Anything that reduces energy usage is almost guaranteed to be profitable, reduce carbon emissions and generally make the world a better place. Some ideas around this theme:

* Passive/intelligent cooling of small/medium sized spaces that can be retroactively applied to human inhabited spaces. Air conditioning boxes are ludicrously inefficient, there should be some very simple methods to greatly increase their effectiveness.

* Software to reduce desktop computer power usage - especially in offices where they effectively get left on all of the time over night. I think a ridiculously large number of office workers could also be working on passively cooled ARM based computers. (Windows did/does support a Raspberry Pi for example, so they've already done the legwork.)

Heya, great to know that you're interested.

A couple of things:

* Contact your local city or state and see. Colorado has a hackathon: https://gocode.colorado.gov/ See if your local state has something.

* Code for America is another organization with a finger on the pulse of what needs to be done: https://www.codeforamerica.org/

* If you are focusing on a particular technology, reach out to your local meetups around that technology and post a message like you did here.

* Finally, don't get wrapped up in infrastructure or setup. Use something like Heroku: https://www.heroku.com/, AWS Elastic Beanstalk, or Transposit: https://www.transposit.com/ (full disclosure, I work for them) to make sure you can focus on the business problem, not the intricacies of EC2 or ALB configuration. Seen too many good ideas crater on that bikeshedding.

Graduate college without debt. Find ways to disrupt the college culture to accomplish this.

Do you feel ISAs (income share agreements) are a good way to do that? Or do you think there should be other better ways?

I'm not in the US, but my feeling is no. Either get a scholarship to a prestigious university, or go to an in-state college and work to minimise the debt, even if it's flipping burgers. Doing that is the difference between graduating with 10k in debt and 200k in debt.

I think it begins with a cultural change: where you go, how you spend your time and money, how you approach education. An ISA is just a different form of debt (and sometimes debt can be leveraged well, but usually it's a default for the lazy)

Politics. Seriously. We don’t need another high tech company or hedge fund. We need to fix our country. We need organized, voting young people.

... to vote for whom? There are already lots of young people organizing and wanting to vote, although their preferences might not necessarily align with the generation above them. Populist movements (both the far-left and far-right) are taking over Western countries at the moment (as a reaction to the dire economic circumstances of the current generation), but the traditional political parties (mid-left/mid-right, but especially the mid-left) and the old media conglomerates are actively trying to suppress that.

I think he/she means to vote for “the right candidate”, possibly someone that will start a genocide in Yemen, drop more bombs than any other US president and go away with a Nobel peace prize, pictures with kids playing around in the White House and a bunch of emotional speeches?

If you’re in Berkeley, I can help you directly.. I’m not sure why, but this sounds familiar. Otherwise, here is a problem:

- Maintaining good nutrition is a problem for many [People].

+ Maintaining good nutrition is a problem for many [People]. [your solution name] solves this problem by [providing a superior solution].

* solution: develop a service predicated on ensuring people meet macro/micro nutrient requirements; I wouldn’t do this directly, I would partner with the fast-food/restaurant industry to develop “paths” towards “nutrition.” Say you get a number 1 or whatever, well instead of “only having x more calories to spare” (restriction) you know what you need to eat next.

Now, this wouldn’t be initially ideal as it’ll probably drive unhealthy habits (to be exploited I’m sure), but it could help drive better habits over time: - menus aren’t well-balanced diets - customers could seek more balance then there’d be - incentive to balance menus - could shift perceptions of food

Also, it’s hard to solve problems you don’t have. But, since you aren’t married to any problem, you can be problem-promiscuous. This means you should start trying to solve problems—more problems will fall out of this process.

Loosen up your pitch process too, have categories (i.e. serious, comical, satirical, fiction, etc). Rapidly pitch for a few days (don’t evaluate any of them).

One idea would be to start by looking at technological trends in your country. If they persist, what problems would lend themselves to easier solutions? Examples:

1. Smartphone penetration is increasing. This can help with improving access to education when there's a dearth of content in your local language on YouTube, Coursera, edX etc. You can build a platform for teachers to easily create videos / content in your local language and upload them on YouTube.

2. Mobile adoption is on the rise. This can help with infrastructure planning by collaborating with telecom providers and analyzing anonymized data. You can create a tool for planners / ministries to visualize and analyze these datasets.

3. A significant proportion of people use feature phones. You can create a news delivery service or something similar to bring to them what's easily available on the web and would be useful.

Every category of product is filled with multiple companies offering their own version of the product. There would be clear market leaders and there would be the upstarts. the product features though vary, according to the company's business model.

So the opportunity here is to bridge the feature (or marketplace) gap between the products, eg- say build a bot for hangouts that is similar to some bot seen on slack, because slack bot company is not yet thinking about supporting hangouts. Now you don't need to come up with your own product ideas or think about the product distribution and you solve the problem for a lot of customers who are stuck with hangouts (because of whatever reason). If you build a lot of such micro-features, that ultimately adds up to a good amount of money.

A scheduling application for the gig economy. People who are independent hairdressers, dog walkers, etc... and need an easy booking/billing/CRM tool.

My wife is using a tool for booking meetings at the moment and it’s not the right tool for the job. It doesn’t seem like the right tool exists for this type of person.

Take your "too broad" problems and break them down suck that at least a part might be doable within the allotted time frame.

People, especially young women, spend tons of time doing laundry around the world. Doing laundry in a time consuming and manual way keeps them from attending school, which makes them unable to rise out of poverty. This is a big issue.

Will you solve the issue of how time consuming it is for people to wash clothes by hand? No. But could you design, in a computer, a pedal-driven washing machine possible to make out of plastic? Yes. Build a prototype? Perhaps. Make instructions available? Maybe. Roughly estimate costs? Sure.

If done well, this could help fix a problem the world is facing. Or at least help create good ideas for others to work more on.

Don't limit yourselves.

Sounds weird, but someone actually did exactly that


I know that was an example out of thin air and not to be taken literally, but I can just see the commercials a la Juicero or Morus or Waterseer. What you need is an overpriced device that makes doing laundry even more exhausting and time consuming because technology! Now when the laundry piles up, you'll feel daunted AND fat!

Papanek's 'Design for the Real World' might be good inspiration for you.

Here is the pdf - http://playpen.icomtek.csir.co.za/~acdc/education/Dr_Anvind_... - however I'd strongly recommend getting yourself a dead-tree copy of it.

As for problems, can you come up with some sort of device to pop zits that flare up right in the middle of the back? I just nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to deal with one.

You should do brainstorming sessions with your team where you diverge and then converge.

What I mean is:

1) get a white board/wall, post-its, and markers.

2) have everyone, independent of each other, write ideas on post-its and put on the wall. Don't judge ideas, just put them. Lots of them. Don't put your names on the ideas.

3) when you literally run out of steam, which could be a couple of hours later or even more, as a team start discarding ideas that don't make sense or work for your team.

4) you may have to do this a few times so that you get a feel for the process.

In the end you should have some really good ideas that you as a team have agreed upon.

Well you're facing a problem right now.

How do people with technical skills find the right place to apply them?

Or maybe where can someone go to find a problem that can help them learn, pre-vetted perhaps?

Where can people with small problems go to find help?

One of the problems worth trying to solve is Food Wastage. In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA's Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.

BIG PROBLEM: The air conditioning trap: how cold air is heating the world >https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/29/the-air-...

I recommend interviewing people in your community. If you’re ok with working on a non-profit idea: the world is filled with local institutions that could use better digital technology.

More abstractly speaking I'd say nearly every problem relating to humans is the general inability to understand exponents. Any constant growth rate is an exponential one and if the doubling rate is on a short enough time span to significantly increase resource pressures then you have a problem. That pattern is the world over. The solution would be a clever way of mass teaching people the consequences of exponents.

Desalination is not too big but not too small of a problem to solve. Water shortages are on course to become critical in the coming decades and the social implications are staggering. A group of bright college students surely could devise some sort of method for it even if it's inefficient at first, and then work steadily toward improving it.

If you're away at college in a college town, you could try getting to know the local government, businesses, and community. That would help solve the problem that has persisted to the point of stereotype: college students and administrators ignoring or looking down on the towns surrounding them.

Ask your friends about their problems and solve those. Do stuff that you know best, for example, is registering for classes at your school hard and is there space for a better interface? Or maybe your school is socially dead and students want a way to connect with students .

May not be possible, but a mobile app to scan UPC codes on cleaner products that then gets the products individual chemicals and their percentage through it's safety data sheet.

It's probably more of a problem of not being able to automate collection of the data sheets.

Build some things which already exist. Inevitably you will run into difficulty trying to do something that ought to be easy. Those are the best problems to solve.

I haven't actually tried it but I've seen https://socialcoder.org mentioned before.

There's also the humanitarian toolbox (http://htbox.org).

But I'm not sure if it's still actively developed.

The great Pacific garbage patch is still out there. I like this passive solution (https://theoceancleanup.com/technology/). Maybe plastic taken from the ocean could be processed and incorporated into the plastic-removal mechanism to make it more effective. I think everyone would feel grateful if you even tried to solve that problem.

Don't get mixed up in that crowd op. theoceancleanup is mostly just a pr stunt. Some young kid got popular support for a bad idea and now he's doubling down on that bad idea for fear of being pilloried for wasting 6 years and millions of dollars on a dud.

80% of the plastic comes from just 10 rivers (there is a link on here somewhere) maybe focus on stopping it before it gets to the ocean

How about something to facilitate access to mental health services in your college/university community?

Pepperdine Graziadio Entrepreneurship 661?

Join a non profit working on something you believe in

Dating app with deep NN face generation to get the topology of what someone is attracted to. Get enough samples to generate a model for them so you can auto-rate photos.

Campus discourse.

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