Software for social change earns highest honour

Hypergrid inventor and OpenSimulator core developer Dr. Cristina Lopes, won this year’s Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. Dr. Lopes is the first woman to win the $10,000 prize from the Tides Foundation, a social justice and sustainability-focused organization.

“Some software developers are making millions off the new high-tech frontier of virtual reality. Cristina Lopes is making social change,” the Tides foundation says on its website. The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest annually awards a $10,000 cash grant to one individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change.

Dr. Lopes is Professor of Informatics in the School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on software engineering for large-scale data and systems. In addition to her research and teaching responsibilities, she is a prolific software developer, hence her open source contribution as a core developer of OpenSimulator, a virtual world server.

Dr. Lopes has been the driving force behind OpenSimulator, the non-commercial software that’s opening the virtual world to non-profits across the globe.

The decade-long effort behind OpenSimulator has involved hundreds of programmers, but no developer has been more central to that effort than Dr. Lopes. She is credited with having personally designed much of OpenSimulator’s core architecture. Her leadership has seen her active as coach, mentor, and host of the first ever virtual OpenSimulator conference.

According to the Tides Foundation, OpenSimulator is advancing social change on a number of fronts. For instance, Dr. Lopes’ work is helping the virtual world become accessible to traditionally underrepresented groups. Her work also has positive implications for the environment by making online meetings become a real alternative to environmentally damaging business travel.

Reducing the need for business travel will also create more opportunities for women because so much of today’s business often forces women to choose between their jobs and leaving their families in burdensome situations, Dr. Lopes explained. She also noted that although women are actively involved in open source projects, there are only a small number of them, adding that raising awareness about unconscious bias would be a good first step towards rectifying the situation.

Holder of MS and BS degrees from Instituto Superior Tecnico in Portugal and a PhD from Northeastern University, Dr.Lopes is the recipient of several National Science Foundation grants, including a prestigious CAREER Award.