A Well-Planted Seed

IEEE Foundation grant enables technology for development project to grow

20 April 2012

The IIT team displaying their Solar Computer Lab in a Box prototype during their school's university-wide presentation day.


phil Photo: Bruce Baikie

Editor's Note: IEEE Member Laura Hosman is assistant professor of political science and associate chair in the Department of Social Sciences at Illinois Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the role for technology in developing countries, particularly in terms of its potential effects on socio-cultural factors, human development, and economic growth.

Last month at a conference in Atlanta, I attended the panel “Sustainable Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICTD),” where IEEE Foundation past president Richard “Dick” Gowen, spoke about the IEEE Foundation’s goals and methods for contributing to sustainable applications of ICT for development. Dick’s presentation hadn’t been listed on the program schedule, so my excited mind raced in anticipation of introducing myself and describing my own IEEE Foundation-funded project (US$17 000) to deploy a 2.4 KW directcurrent (DC)-only solar powering system at a primary school in Lascahobas, Haiti. 

I moved closer to the edge of my seat as Dick described another IEEE Foundation-sponsored project in Haiti, the Sirona Haiti Rural Electricity Project, which I knew about, and am so impressed by. What’s more, I thought to myself, both projects employ the same DC-only approach; my team had worked with the same Haitian solar provider that Sirona had, Sirona’s project was featured in The Institute Online (Lighting Up Haiti,” April 2011), and my project was going to be, too in “Keeping Laptops Alive in Haiti." I couldn’t wait to tell Dick how much these projects had in common!

I nearly fell off my chair when Dick revealed that SironaCares had received an initial investment of US$350 000 from the IEEE Foundation. After regaining my composure, I began to think instead about how small—even miniscule—my project and the Foundation grant seemed by comparison.

I did introduce myself to Dick after the panel, and described my project (which he had heard of), but I’m sure I was far less bold than I had intended to be at the beginning of his talk. I’ve thought quite a bit over the past month about why this was the case, and have come to the realization that there are also wonderful things that can happen from seed funding, which is how I now think of my team’s IEEE Foundation grant.

Smaller amounts of money can mean very careful stewardship because the funds are so precious. More importantly, however, is that they still enable a good idea to be implemented. And very few good ideas are perfect in their first implementation! This provides a valuable opportunity to take stock and move forward in an even more promising way. I’m happy to say that I believe we’re on the path to doing just that. 

We were, thanks to the IEEE Foundation grant, successful in deploying our solar powering system in August 2011. These funds also helped enable our second deployment, when we connected the school to solar-powered Internet and WiFi in December 2011.

However, in November 2011, we learned that Haiti’s Ministry of Education’s priorities had rather abruptly shifted away from this project. They had been more than a central partner in this endeavor; they had invited us to work on a replicable, affordable solar solution for powering technology in the schools. Moreover, they were the partner we were counting on to scale, maintain, and take over the project.

As a political scientist who focuses on both ICTD and public-private partnerships and for whom this was my first project as a true practitioner, I can only appreciate the sweet irony of the public partner (and project initiator) dropping its interest in this ICTD project for political reasons. What a learning experience!

We did a considerable amount of soul-searching during the December trip, pondering how to move forward and incorporate the lessons we’d learned over the past few years.

We came up with a Solar-Computer-Lab-in-a-Box solution that can be deployed anywhere in the world where energy resources are too expensive, unreliable, or non-existent. The turnkey solution features six low-power laptops, two solar panels with mounting gear, and a pre-wired charge controller, all in a shipping box that transforms into the computer lab table. The solution seeks to address the overwhelming global demand for technology in schools, while simplifying the installation, powering, and maintenance of the actual technology, down to a bare-bones minimum. It’s also a nod to the teachers who I’ve interviewed around the globe who tell me they want a computer lab in their schools so they know the computers will be there when they want them, with one person in charge of training and maintenance.

My team of students at IIT has worked on the project’s new direction—the lab in a box—since January. We’re unveiling our prototype on 20 April. There have been many NGOs and even public and private entities interested in our solution, and we’re planning to deploy the first system (along with solar-powered Internet and WiFi) this summer on a rural, isolated island in Chuuk, Micronesia. Mindful of the fact that technology is only a fraction of the real solution, we are also proposing the project as a capacity-building partnership with locals and the country’s Department of Education, and carrying out training to make this a long-term, locally sustainable and replicable solution.

In the end, our small, seed IEEE Foundation grant enabled us to successfully carry out our pilot project, redesign our solution for even greater scalability, wider applicability, and really move forward after experiencing and then planning for what it takes to make technology-in-the-schools solutions locally owned and sustainable.  Small can be beautiful: Thank you, IEEE Foundation!

Photo: Laura Hosman

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.