Making a Difference Through Humanitarian Work

The lessons learned and challenges encountered in Peru

4 May 2012
Peter Photo: Joan Spring

Editor’s Note: IEEE Member Peter Spring is retired from AT&T after having worked on assignments in Bell Labs, computer systems design and development, new service development, and marketing and telecommunications operations. His last position involved executive responsibility for AT&T's worldwide internal data centers. His post-retirement career involves leveraging his experience and skill to make a difference in people's lives through humanitarian endeavors.

All engineers like to apply their problem-solving skills to real-world problems and make a difference in people’s lives. After all, that is why we became engineers in the first place. The biggest challenge we face with humanitarian projects is adequately defining the problem, the solution’s requirements, and implementation plan. We need to ensure that we don’t get so enamored with technology that we get distracted from the end goal.

When I initially got involved with the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge work, this task became more difficult on an order of magnitude. We were fortunate to have a humanitarian partner, the United Nations Foundation, that helped identify the broad global challenge of providing network connectivity between remote health posts and central health centers in rural areas. But we had many questions like what is the definition of network connectivity, what is a remote health post, how do you describe a rural environment, what were the specific requirements, where and how could we make this happen, who would we work with, and how would we develop a sustainable and replicable solution? And lastly, why would we succeed when others had not?

Early on, it became clear to the IEEE HTC team that several basic technologies existed that could meet the underlying capabilities. As we gathered more requirements, we were able to narrow down the technology choice, and there was no need to start with a clean slate.

The key element that led to our successful implementation of the telemedicine system in the Alta Amazon region of Peru last year was a network and collaborative approach. We took a broad approach to identifying potential implementation sites and partner organizations. Through the use of qualification criteria, we rejected several potential locations. It was through the extensive personal and professional network of the project’s co-leader, IEEE Member Martin Murillo, that we were able to identify and qualify Peru as the first site.

Key stakeholders and implementation resources in the country were major factors in its selection. Instead of developing a complete solution without the input of the end users and local stakeholders, we engaged them in both its formulation and implementation. It became their project, with the IEEE team as a key resource. Although we had local Peruvian champions of both the project’s ownership and implementation, we had one overall champion of the HTC’s network connectivity work: Martin Murillo. He devoted a significant amount of his personal time and effort in the country to ensure the project was successful. His personal efforts were critical because he was able to navigate through language and cultural issues unique to the environment in Peru.

Working with IEEE volunteer resources offered many rewards and some challenges. We had very motivated individuals because they had volunteered themselves. They clearly embraced the HTC work and were very committed to its goals. Our challenges were that they also had other professional and personal responsibilities and commitments that had to be respected. Never the less, they made contributions in support of the work.

If you want to get involved in work that will take you out of your comfort zone—both culturally and professionally—force you to be very nimble and work with ambiguity and uncertainty, but gives you a tremendous sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, then humanitarian work is for you. Your reward will not only be real accomplishments and improvements in the lives of others but also many smiles, hugs, and thank yous. It is not easy, but if it was, then anybody could do it.

Photo: Martin J. Murillo