Our Role in Serving the Underserved

Let’s grow the number of IEEE volunteers in humanitarian efforts

22 January 2014

Photo: IEEE SIGHT

IEEE Special Interest Groups on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) in Chile developed an Interactive Technology Classroom equipped with activity kits and computer-assisted games that engage children, who are usually mentally and/or physically challenged, in fun games and activities that aid their rehabilitation.

Ray Larsen, a stalwart IEEE volunteer and cofounder of Community Solutions Initiative—a project with a mission to bring sustainable energy and electrical services to developing communities, says “The understanding that 90 percent of all new development is designed to benefit primarily the economic top 10 percent of the global population brings with it a mandate that special attention is needed to address technology for the 90 percent.”

One of the main reasons why such a huge population is un- and underserved is because there may not be enough monetary interest in serving them. This implies that there is a huge need for volunteers to provide their professional services, such as technopreneurs like Ray who are committed to changing the world by leveraging technology. I see the same spirit in many of those involved with IEEE Special Interest Groups on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) across the world.

The IEEE SIGHT program was recently instituted to organize volunteers interested in solving community problems and supporting development using technology. I am privileged to be chairing the SIGHT Steering Committee, responsible for the strategy and development of this program. As part of my duties, I get to interact with entrepreneurial, innovative, and local volunteers from SIGHTs around the world. I have seen amazing volunteers who have chosen to address important issues in their communities.

For example, I recently interacted with one such passionate volunteer, Juan Manuel from Chile. Juan leads the SIGHT at Diego Portales University (SIGHT UDP) where he is involved with the development of what is called an Interactive Technology Classroom at a local hospital that specializes in child neuropsychiatry. The Interactive Technology Classroom is equipped with activity kits and computer-assisted games that engage the children, who are usually mentally and/or physically challenged, in fun games and activities that aid their rehabilitation. The activities are designed to complement the prescribed treatment in various ways, such as stimulating their neurophysical functions.

SIGHT UDP’s volunteers frequently organize workshops in these classrooms on themes such as digital art, environment, general science, photography, and robotics. The workshop program has a three-fold goal—recreation, rehabilitation, and education. It is developed in association with the doctors who say this effort has the potential to reduce the rehabilitation duration. The beneficiaries of such classrooms and workshops include patients from the departments of child neurology, child and adolescent psychiatry, orthopedics, surgery, and traumatology. Some of the activities in the workshops are based on the lesson plans of Tryengineering.org, an IEEE Education initiative.

SIGHT UDP should be recognized not only for its noble and novel effort, but also for working on the two most important aspects of any successful social enterprise— sustainability and scale.

Universities and hospitals are our partners in this initiative and both play complementary roles in ensuring that this program continues and improves. The university leverages enthusiastic students who help develop and maintain the classrooms and deliver the workshops in exchange for a unique experience and college credit with guidance from committed faculty. The hospital cooperates by utilizing this program in treatments, and their doctors closely study the program’s content in order to participate in its development.

SIGHT UDP is able to scale out to reach more communities by standardizing the workshops through development of blueprints, lesson plans, methodologies of delivery, and program syllabus. This initiative could serve 12 000 children annually. SIGHT UDP also intends to reach more hospitals that serve communities in Central Station, Cerrillos, Maipú, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, Santiago Centro, and the North Valledor. To achieve even bigger scale, Juan intends to transform this program into a franchise-based social enterprise, where prospective hospitals or universities may be able to replicate the Interactive Technology Classrooms model elsewhere. Just like the McDonalds fast-food chain.

The point to be made here is that there are not many people and organizations that would enter the business of helping hospitalized children, especially if the patients and hospitals are not wealthy. However, it’s a very important, noble, and potentially life-changing program for the beneficiaries. If not for IEEE volunteers in this case, perhaps nobody would invest the hours and money comparable to the SIGHT UDP and its partners. It takes people in technology with innovative minds, entrepreneurial muscle, and noble hearts to create such programs and address the unserved population, who need the most attention.  

With more than 400 000 members of IEEE across 190-plus countries, I feel that there are more Juans and Rays who would like to help. There is definitely both need and opportunity for such socially beneficent and innovative IEEE members to impact local communities using their skills, hearts, and SIGHT.

blogKulkarni Photo: Kartik Kulkarni

Kartik Kulkarni works for Oracle USA's Database Research and Development team. He is the chair of the IEEE Special Interest Groups on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) steering committee and sits on the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Humanitarian Activities. He co-founded the All IEEE-R10 Young Engineers’ Humanitarian Challenge in 2009 and has scaled the initiative throughout Asia Pacific.

Kartik is a recipient of the IEEE MGA GOLD Achievement Award in 2011 and led his team to win the IEEE Presidents’ Change the World Competition for electronic aids for physically and mentally handicapped children, for which he was awarded at the IEEE Honors Ceremony in Los Angeles.

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