Changing the World From the Inside Out

IEEE group inspires communities to work on local needs

21 May 2014

IEEE members in India are distributing assistive technology to help the visually impaired, while members in Chile have developed an interactive classroom outfitted with computer games for children with special needs. Projects like these are made possible by the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology, or SIGHT program. In just the last 12 months, several dozen SIGHTs were formed around the world to work on causes in their local communities.

Launched in 2011, SIGHT was designed to “inspire, enable, and connect” IEEE members to work together and help those in need by using technology.

“The interest among members to volunteer for humanitarian causes was already there,” says IEEE Member Kartik Kulkarni, chair of the IEEE SIGHT steering committee. “What we do is organize members and give them the tools they need to get involved in activities on a local scale.” Kulkarni was also a winner of the 2009 IEEE Presidents’ Change the World Competition for his work in developing computer games and devices for physically and mentally impaired children in India.

To join SIGHT, a group must have at least six members, a set of goals and proposed activities for the first year, and approval from their section chair or student branch counselor. If approved by IEEE, the group receives US $250 seed money to start its project, as well as opportunities to apply for larger grants.

Many of the projects require additional funding and support that surpass what SIGHT can offer. Therefore, groups are encouraged to form partnerships with local organizations such as universities, hospitals, or nongovernmental organizations.

This map highlights the many places around the world in which IEEE SIGHT groups have formed. Image: IEEE SIGHT

To help build these connections, SIGHT brings in potential partners to participate in local community workshops where IEEE members can network and discuss how to work together. “We are here to give members the tools they need to achieve greater impact,” says Holly Schneider Brown, program manager of IEEE Corporate Development, in Piscataway, N.J., who oversees SIGHT.

“The opportunity we have with the IEEE membership is huge,” she adds. “We have the potential to effect change in locally appropriate ways across the world.”

It’s also an opportunity for members to emerge as leaders in their communities, Kulkarni says. “The bigger goal is for our members to lead local efforts and spread their influence.” Moreover, he says, they can be role models in their communities to show how engineering can change lives and even inspire young people to become engineers.

WORKING TOGETHER

Since Kulkarni became chair in March 2013, the number of SIGHT groups has grown from 12 to 46, in 17 countries. Some of the groups’ projects include developing low-cost medical devices, renewable sources of energy, and hands-on educational activities using technology. One of the biggest differences between SIGHT and other humanitarian initiatives is that it encourages innovation to take place from within a community.

“This isn’t about people from one part of the world going to another part to come up with a solution for them,” says Brown. “This is about working together to effect change and fostering innovation from unexpected places. Solutions to local problems will be more sustainable if they happen from the inside.” SIGHT also organizes community workshops, webinars on humanitarian topics, and ways for members to connect online and share their best practices and lessons learned.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

One of the most successful initiatives to date is the ongoing Solar Lamp Design Contest organized by the IEEE SIGHT Madras Section, in India. For this, IEEE student members in the state of Tamil Nadu compete to build a self-contained lamp using solar technology and recycled materials. It is estimated that nearly 400 million homes in India are without electricity.

The Tamil Nadu government was so taken with the possibilities of what could be developed that it became one of the competition’s sponsors so it could help educate more students in solar engineering. “It’s incredible to see a project go from being a SIGHT activity to receiving government support,” Kulkarni says.

The SIGHT group at Diego Portales University, in Chile, has partnered with local hospitals that specialize in child neuropsychiatry to help patients with special needs engage in computer games and activities that aid in their rehabilitation. See Kulkarni’s blog post for more on this program.) And last April, the IEEE Kerala Young Professional’s SIGHT held its first science training workshop for blind and visually impaired students using assistive technologies.

In March, a SIGHT “camp” was held, in India. It brought together all 10 SIGHTs in the IEEE Kerala Section, which has the largest number of SIGHT groups worldwide, as well as local members of IEEE Young Professionals and IEEE Women in Engineering. They met for two days with the goal of defining the problems facing local communities and identifying ways to solve them. Projects to be undertaken include improving communications services for cellphones and radios, developing transportation systems in remote areas, and providing access to health care.

For those interested in forming a SIGHT group, contact Brown at h.s.brown@ieee.org for an application.

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