Getting a Handle on Projects That Serve the Underserved

Special interest group formed to help coordinate activities

4 February 2013

Many members have taken to heart IEEE’s mission of “advancing technology for humanity.” They’re working on dozens of projects aimed at improving the living conditions of poor, underserved areas through sustainable technologies tailored for those communities. Some projects have been developed and led by individual members while others are driven by IEEE’s organizational units—sections, societies, councils, and student branches.

The Institute has written about several such efforts, including a project to improve India’s health care system by installing an electronic medical record–keeping system,  a solar-powered charging station for a primary school in Haiti built by a professor and her engineering students in Chicago, and portable power stations in rural Nicaragua.

But IEEE has no idea how many projects are under way, what those projects are, or how many members are involved. At the same time, members who want to volunteer and participate have no way of learning about projects that could use their help. That’s why the IEEE Humanitarian Ad Hoc Committee launched the Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) program in December 2011. Thirteen groups pursuing humanitarian technology projects have registered as SIGHTs so far. 

“Our objective is to coordinate these activities and make them visible to a larger audience,” says Satish Babu, chair of the SIGHT Steering Committee, which is responsible for approving new groups and monitoring their projects. “We want to foster collaboration among the groups—have them share information with each other as well as with nongovernmental and other organizations pursuing the same goals.” 

Humanitarian-technology related initiatives on IEEE’s radar include Engineering For Change (E4C), of which IEEE is a founding member along with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Engineers Without Borders-USA.  E4C is part of a global community of organizations and individuals promoting sustainable and accessible tech-based solutions to problems facing underserved communities. Sustainable is a key word here, for a humanitarian technology project could be built by outsiders, but it must be maintained by the local community.

Babu says the steering committee wants to see the number of SIGHTs at least double in 2013. The committee is providing the groups with the moral, communications, and support to help them succeed.

Registering as a SIGHT offers a number of benefits, according to Babu. These include being able to access a website now in the works for groups to share details about their projects, the lessons learned, and best practices. Cataloging projects in this central repository is expected to make it easier for others to learn of opportunities, thereby leading to more members signing up to help.

A newsletter is also being planned for later this year to raise awareness about what’s being done. Projects can always use more helping hands as well as money for materials, which a newsletter could bring in.

The steering committee can also seek funding from within IEEE, as well as from other organizations. Last year, the 13 SIGHTs received seed grants of US $250 each from the IEEE Humanitarian Ad Hoc Committee.

In addition, the steering committee is considering holding a conference to bring together SIGHTs and government agencies, NGOs, charities, and funding groups interested in attacking global development challenges.

“There are advantages to joining forces and feeding each other ideas,” says IEEE Senior Member Raj Madhavan, chair of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s SIGHT and vice president of the society’s Industrial Activities Board. “SIGHTs will let us leverage existing partnerships so we can understand the lessons learned and forge new relationships.” Madhavan is also a member of the SIGHT Steering Committee.

To form a SIGHT requires six or more IEEE members, and the SIGHT must be affiliated with an IEEE organizational unit. IEEE student members can also form SIGHTs, provided they are connected with an IEEE section and the chair of the group is an IEEE member.

In any case, a petition must be submitted providing information such as the organizer’s name and contact information, the group’s name and mission, the name of its organizational “sponsor,” and the proposed activities to be undertaken in its first year. Once approved, the group must report on its activities every six months.

The IEEE Bangalore, Bolivia, Chile, Hong Kong, Kerala, and Madras sections are just some of the IEEE entities with SIGHTs. In September, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society became the first IEEE society to establish one. The RAS-SIGHT’s mission is to contribute sustainable robotics and automation techniques to improve the quality of life in underserved and underdeveloped parts of the world.

“Many of the society’s graduate students, as well as senior researchers in the field, want to do something meaningful and make a difference in people’s lives,” says Madhavan. “We are very much united in that cause.”

The RAS-SIGHT is focused on two areas. One is educating students about the robotics field through robotic competitions. The other is collaborating with organizations like Engineers Without Borders-USA on projects that, for example, send students for short stints to remote parts of the world to learn how robotics and automation can help communities there.

Only four months old, the RAS-SIGHT has already sponsored its first educational activity, a robot design challenge for high school students in Africa. Working with the African Robotics Network, the participants were challenged to build affordable robots for only $10 in parts. Madhavan says that while the event was aimed at getting students interested in robotics, it also helped the group understand how robotics could contribute to education in Africa.

The society is also identifying areas where robots could do such things as search for survivors of disasters, clear land mines, and monitor endangered species.

“We will take a ‘bottom-up’ approach, which is understanding a community’s problems and requirements and then applying technology and our expertise to solve them,” Madhavan says. “Robotics is cool and sexy, but the sustainability side always has to be kept in mind.”

Adds Babu, “IEEE has members who can develop solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. SIGHTs therefore represent both the demand and supply sides of these problems. These special interest groups provide a meeting ground where the solution seekers will be able to meet and interact with the solutions providers.”

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