Humanitarian Initiative Marks Progress

A group of IEEE members and humanitarians have made significant progress in a global initiative

6 May 2009

After a year of extensive work, a group of IEEE members and humanitarians have made significant progress in a global initiative to apply technology to meet pressing humanitarian needs in impoverished areas of the world. They’ve identified three key challenges: providing reliable sources of electricity, identifying patients in a way that can be linked to their medical records, and enabling transmission of medical data among rural district health offices.

Their efforts are part of a three-year collaboration between IEEE and the United Nations Foundation, called the Humanitarian Technology Challenge (HTC). It’s funded by the IEEE New Initiatives Committee, the IEEE Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, and the charitable Vodafone Foundation.

The bold, ambitious undertaking was conceived by IEEE Life Fellow Russell Lefevre, then chair of the New Technology Directions Committee (NTDC), and Mary Ward-Callan, managing director of Technical Activities. The HTC is at the root of what IEEE is all about, says Lefevre. “The IEEE vision calls for us to foster technological innovation to improve global conditions,” he says. “The HTC is the first major IEEE initiative that addresses this. Our members are excited about applying their expertise to solve global humanitarian problems.” Lefevre cochairs an HTC Steering Committee of IEEE volunteers, along with IEEE Fellow J. Roberto B. de Marca, chair of the NTDC.

IEEE and the UNF held four focus group meetings with humanitarian organizations, including the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control. The groups discussed which high-priority humanitarian needs, in their experiences, could be addressed by technology. IEEE and the UNF then analyzed their input and identified 37 critical humanitarian needs technology could address. The IEEE Steering Committee, IEEE Society and Regional representatives, and humanitarians, along with the UNF narrowed the 37 to three initial challenges to address, basing their choices on factors such as how many people would benefit, the likelihood of success, and the ability of local residents to maintain the systems that are installed.

Three working groups of 10-12 humanitarians and technologists each have come up with detailed descriptions of the three challenges, which will help IEEE technologists and humanitarians focus on the issues that must be addressed in the solutions.

For example, the group that is working on reliable electricity is describing the need for a stand-alone power generator that delivers 1 kilowatt per hour, along with better energy storage and energy management systems.

The group working on the data transmission challenge is focusing on extending backbone data connectivity of major cities to rural areas, establishing common standards and protocols, and monitoring and maintenance of network equipment.

Those involved with patient identification are considering standards for IDs, introducing biometric access to patient records, addressing data storage and management of medical records, legal and ethical issues relating to the collection and storage of medical records and applying PDAs and tablet PCs to record and retrieve the information.

The next step is perhaps the toughest part: finding solutions for each challenge. The goal is to develop so-called solution frameworks, which lay out the requirements of each solution and can be used in a variety of locations and situations. Technology is only one facet of a solution; also needed are operational methods, training, and business models that will support deployment.

“The idea is to develop frameworks for possible solutions for addressing the challenges,” says Harold Tepper, IEEE staff project manager for the HTC, in Piscataway, N.J. IEEE members will discuss their approaches and progress at a series of meetings later this year, Tepper says. Members use the social networking tool Spigit to post suggestions, and exchange and comment on others ideas. Spigit is particular helpful because it records all these discussions and data, which can be viewed at any time.

“We hope to have the solution frameworks detailed in the second quarter of 2010,” Tepper says. HTC participants will include technologists—IEEE members and others—as well as humanitarians from NGOs, foundations, and government ministries.

The detailed challenge definitions are scheduled to be finalized, and the solutions process launched, at the Humanitarian Technology Challenge Conference on 1 and 2 June at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C. IEEE, IEEE Foundation, the U.N. Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation are sponsoring the conference. If you wish to attend, you can register online. Seating is limited due to space and other factors, so register early. There’s no attendance fee and even if you can’t make it to the conference, there will be other opportunities to volunteer in the solutions process. Visit the HTC Web site for more information and how to get involved.

The HTC isn’t the only opportunity to get involved for those interested in and working on humanitarian projects. IEEE launched the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Network (HTN) in March as part of the HTC initiative. Members working on any type of humanitarian project can post their work on the site, including images and video, and share experiences and offer advice. Visitors to the site can search for projects and discussions based on technical area and other categories.

The HTN, which uses wiki technology, gives IEEE members a way to gain exposure for their work, network with others for advice and assistance, and seek funding.

Anyone can visit the network, but only IEEE members can post information. Projects already there include a method of early diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis, a wireless network for communication built in India in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, and technologies that can improve emergency response procedures.

If you are working on a humanitarian project, post it on the HTN to support IEEE’s mission of fostering technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.

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