Making a World Of Difference

Spotlight on several solutions by IEEE members to humanitarian technology challenges

7 March 2008
out01 One of Andreas Birk's search-and-rescue robots supports a fire brigade during a rescue drill at the 2006 Rescue Robots Field Test, in Bremen, Germany.

Applying technology to solve global problems has always been an IEEE goal. Now the institute is placing such problems in even sharper focus with a new joint IEEE–United Nations Foundation enterprise: the Humanitarian Technology Challenge.

The goal is to develop technological solutions to “some of the greatest challenges facing humanity today, in particular public health care and disaster relief,” says IEEE Fellow Roberto de Marca, vice president of Technical Activities, the area overseeing work on the HTC. The IEEE and the UN Foundation are surveying dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify the greatest challenges. What they learn will be presented at a conference this year. From there, various groups composed of IEEE volunteers expert in different technologies are to work with the NGOs to develop solutions and implementation plans.

In the meantime, IEEE members have been taking on humanitarian challenges on their own. Andreas Birk, for example, is working on robots that assess the scene of a disaster to make sure it’s safe for rescuers to enter. Such robots aren’t new; they were used after the Chernobyl accident, for example, but Birk is working to improve them.

An electrical engineering and computer science professor at Jacobs University, in Bremen, Germany, Birk heads a team of researchers working on rescue robots that can traverse difficult terrain while outfitted with cameras, body-heat and motion detectors, and gas sensors. They also have sensors to navigate autonomously and map their environment. Having the robots go in first can be a lifesaver, according to Birk. “So many first responders tell me they’ve known colleagues who have been severely injured or even killed while merely assessing a disaster,” he says.

When Mahmud Wasfi, a communications systems consultant in Iraq, heard that the government of Iraq’s Kurdistan region was going to build a fiber-optic network in August, he volunteered to design it. Because Wasfi has designed and implemented more than 30 communication projects for the Iraqi government, Kurdistan’s ministry of electricity accepted his offer and named him the project designer. The network connects three towns, serving universities, schools, hospitals, and private homes. Eventually it is expected to cover all of Kurdistan.

Wasfi had personal reasons for taking on the job. While working on other projects, he met many villagers who were “so welcoming that I felt obligated to serve others there,” he says.

Adrian Pais also wanted to connect underprivileged people to the rest of the world. And last year he volunteered for LinkNet, an organization that builds communication infrastructure in rural parts of Zambia. LinkNet sent Pais to Macha to help improve the reliability of the area’s Internet connection. The project was particularly appealing to him because Pais had grown up in Zambia and “wanted to give back a little,” he says.

Pais spent three months training technicians in Macha on how to optimize the deployment of the local wireless network, and he also taught them how to give technical presentations and write reports. But that wasn’t all he did. LinkNet also asked him to investigate the challenges and benefits of implementing an eLearning program offering online classes. Pais met with Macha area teachers, technologists, community leaders, and villagers and reported his findings.

BRIDGING THE GAP “In an environment like Macha’s, eLearning can potentially overcome many resource challenges such as the lack of books and other traditional learning materials,” Pais says. “ELearning can also bridge the gap between the Western world and Africa by enabling collaborative learning.”

Pais acknowledges that there are many challenges, as most of the area’s schools are “poorly funded and lack basics like roofs, electricity, and even desks,” he says.
But he says he's convinced that eLearning would be a good fit for Macha, despite the obstacles. Pais is now looking for organizations that could help develop and implement such a program. Initially, Pais proposes that the program teach primary school students subjects like math, English, science, and social studies. The goal is to eventually expand eLearning to high schools and universities.

out03 Julian Bass [left] with the teachers he instructs in IT and communications technology in Ethiopia.

GLOBAL TEACHERS Julian Bass has been a training manager of a software company and an associate professor of computer science at several universities in the United Kingdom. But then he decided he “wanted to do something a bit more worthwhile than my usual job.” So he signed up with Voluntary Service Overseas, an international organization that sends people around the world to teach others professional skills. VSO dispatched Bass to the new Debre Birhan University, in Ethiopia, where he teaches information and communications technology to members of the faculty. He also helped set up a computer lab at the school and is responsible for maintaining its computer infrastructure.

“I was very proud when I saw the first group of students able to access a computer of their own in class for the first time,” he says. “I hope my work can have a positive impact on these students, who will eventually help a much larger group of students.”

Suhail Ahmad of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, is also helping in the classroom. The systems design engineer for the Pakistan Air Force volunteers as a consultant to tech companies. In one project, he designed software that trains undergrads in image-processing techniques. The company he designed the software for is selling it to universities at a low cost, he says.

out02 Student members of the research group working on low-cost medical diagnostic and treatment devices for Peru.

HELPING THE SICK Ahmad also has volunteered to refurbish old X-ray machines by adding digital features. “The impact of my work may be minimal compared to society’s problems, but at least I’m being more than just another bystander,” he says.

A group of students from the University of Rochester, in New York, Papal Catholic University of Peru, in Lima, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have set their sights on improving health care in Peru. The students, led by three IEEE graduate student members originally from Peru—Fanny Casado, Benjamin Castaneda, and Roberto Lavarello—are developing low-cost methods of diagnosing and treating tuberculosis and tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis, a skin disease caused by parasites that leads to lesions. For diagnosing early-stage tuberculosis, the group is developing machine-learning techniques to analyze images of a patient’s sputum. The group also plans to build imaging hardware that processes images of skin lesions to help doctors evaluate how well medications for leishman­iasis are working.


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