Progress Made in Developing Technologies for Three Humanitarian Challenges

IEEE members, technologists, and others from 15 countries have begun working on technical solutions to three challenges facing developing countries

5 February 2010

IEEE members, technologists, and others from 15 countries have begun working on technical solutions to three challenges facing developing countries: providing reliable sources of electricity, developing a data-transmission system for exchanging health information between remote and central medical offices, and electronically identifying patients and storing their health records.

The group’s work is part of the Humanitarian Technology Challenge, a partnership between IEEE and the United Nations Foundation that involves IEEE members, humanitarian aid workers, technologists, and others working on technical solutions for problems that plague much of humanity. At a workshop held in October in Washington, D.C., the group agreed to test the following solutions.

To provide reliable electric power to those not served by established grids, the team is developing an integrated system that uses photovoltaic panels, batteries, and a small wind generator. The system includes a computerized controller to handle battery charging and load management, so as to keep the electrical demand balanced with the available supply. With this system, users hope to be able to power LED lights, run water-purification and pumping stations, and perhaps power communications equipment. The group plans to stage a prototype next month in the United States before moving overseas.

In an effort to improve communication among health-care professionals in developing countries, engineers engaged with the Humanitarian Technology Challenge are designing a long-distance Wi-Fi system for transmitting medical data. A network of 2.4-gigahertz and 5.8-GHz Wi-Fi links could be installed, for example, between several small rural outposts and an urban medical facility. That facility would then be able to extend its Internet connection to remote medical offices.

This group is working with Wi-Fi equipment suppliers to test long-distance devices in the San Francisco Bay area. The group is also exploring partnering with IEEE sections and nongovernmental organizations in Bolivia, the Philippines, and Thailand to help them conduct field tests in those countries in April.

Another group is designing two different kinds of equipment that could help health-care workers identify patients who might not be able to identify themselves. The first is a system that keys off of distinctive physical characteristics; the second uses radio-frequency identification bracelets.

For the first system, the team is developing a self-service photo booth intended for new patients at a medical facility. Equipment in the booth not only takes a digital photo; it also measures the person’s height and weight. The notion is that such images and measurements would aid doctors if the same patients later arrived at the facility but could not identity themselves.

The second system uses RFID bracelets, which would be worn by patients who are diagnosed with certain diseases that require monitoring and tracking, such as pneumonia, sepsis, and meningitis. The system ensures that no matter what clinic the patients go to, they have a minimal medical record on them at all times. The information from the bracelets is also stored in a Web portal that doctors can access to track whether the diseases are being spread, so they can administer vaccines or take other preventive measures. Plans are to test this system at health-care offices in villages near Karachi, Pakistan.

IEEE is seeking additional funding from foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations for the field tests. Companies can assist by making cash or “in kind” contributions such as equipment. For more information about donations, send a query to

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