Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

Engaging Electrical Engineers in International Development

Last week I had the privilege to participate in the Humanitarian Technology Challenge – a call to action for the IEEE membership to get engaged with the multiple issues facing development that could be overcome with technology. The HTC is a partnership between IEEE and the United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership with the Vodafone Foundation. (more on the HTC partnership)

Mark Summer talking up Inveneo
Mark Summer of Inveneo

Over two days, IEEE members were encouraged to develop and implement technological responses to three humanitarian challenges in developing countries:

  1. Reliable Electricity: Availability of power for electronic devices
  2. Data Connectivity of Rural District Health Offices: Capability of exchanging data among remote field offices and central health facilities
  3. Patient ID Tied to Health Records: Maintain consistent patient records, including when patients visit different clinics and when they relocate

Working with them were representatives of 10 humanitarian organizations, and the brainstorming sessions where technology and development experts came together to devise solutions made the conference feel like a large-scale Technology Salon.

We did not achieve any immediate solutions, but we did practice a number of key skills in deploying development solutions. My favorite was using elevator pitches to increase excitement and buy-in by local leaders around solutions to the three challenges. We started with the challenge to sell a power system to generate electricity for a school, for a day, where I came up with the following pitch:

“You want power. You want cheap power. You want cheap power through people power! And people power from those with the most energy: kids. Better yet, naughty kids. Put the youth on bicycles that recharge batteries. And while this idea is not new, my plan has a bonus: electroshock therapy. That’s right, electrodes to shock the kids if they don’t pedal fast enough. Which gives you a reward that every parent will find even more impressive that electrical power, exhausted, calmed children.”

While my pitch was greeted with laughter, it was also meant as a lesson. Think outside the box for your solution, use cheap, available materials that are easy to maintain and expand on locally, and be flexible to respond to unforeseen needs.

From here, the IEEE membership will do deep dives into these three areas and we should see interesting outcomes in a few months around possible technology solutions to these vexing development challenges.

2 Responses

  1. Dys Topian says:

    Why, that third challenge is so simple. Just tag the people like cattle. Shoot a unique RFID chip under their skin and you’ll have them identified for life — or until your regime gets so repressive that they dig it out of themselves with a knife.
    Or better yet, just tattoo it on their body somewhere. Ink is probably cheaper than chips.
    Hey, if you can identify villagers for health reasons, you can identify them for ANY reason — good or bad. Why is this dystopian concept part of this “humanitarian” project?

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    All technology is multi-purpose. Health ID cards are still ID cards and can be used as you suggest. yet more often, and more practically, they are used to establish identity for all sorts of good reasons – employment, benefits, residency, etc.
    In fact, for many who live life without any objective proof of identity, a health card takes on greater significance than you might imagine: “My government recognizes that I exist!”