IEEE Conference Focuses on Tech Solutions to Humanitarian Challenges

The Seattle skyline at night. Image Source: Bryce Edwards

The Seattle skyline at night. Image Source: Bryce Edwards



Hundreds gathered in Seattle from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) inaugural conference on technology and humanitarian work.

The three-day Technology for the Benefit of Humanity conference was attended by members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government leaders, academicians, humanitarians, benefactors and industry members.

The conference blended a unique group of attendees and presenters, ranging from technologists and innovators to on-the-ground implementers, emergency disaster response teams and policy makers. Tony Marjoram, the former head of engineering at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNCESCO) opened the conference as keynote speaker. Marjoram spoke on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and the role of technology.

“Poverty is not just lack of access to money, but a lack of access to technology to access basic needs,” Marjoram said.

Marjoram also introduced the first UNESCO engineering and humanitarian report of its kind titled “Engineering: Issues, Challenges & Opportunities for Development.” Marjoram emphasized complementing and building upon local technologies when working in developing countries in order to make it affordable and maintainable, rather than have purely new technological fixes to perceived problems. Project technologies need to be appropriate to the local social and economic needs and conditions.

In an opening panel, “Humanitarian Technology-Good and Bad,” Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft’s senior director of community affairs, and Kentaro Toyama, researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed how the human factor must be paired with technology to bring about change.

Badshah discussed the proliferation of IT translation going down to the bottom of the economic pyramid over the last three or four years. Cell phones are an example of how that change is happening and an unintended consequence of the introduction of technology. When asked how engineers in the developed world can help those in the developing world, Toyoma said it is much more difficult, though far more meaningful. He emphasized even the best intentions in development and engineering end up being charity unless people are taught how to solve their own problems. Badshah discussed what engineers in the developed world can learn from engineers in India and China, who are seeking new innovative solutions to create engineering and solutions with scale. He cited Microsoft’s programs, as an investment in community, to develop capacity locally and leave ability for them to succeed on their own.

Other highlights from the conference included John Conrood, executive vice president of The Hunger Project, discussing Systems Thinking and Village Development. Conrood warned moving too fast from construction to building can lead to a project that lacks community consensus and collaboration. He also discussed new innovations including the fertilizer micro-dose program implemented on African farms increasing agricultural yields, and a five-year women leadership training program that has elected tens of thousands of women into political office in South Asia. Conrood said he sees the current successes of innovation, technology and development in four key points: Having country-led strategies; mainstreaming gender as a top priority; an agricultural renaissance with the world recommitting after a 30 year decline; and a focus on small farms and women farmers, and nutrition as the center of development.

“Hunger and poverty are not problems to be solved but the greatest opportunity on earth to unleash the human spirit,” Conrood said. “This is the frontier of human rights.”

Catherine B. Nelson, a member of the tactical operations team at Cisco Systems, presented on the “Evolution of Incident Area Networks for Disaster Communications: Case Studies, Technologies and Lessons Learned” with a focus on Hastily Formed Networks (HFNs). Coined at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School after Hurricane Katrina to describe ad-hoc crisis communications networks, the HFN model consists of physical, networks, and applications components, with an overarching layer dealing with the human and social aspects of disaster response.

Nelson described her work after Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, and the lack of IT and communications infrastructure. Nelson usually enters post-disaster situations with major infrastructure losses including minimal or no power, degraded or overwhelmed phone service, a lack of radio, satellite and medical supplies, and often a devastated local IT staff. HFNs provide a three-pronged approach at disaster sites, with the physical layer serving as the base level required to build an HFN and includes rebuilding basic necessary infrastructure including power sources, human support needs, food and water, medical logistics, physical security of equipment, personnel and facilities. Without this layer, the rest would not be able to function. The application layer provides infrastructure for various critical applications including radios and cell phones.

Nelson also touched on social networking and crowd sourcing. In Haiti, Nelson saw previously unmatched use of the Internet, social networking, and SMS applications in providing rescues, ground coordination, and situational awareness. Closing with a call to action, Nelson reminded agencies to consider information communications technology (ICT) as a primary service as essential as food, water, shelter, and medical care. She pushed for agencies to plan for future investment in ICT. She said governments, NGOs and other humanitarian agencies should continue work to establish international standards around complex, agency disaster operations to enable a more cohesive response. Nelson pressed that agencies need to test and train with technology regularly to ensure personnel are able to use it effectively in emergency and disaster-related situations.

Closing keynote speaker, Mike North, executive director of ReAllocate, shared some of his inventions, including an anti-theft bicycle which when stolen, traps the feet with spring-loaded spikes and locks down, causing the rider to fall over. He also shared his experience working with Miracle Feet, redesigning a brace to help treat children with clubfoot in the developing world.

“If you send something high tech to a developing country, it’s completely foreign to them and they can’t use it,” North said. “That has to be a part of the design process.”

IEEE 2012 President Gordon Day closed the conference with a discussion on whether we have a flatter planet, and what engineers have done to improve the quality of life, increase prosperity, and to create things that haven’t existed before. Day referred to Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” saying the world is not as flat as Friedman thinks. Day said the real situation is closer to Joseph Stiglitz’s theory that flatness should be associated with equality of income, and that not only is the world not flat, but becoming less flat with growing inequality. Day said electric power, electric lights, and universal electrification are the most powerful tools in flattening the world.

The inaugural IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference was a conference of big ideas, coupled with the realities and problems implementation technologists and real world practitioners face every day. In presenting successes and problems, many left the conference with realistic potential solutions. An overarching theme of the conference was the importance of scale, understanding the impact of unintended consequences of technology, and most of all, the emphasis on realistic actionable technological solutions to humanitarian challenges.


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