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Global Problems Can be Solved


Experts Bridge Chasm Between Technology and Development

June 30, 2009



Around the world, 5.7 billion people live in countries where infrastructure, healthcare, and social services are often unreliable or unavailable. Two billion people around the world lack access to even basic computing equipment. But the growing availability of low-cost, rugged technology is creating an important new window for technology-based solutions to humanitarian challenges.

To capture this potential, the Humanitarian Technology Challenge — a “mashup” of technologists, health, and development experts — launched during a two-day conference in June 2009 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Its goal: to engage engineers, health experts, and aid workers who are willing to share their time and skills to help develop tools and applications for resource-poor environments.

The Challenge is a joint initiative of IEEE, the world's largest association of engineers, and the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership. It focuses on three health-related problems: reliable electricity; data connectivity for rural health offices; and patient identification tied to medical records — a problem particularly relevant to internally displaced and refugee populations.

The conference kicked off an online solutions development process that will continue through an online collaborative platform, and ultimately lead to product development that could be tested in environments like Columbia University's Millennium Villages Project. Learn more about and join the solutions development process.

At the conference, Christopher Fabian of UNICEF's Innovations Team reminded the audience that although technology is a major driver of the solution development, the challenges at hand fundamentally require meeting human needs shaped by environmental, cultural, and political factors. And, Fabian pointed out, though it’s called a “challenge,” the real opportunity is collaborative rather than competitive.

Keynote speaker Ken Banks of highlighted the possibilities that access to technology enables for international development. His free software tool, FrontlineSMS, enables large-scale distribution of text messages to mobile devices via laptop computers. FrontlineSMS has powered a number of successful NGO-driven advocacy campaigns, including election monitoring and human rights awareness-raising.

And in Dr. Laura Stachel’s case, her “solar suitcase” powers rural health clinics in Nigeria, providing critical ob-gyn support to women in labor who previously were turned away because the clinics lacked consistent electrical power. It's a bright idea that's taking on one of the world's toughest challenges — and that's what the Humanitarian Technology Challenge is all about.