October 25, 2013

Trends, temptations and tweets at IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Technology Conference

Willow Brugh, Director of Geeks Without Bounds, and Galit Sorokin drew this using Prezi as part of a presentation with FEMA at GHTC.

By Frank Bergh
Contributing Editor

The third-annual IEEE GHTCoffered an energizing look at the progress in disaster relief, social entrepreneurship and the long-term sustainable development of infrastructure for electricity, communication, agriculture, and public health. Here’s a review of the trends, temptations, take-aways, and tweets that defined this year’s event.

The Trends

Rather than complain about policy, watchdogs now out-innovate policymakers
From civilian treetop telecoms, peer-to-peer arduino utilities, and guerilla disaster response come a new wave of civilian-worldchangers whose policy recommendations can no longer be confined witihin letters to the editor. Instead, a rising tide of self-proclaimed hackers find themselves on the front lines of initiatives to address structural injustice and creative new technologies can be seen as policy-forcing tipping points, marking the rise of productive public dissent. Most notably, the GHTC included an unconventional presentation by the FEMA Innovation Team, featuring Geeks Without Bounds on coordination of humanitarian relief hack-a-thons in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

  • Tyler Valiquette ofCatapult Design says the best humanitarian solutions have to be MADE: Meaningful, Accessible, Desireable, and Effective.
  • Roger Johnson of Eidonexplains that the limit of humanitarian design “is not what you can do, it is what people will adopt.”
  • Gerardo Capiel ofBenetech on the organizational truths of coding for the common good: “open over proprietary” and “partnership over going alone.”
  • Case in point
    Take, for example, the challenge of mobile communication in regions with such low population density that cell service would not cover the cost of telecommunications infrastructure. Unfortunately, the only organizations licensed to provide mobile phone service, for-profit carriers with spectrum license, are those who have no incentive to do so. Enter Dr. Eric Brewer of UC-Berkeley and his research initiative, Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER), who mounted a DIY base-station atop a tree in the Indonesian highlands. Using microhydro, VSAT, wifi, VOIP, and home-brewed SIM cards (with Swedish phone numbers), the community is on pace to recoup their infrastructure investment years before any private carrier would deploy mobile technology in their region.So, what if regulators outlaw the “un-legal” grassroots telecom? TIER’s community wireless system is not impinging on any operating spectrum rights, however they would welcome the decision of local providers to overcome presently cost-prohibitive local constraints and provide universal access and declare mobile interconnection a human right… in fact, that was exactly TIER’s vision all along!

The next stampede: Philanthropists racing to get out of the way of social entrepreneurs
Changes in donor policy are creating a new normal in start-up funding for commercialization, and a corresponding phase-out of “hand-outs” to mature technologies. This was most clear in the presentation by H. Timothy Hsiao of USAID on some the agency’s reforms and new funding opportunities including Grand Challenges, which look and feel more like design competitions than grant applications. Perhaps equally auspicious for humanitarian designers was the appearance of spiral-bound “The Catalog: Volume 1.0” of appropriate technologies which was handed out to conference attendees.

  • Case in point
    In hopes of fully deploying the vast financial resources of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation within the next roughly 50 years, the organization is shifting its funding priorities. Rather than purchasing already mature technologies, the Gates Foundation has partnered with the Global Good initiative at Intellectual Ventures Lab to provide the seed funding necessary for “Catalyzing Inventions” which will be financially self-sustaining at scale. Already this partnership has yielded a cutting edge solution to the “cold chain,” the chain of custody for the safe transportation of refrigerated vaccines.Their solution? A vacuum-insulated vaccine transport unit which holds its temperature for 40-60 days and can be dropped up to 1 meter without breaking fragile vaccine vials.

GHTC honored Ashifi Gogo, founder and CEO of Sproxil, a pharmaceutical fraud detection company as the Humanitarian Engineer of the year. Photo by Glenn McKnight / IEEE

Mapping Everything: if it wasn’t Geo-referenced, it didn’t happen
GPS is now arguably more important to disaster relief and humanitarian development than photography. The overwhelming majority of practitioners have embraced spatial position data to drive infrastructure deployment and data acquisition correlated to user feedback and impact assessment. One buzz-worthy paper topic was “crowd-sourcing” the movements of elephants in India to understand and predict the likelihood of encounters with newly expanding human population centers.

  • Case in point
    Researchers from Victoria University (Melbourne, Australia) are putting sophisticated mapping software and tablet PC’s in the hands of indigenous populations, some of whom are first-time computer users. Cartography, once manipulated as an instrument of colonization, is becoming a tool for democracy and local sovereignty, wielded by historically marginalized populations to reclaim and rediscover their land and heritage.
  • And one more…
    Also not to be overlooked is the Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) which has been developed by MIT’s Lincoln Lab and deployed to streamline and coordinate numerous multilateral stakeholders and first responders to domestic emergencies from marathons to wildfires. The user interface’s open architecture has the feel of a real-time geo-referenced Wikipedia at the fingertips of those who need it most. According to CAL FIRE, it can reduce 12 hours of field work to 12-minutes of remote collaboration.

The search for one-size-fits-all “cookie cutter” solutions jeopardizes the acceptance and sustainability of projects.

The temptations

The Cookie-Cutter Myth: Product-Driven Development
Some research seems to aim for a “bullet-proof” technology that can be universally deployed all over the world independent of local context. To the extent that practitioners gloss over the inherent diversity of end-users in search of one-size-fits-all “cookie cutter” solutions, they jeopardize project acceptance, scalability, and sustainability. As Tyler Valiquette of Catapult Design pointed out in his Monday night keynote, ethnographic research and participatory design methods are critical to user adoption of design interventions to ensure that solutions are human-centered— accountable to developing communities and the needs of end-users.

In the case of design interventions: appropriateness trumps replicability. A cautionary tale illustrating the value of ethnographic research for cookstove applications in Mali can be found in the cover story ofDEMAND: ASME Global Development Review, which was provided to all participants at the event.

Answering questions that no one is asking (yet)…
Compounding the harm of temptation #1 is the risk of misinterpreting needs on the ground with bias in the eyes of the beholder. Maurizio Vecchione of Global Good reminded his audience that “if you look through first-world glasses, you won’t solve developing world problems.”

Aid funding opportunities now looks and feels more like a design competition than a grant application.

Many presenters alluded to the difficulty of “behavior modification” as if it were a design constraint. This level of thinking represents a crucial missed opportunity for participatory design— after all, the user is not the enemy. Attendees from developing nations emphasized the desire to create local business opportunity rather than imported solutions. Surveys of “How many solar panels and USB ports are needed in this village?” may not yield meaningful results if community members are actually wondering “What is the role of electricity in my children’s future?” Let’s replace “behavior modification” with a more dialogical, community-driven pedagogy.

App-ing Everything: if it only happened in the cloud, it didn’t happen
Contrary to popular belief, the digital divide still exists (for now). Mobile applications are severely limited in breadth and scope within many developing world communities. The consensus this week seems to be that remote cloud computing remains to be unleashed at scale, although frontrunners such as PulaCloudwill be cracking that nut in the foreseeable future.

Projects are never complete upon deployment. USAID and others are demanding reliable and sophisticated long-term monitoring and evaluation systems. Damien Frame offered a comparative overview of three different monitoring systems currently in use by the Community Solutions Initiativealong with their SunBlazer village-scale energy system in Malawi, Gambia, and Zambia in terms of cost, technology, reliability, and data quality.

The tweets

Tweeters posted notes on the conference under two hashtags: #IEEEGHTC2013 and #GHTC2013. There were many, but here’s a sample of some of the interesting ones.

Related resources
Promising prototypes at IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (2011)
Devices to boost shrimp farm yields, disinfect water safely and manufacture medicines, these are promising prototypes at IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Technology Conference

Inventions for global development at NCIIA’s Open Minds 2013
Low-cost earthquake-resistant housing, an SMS-based survey system, better greenhouses, vaccine storage containers and more… This is what happens when university students invent technology that improves lives.

Gallery: Maker Faire’s DIY with a difference
Farm hacks, kite cameras and emergency shelters: These homespun inventions can change lives.

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