5 minute read

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax-- Of cabbages--and kings-- And why the sea is boiling hot-- And whether pigs have wings." (From of course Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There; read all of The Walrus and the Carpenter at https://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html )

IEEE and the UN Foundation’s Humanitarian Technology Challenge is a difficult marriage. You have a room chock full of detail-oriented technologists and a crowd of technophile international development/humanitarian aid practicioners who have seen both the promise of the “right” technology solution and the expensive and much more common failures of techno-centric approaches.

The HTC has done a laudable job in extracting some of the harder problems still haunting development which technology can help with - settling on reliable energy, data connectivity (particularly for health providers) and patient ID and health records management.

The breakout session I attended got trapped in definitions, a problem endemic of the challenges of shaking engineers and humanitarians together in a jar; very small, specific problems getting expanded and divided into multiple and occasionally more general topics with an overwhelming range of potential solutions that may have little applicability, either because the technology has been customized or the problem misunderstood.

The other, more difficult challenge is that the handful of largely DC-based humanitarians have to be the voice of the billions who are intended to benefit from these technologies. We need a group of nay-sayers, critics and realists constantly poking holes in our ideas. Kid-powered electrical generators for hospitals could reduce child mortality at the cost of early childhood education.

Data connectivity and electronic patient ID record management has to be balanced with privacy and cultural sensitivity when even going for HIV testing could be a stigma attached to violent responses. Some of these pitfalls we have experience with, some we can extrapolate, but an unknowable set of other risks and problems are out there, and I worry that solutions we’re proposing from the beautiful, air-conditioned, wifi-saturated National Academies building sitting between the US National Mall, the State Department, and the Kennedy Center in downtown DC will simply not be rugged enough, will not gracefully degrade, or will miss a key need.

That all being said; the organizers did a good job with setting the conference up. The speaker selections combined some amazing humanitarian aid / international development and activism success stories where technology has played a key roll with high-level engineering discussions of the design challenges and goals.

The main problem I felt was a miscommunication between the people who had been working hard to define the problems and the flood of new participants invited to attend the conference entering midstream, without the time (or suggestions) to dive through the 15-20 page documents that had already been compiled; leading to lots of wheel-spinning in covering the same definition problems.

I am hopeful that through the various online forums that have been set up to continue, that we will work through those initial speedbumps and end up with at least a few good solutions combining some engineering know-how, business acumen, and humanitarian/grassroots knowledge.