Technology for the Benefit of Humanity

Published: Friday, October 7, 2016

In a small village with no electricity in southern Africa near Libya, an entrepreneur met with a Village Elder about helping her people not only survive but thrive. The Village Elder then convinced her village’s people to help buy a small solar panel and electric-powered generator unit. Now, they have the only electric lights in a 100-square mile radius.

During the day, when they are not generating lights for their small village, they run an irrigation pump for their crops. Before, the small village was only able to grow enough food to keep themselves alive, but now they are able to barter with surrounding villages. One solar panel and irrigation pump changed the lives of these people.

The woman who led the charge to make her village better attended the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference and told her story to Dr. Dick Wilkins.

Wilkins is the vice-chair of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ (IEEE) Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, which focuses on bringing people together to address critical issues for the benefit of the resource-constrained and vulnerable populations of the world.

At this conference, Wilkins heard numerous stories from practitioners in third-world countries about the work they are doing to utilize technology for humanitarian causes.

“Another example is the idea of 3D printing, building little plastic things with a printer,” said Wilkins. “Due to nutrition problems in the third world and particularly in the southern part of Africa, being born with club feet is common; but with proper bracing, young children’s feet can be re-orientated and fixed. The problem is that young children grow incredibly fast, so the braces have to be replaced every six months, and the braces that they put on the children’s legs to remediate this problem are incredibly expensive.”

That’s why one man created braces with a 3D printer for only $20 dollars each instead of a few thousand dollars.

“So all over South Africa, children with club feet are being helped with technology so they can live a normal life and not be a burden to society. Technology is saving these children’s lives,” said Wilkins. “That is the kind of thing that we are searching for with this conference.”

The conference grew out of an idea posed at a meeting of Seattle-area IEEE computer society members more than five years ago. Wilkins was in attendance, and in 2011 they held their first conference.

This October, Wilkins will be travelling to the sixth annual conference in Seattle, the theme of which is “Technology for the Benefit of Humanity”. Wilkins will serve as this year’s vice-chair and the chair of the conference in October 2017 in San Jose, California.

“There are technological solutions to many third-world problems, so the goal is to get practitioners in the field doing the work together with technology professionals – either building companies and entrepreneurs, researchers and universities – and get them all together in a room to talk about what the problems are, what the potential solutions are, and what works and what doesn’t work.”

Wilkins, who is also an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Thomas College, has over 30 years of industry experience in roles from software engineer to director of engineering. Wilkins said he brings his experiences and knowledge from the annual conferences to his classrooms at Thomas.

“There are a lot of computing solutions networking disaster examples I use in my computer classes,” he said. “Ad hoc networks created on the fly in a disaster scene are one example. That is the type of thing directly applicable to some of the network technology that we use in computing, so I bring that back from my conferences.”

Wilkins also brings back his love for humanitarian causes and technology. Over the years, he has met a lot of interesting people from all around the world.

“It feels good to be doing something that is going to help people,” said Wilkins. “Yes, it’s great to go out and volunteer and help people in the village, but with the ideas and technology from this conference, you can actually make massive changes that can affect thousands and thousands of people. It’s really worthwhile.”

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