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MIT Technology Review

Humanitarians (2014)

By applying technology in novel ways, they are improving lives and expanding opportunities.
  • Kuang Chen

    Age:
    34

    A novel way to get data off paper records and into the digital age.

    Problem: 
    Much of the world still relies on paper forms and documents. Getting information off those files into a format that can be searched and analyzed by computers generally requires manual data entry by people, which is costly, slow, and error-prone.

    Solution:
    Kuang Chen founded a company called Captricity that uses a clever combination of computing and brainpower to read information on paper forms dozens of times faster and more cost-effectively.

    Chen developed the technology to capture paper-bound data in countries that had yet to fully harness the power of computing. After false starts in Malawi and Uganda, he put his ideas to the test in Mali in 2011, when he processed nearly 37,000 survey pages detailing perceptions of the government. The job would have taken two clerks an estimated eight months even before they double-checked it. Instead, Chen uploaded snapshots of the forms to Dropbox. Then his software broke up the images into small pieces that were distributed to human readers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. The Turk transcriptions were used to train machine learning algorithms that progressively took over the work; ultimately, human readers were used only to interpret the most ambiguous entries. The process took a week.

    The same approach that works in African villages can be useful in any organization that still relies heavily on paper forms. Captricity funds its free or low-cost services in poor countries in part with revenue from paying customers such as Dell, Harvard Law School, and the U.S. government.

    —Ted Greenwald

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  • George Ban-Weiss

    Age:
    33

    A USC professor who studies climate and pollution influences policy in California.

    “Most roofs, historically, have been dark. They absorb sunlight, then transfer heat into the building and into the atmosphere. A very simple solution to that is to design roofs to reflect sunlight rather than absorb it. Cool roofs. Cool roofs could counter somewhere between a half and two degrees Celsius of warming in urban areas.

    “In March 2013, an organization called Climate Resolve organized a one-day workshop on cool roofs, with the idea of bringing together researchers and policy makers, including Los Angeles mayor Antonio -Villaraigosa. I [had done] a study to take high-resolution aircraft imagery and used that imagery to quantify how much sunlight is reflected versus absorbed. At the workshop I showed a map of Los Angeles with the corresponding reflectivity of each roof in the city. This visual made it clear that roofs cover a large fraction of Los Angeles, and most roofs absorb nearly all heat from the sun. In December 2013 the city council passed a law requiring any new or refurbished roofs on residential buildings to be cool roofs. 

    “It was extremely fulfilling to know that results from my research contributed to the evidence justifying the first such policy a city has ever passed. 

    “I try to follow Einstein’s suggestion that if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself. I use my own six-year-old as a test bed.” 

    as told to Adam Popescu

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  • Kurtis Heimerl

    Age:
    30

    Inexpensive boxes could help bring mobile coverage to the billion people who lack it.

    Projects intended to help poor, rural communities often founder when innovators lack familiarity with life off the grid. Kurtis Heimerl won’t make that mistake. Having spent much of his childhood in the remote mountains of Alaska, he understands the rigors of living without electricity, transportation, and other conveniences. That’s one thing that makes his Village Base Station a good bet to bring cellular coverage to regions forsaken by the major carriers.

    Heimerl’s innovation comes in a gray box roughly the size of a microwave oven. It has solar panels on the outside to power cellular equipment inside, along with the software for management functions like billing and analytics. Secure the box somewhere and link it via satellite to a voice-over-IP network, and you’re ready to open shop as a mobile service provider. Heimerl’s nascent company, Endaga, sells it for $10,000, promising a return on investment within five years. “In a rural community, your only option is to ask someone like AT&T for coverage, but they just don’t care,” he says. “So for us to say to local entrepreneurs ‘Here, do it yourself’ is enormously powerful.”

    Heimerl’s box, with attached antenna, lets anyone offer ­cellular service.

    Heimerl didn’t start out as a telecom revolutionary. He enrolled at the University of Washington in 2002 hoping to join the Internet gold rush. However, internships at Amazon and Google soured him on corporate work. Five years later, he went to India for Microsoft Research and became enthralled with bringing communications to underserved areas. When he left Microsoft and joined UC Berkeley’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions program, he encountered OpenBTS, programming code that bridges Internet telephony and cellular phone networks. “It just popped out at me,” says Heimerl, who is still at Berkeley as a postdoc. “We need to take this technology and make it so individuals can operate it.”

    The Village Base Station debuted last year in an Indonesian village that is a four-hour drive over muddy tracks from the nearest city. The community has trouble keeping doctors and teachers, who must journey back to the city just to make a phone call. Heimerl’s system brought coverage to 350 subscribers and generated $1,000 per month in revenue for the operator—and it’s still going strong.

    Just one hitch: it’s illegal. Regional mobile providers hold licenses to the necessary airwaves. Indonesian officials were willing to look the other way, but in general, regulation is a significant hurdle for Heimerl’s vision of universal access. To resolve that issue, he has helped develop a “white space” workaround that occupies unused radio frequencies until another network needs them. He plans a trial in South Africa this year to demonstrate that it doesn’t interfere with other communications. From there, he hopes to expand into any place with an isolated population, an open spectrum, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

    —Ted Greenwald

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  • Santiago Villegas

    Age:
    29

    An online reporting system encourages crime victims and witnesses to speak up.

    Five years ago, Santiago Villegas was sitting in his parked car on a street in Medellín, Colombia, when a man came up to him, pulled a gun, and demanded his keys. Villegas handed them over, and the man drove off. Villegas headed to a police station, where it took hours to report the crime. He realized that many people in his position wouldn’t have even bothered, given the widespread fear of retaliation. 

    “Martin Luther King said that those who see evil and do not protest support that evil,” he says. “But perhaps he did not consider that in a city like Medellín, protest could mean death.”

    That’s when Villegas, a computer scientist, decided to shine more light on crime. He created a system called the Online Safety Project, which lets people report everything from disturbance of the peace to homicide in a matter of seconds, anonymously. Witnesses and other people can add comments or pictures and vote on whether any report is “true” or “not true” and whether it “affects me.”

    The system got funding from a company that manages security in Medellín and recently expanded to Bogotá. Employees monitor the site around the clock and contact the police when necessary. Every report also gets added to an online map, letting people see which neighborhoods are safest. “This kind of information,” Villegas says, “is vital for any person.” 

    —Suzanne Jacobs

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