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MIT Technology Review

35 Innovators Under 35Humanitarians (2015)

Using technology to tackle problems caused by poverty, war, or disability.
  • Rahul Panicker

    34

    This engineer from India returned home after graduate school with a new approach to helping premature babies.

    “Humanity has known for over 100 years that keeping premature babies warm dramatically increases their survival rates. Yet most vulnerable babies around the world don’t benefit from this knowledge.

    “In 2007 I and three classmates at Stanford were encouraged to do fieldwork in Nepal. The first thing we realized was that low cost is not always the solution. Donated incubators were being used as filing cabinets, because there wasn’t the electricity or the expertise to use them. Secondly, we found that parents desperate to keep their children alive were the users we should focus on, rather than doctors.

    “We needed to reframe the problem. So we came up with a prototype incubator that costs 1 percent as much as traditional solutions and can be operated by a non-expert. It uses phase-change materials to keep babies at the ideal temperature of 37 °C for up to six hours without electricity. When heated with hot water or another source, a phase-change material melts, and it can release heat the baby needs at a constant temperature.

    “NGOs we’d partnered with passed on the design. We realized if we didn’t take this forward, no one else would. After a year of working on the project in my free time, we finally had our seed capital, and in 2009 I quit my job, moved to Bangalore with my three cofounders, and started Embrace. Since then our warmers have been used in 15 countries to help nearly 200,000 babies. We’ve implemented a hybrid for-profit/not-for-profit business model that lets us scale much faster than a charity.

    “I hope future generations look to us as role models and take inspiration to go down the route of social entrepreneurship. Too many young people, especially in India, don’t take risks because they worry about their futures. But I realized many years ago that someone with my education was never going to starve.”

    —as told to Edd Gent

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  • Yevgen Borodin

    34

    A software tool conceived for blind people could offer an intuitive way for anyone to listen to online material.

    Yevgen Borodin, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University and CEO of Charmtech Labs, is making it easier for people who are blind—and everyone else, too—to listen to content published only as text online.

    Borodin’s software, Capti Narrator, serves as a hub for spoken material drawn from many written sources: Dropbox, Google Drive, Web pages, e-book repositories such as Bookshare and Gutenberg, and more. To create the software, Borodin and his team at Charmtech devised ways of extracting content from documents and websites and running it through text-to-speech engines. The software also lets users start listening on one device and continue on another, picking up where they left off.

    “Blind people easily [take] far longer to do simple computer tasks than others do, and I decided that I had to do something about it,” says Borodin, who grew up in Ukraine and came to the United States for college. His ultimate goal is for his invention to follow the path of assistive technologies such as optical character recognition and speech-to-text, which started out as niche tools for people with disabilities but became mainstream. Capti Narrator was unveiled at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show and has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times worldwide.

    David Talbot

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  • Duygu Kayaman

    26

    What her parents did for her, she hopes to do for many other blind people.

    Turkey is a tough place to live without sight. A dearth of social services and education for blind children means families often seclude them at home. Daily activities are riddled with peril: in cities, shoddily built sidewalks are littered with broken paving stones and sudden drop-offs. Gainful employment is a distant aspiration for many.

    Duygu Kayaman lost her vision to an optic nerve tumor at two and a half. Growing up in Istanbul, she was determined to attend school with seeing students, but the lack of textbooks for the blind made it hard for her to compete. Her parents spent evenings and weekends dictating lessons into a tape recorder to help her keep up.

    Those homemade audio books later inspired Kayaman to develop a mobile-phone application, Hayal Ortağım (My Dream Partner), to make daily activities easier for the visually impaired. It offers news and editorial columns through text-to-speech technology. Books, courses from the Khan Academy, and chess and guitar lessons are at hand. Location services help users find pharmacies and hospitals, and navigation systems for indoor spaces guide them through shopping centers; airports and subways are to be added soon. Also in the works is a function for restaurants: it will alert staff through a Bluetooth beacon that a blind customer has arrived, and then transcribe the menu for the patron.

    Some 150,000 Turks use My Dream Partner, out of an estimated visually impaired population of 700,000. Kayaman developed it with other vision-impaired members of an Istanbul-based organization, Young Guru Academy, and the support of Turkey’s biggest mobile-phone operator, Turkcell.

    Today she works as a sales specialist for Microsoft while studying for her MBA at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “It is only recently that people with disabilities are being hired by corporate firms,” she says. “Managers simply did not know that a person with blindness or another physical disability could work in these environments. My friends and I are breaking down those stereotypes.”

    Ayla Jean Yackley

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  • Saurabh Srivastava

    30

    Voice and gestural interfaces could make digital technologies available to the world’s poorest people.

    More than 750 million people lack basic reading and writing skills. Saurabh Srivastava, a researcher at Xerox India, has been prolific in crafting technologies that could eventually make it easy for people with limited literacy to obtain information and use online services by simply speaking into phones or making gestures picked up by inexpensive cameras.

    Building such interfaces is very hard because of the wide variation in cultural norms, not to mention languages and dialects. In some of his most recent work, in the rural Assam province, Srivastava investigated a system pregnant women might use to disclose medical problems to a Web interface that could refer them to free tests and services. The system used a $150 Microsoft Kinect camera to detect arm gestures, which in turn controlled displays of information.The display included animated representations of female health aides to guide the patients. Among the findings: the system should not require any gestural input that involves shoulder movements, since shoulders were often obscured by the women’s saris. And when indicating medical complaints (say, a headache), women didn’t understand why they should point to an on-screen picture of a head, but instead would point to their own head.

    Improving health services this way could make a dent in big problems—such as the fact that nearly 63,000 women in India die in childbirth every year.

    David Talbot

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  • Rebecca Steorts

    32

    Big data could cut through the fog of war.

    Problem:
    Determining the number of people killed in wars is immensely difficult: chaos, poor communication, and propaganda can wildly distort the figures.

    Solution:
    Rebecca Steorts, an assistant professor of statistics at Duke University, is using advanced data-analysis techniques to help human rights groups get definitive casualty counts.

    Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, six private organizations have been building databases of death totals. There is also an “official” governmental tally. But compiling them into one master document is a data nightmare because of duplicates, misspelled names, inaccurate dates, and even wrong genders. One estimate showed that running a basic comparison algorithm on the combined lists would take 57 days. In 2013, Steorts realized that by combining a Bayesian statistical approach with a machine-learning technique called blocking, she could reliably merge the databasesand do it in less than a day.

    Blocking works by placing items that are similar to one anothersay, similar names or approximate dates of deathin the same group for comparison. (A simple analogy: if you were trying to compile one whole set of cards out of two incomplete decks, you’d separate them into suits first and then discard the duplicates.) Only after it has assembled the various blocks does Steorts’s software do the intensive work of linking individual records.

    The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, a nonprofit that publishes a death toll for Syria once every year, is testing Steorts’s method to see if it can be incorporated into the estimate it will release in 2016.

    —Patrick Doyle

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