In my day job Im lucky and happy to be working on cool UAV technology for civilian applications, in particular our research focus is on search and rescue. While Im still not totally clear about what I want to do beyond my current contract I have always had an interest in helping to tackle humanitarian problems through engineering and technology (e.g., my recent RHOK event attendances). I was born in Burundi and grew up in various countries around East Africa. Experiences that have definitely left their mark and part of the reason I am writing this post.
What’s out there?
I started looking around campus but found no coordinated effort or social group around engineering/computer science with a humanitarian focus. What I found was a defunct EWB-UK branch and a number of isolated projects in different faculties. So I decided to send around an email to the Engineering and Computer Science faculties to gauge what the general interest was in this kind of thing and to find out what already existed. In the meantime I also contacted EWB to get some tips and information about doing something in this space.
My email reached approximately 2000 people (not counting the cross post to Southackton and the Hampshire LUG) and after one week I had 12 replies (in itself an interesting experiment). From this I learnt that: There are already a number of organizations active in this space, both nationally and internationally, including
- Science for Humanity
- Engineers Without Borders
- Engineer Aid
- Random Hacks of Kindness
- Practical Action
- Engineers Against Poverty
Existing projects of a similar nature going on at the University of Southampton are
Institutions people are already working together with include
And I am sure there are many more. One of the things I plan to do is setup a wiki or shared document to keep track of these things.
The replies I did get were very positive and encouraging so after about a week I sent an email to those who expressed interest to organize a face-to-face meeting. This will allow us to get to know each other and discuss…
- the reason for participating
- what each person can contribute (skills, ideas, contacts, …) and hopes to get out of it
- how much time people are willing/able to contribute
- if we should join some larger organization like EWB-UK
- how can we optimally work together/leverage what already exists
- what name/label do we give ourselves
- how formal should we organize ourselves
- where can we get funding from (e.g., UK CDS)
- should we be
- should we stick to the Engineering / Computer science faculties or do we want to extend to the Medical, Business, Humanities schools
- what events can we organize (e.g., hackathons are a good place to start)
The meeting will be in May 2012 so if you read this before then and would like to be involved please let me know. To streamline communication I plan to setup a mailing list on google groups and and a simple project page or wiki we can use to share info. But for that we need to pick a good name and scope first (suggestions?).
Maintaining momentum and focus
The big challenge with any of these things is going beyond simply liking a Facebook page or setting up a Twitter feed. The hardest part is achieving a critical mass of people willing to put in time and effort. I am well aware that everybody (including myself) has plenty of stuff to do and heavily filled calendars already.
Thus my feeling is that we should not be too ambitious at first but rather to stay focused and try to build upon & strengthen what is already there and what people are already doing. The more aligned our ideas,projects,tasks,… are with what people are working on already the higher the probability of something actually happening.
But first lets get people talking, and that could include you 🙂