Humanitarian Applications of Open Source at IEEE


Q&A with Alfredo Herrera, IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee

The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) is exhibiting at OSCON 2017 in Austin, Texas, 10-11 May 2017. Stop by Booth 207 to learn about the role that open source plays in IEEE standards development.

How is IEEE involved in humanitarian activities?

The IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee (HAC), for which I volunteer, is on its second year of existence as a standing committee of the IEEE. The institution of the HAC is the culmination of over eight years of work in sustainable development and humanitarian projects by many IEEE members. Before then, you might have come across articles in IEEE Spectrum or The Institute about volunteers donating time or equipment in a community, clinic or school.

In 2009, IEEE decided to bring together IEEE volunteers with aid and relief organizations to tackle specific problems for which a technology-based solution is suitable. They named that initial effort the “Humanitarian Technology Challenge,” and some of the activities that grew out of it subsequently have become standing programs. At the core of all those activities were IEEE volunteers wanting to understand how technology could be used in certain areas for public good, as well as a desire to openly share the outcome of these activities for the benefit of humanity.

Today, the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee is appointed by the IEEE Board of Directors, and the goal is to carry out and support impactful humanitarian and sustainable development activities on the local level. It funds projects in all IEEE regions so volunteers can do work there by partnering with local organizations like educational institutions, health centers and entrepreneurs. The HAC encourages people to do what it calls “feet-on-the-ground projects,” which is meant to create strong relationships to local communities, to build awareness of the community needs and to strive for effectiveness by avoiding the parachuting of equipment or people from outside each location. That’s not because IEEE couldn’t operate that way or that that approach isn’t beneficial and necessary; HAC recognizes that other groups have years of expertise using other approaches, and it wants to enable IEEE to complement those organizations’ work in the particular ways in which IEEE excels, which is local volunteer involvement in technical work.

As a global IEEE standing committee, the HAC operates under three guiding principles: to abstain from doing harm, including from unexpected consequences; to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and to build a community based on sharing and active participation.

IEEE now is involved in many, many activities that relate to sustainable development or humanitarian work. One example is Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) in IEEE, which empowers students to work with local service organizations to apply technical knowledge to implement solutions for a community’s unique challenges. So, EPICS in IEEE assists communities in achieving their specific local community improvement goals, and, at the same time, it encourages students to pursue engineering for community improvement as a career. Another example is IEEE Smart Village, which stimulates social enterprise by providing renewable electrical systems, start-up training and ongoing support to help poor, energy-deprived communities. IEEE Smart Village donates equipment to businesspeople in developing communities and then works with those individuals to create self-sustaining, community-owned and -operated micro-utilities where the people are typically living on less than $1-$2 per day. The IEEE Foundation is a key supporter of EPICS in IEEE and IEEE Smart Village, and it continues in its own right supporting similar undertakings.

How are IEEE humanitarian activities connected to open source?

Since the beginning of IEEE activities in sustainable development and humanitarian projects, it was quickly realized that “humanitarian technology” solutions developed in one setting might be used in other situations or for other applications. It also became evident that to deploy them in a scale to match the scale of humanitarian challenges, volunteers would need a mechanism to openly share knowledge and solution details. But the desire to openly share its solutions brought up some new challenges. For example, if you were to use some code or program that a volunteer created, it had to be delimited who authored it and who rightfully owned it to have a clear understanding under what terms it could be shared. For cases where it was developed in an open source environment, there were other issues around intellectual property rights (IPR) that had to be addressed.

So, IEEE looked at the solutions that were already available and deployed—such as, on the software side, projects sponsored by the Free Software Foundation, the Apache Foundation or Eclipse; and on the hardware side, the RepRap 3D printer, the Open Source Artificial Pancreas Systems (OpenAPS), the Open Source Ecology project and Open Source Hardware projects by CERN. Some of these designs are available from open repositories like Source Forge and GitHub. The concept of open source and the ideals of the free/libre software movement are familiar to most IEEE members, and to be able to share the humanitarian technology that IEEE volunteers develop, it is important to understand current best practices. The good news is that in many initiatives within IEEE, volunteers are gaining a clearer vision of how open source via IEEE can become a reality. IEEE has been looking at all of these questions and working to determine what is the best way to use open source and share solutions in ways that benefits not only the sustainable development and humanitarian initiatives but also how to help the whole of IEEE add open source to the technology it provides for the good of humanity.

What are some of the potential humanitarian applications of open source technology?

There already are many examples where open source is helping maximize the impact of someone’s good idea:

  • The Open Artificial Pancreas System project (#OpenAPS) is an open and transparent effort to make safe and effective basic Artificial Pancreas System (APS) technology widely available to people and reduce the burden of Type 1 diabetes.
  • The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and DigitalGlobe Malaria Elimination campaign seeks to identify and map populated places in an area of interest covering over 500,000 square kilometers in Southern Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America to support the Clinton Health Access Initiative’s malaria program.
  • And an IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is working with Beevatech, a rickshaw manufacturer, to develop solar- powered vehicles. Many of today’s rickshaws, which are three-wheel carts that fit up to two passengers, are battery-powered. The group is working to design solar-powered battery-charging stations to ease the strain on the country’s overloaded grid. It is not an open source design, but it used community-based development principles.

I’m really glad that IEEE has decided to move into open source. It is clear that, as it becomes more integrated in IEEE activities, it is going to benefit the humanitarian work that volunteers are doing around the world.

What are the challenges that are being tackled to make open source more of an option in IEEE development?

Looking at the platforms and the way people share open source and free software, one of the things that became obvious is that there are clear differences of what peer review means for open source software in comparison to what it means for IEEE publications and standards. Both processes ensure quality for the knowledge or solutions that are being shared, but they have different levels of openness and different terms of use and ownership.

For open source software, the notion of peer review means that when you release your code and make it available to the community, you make it so the community can debug it, examine it, learn from it, combine it with their own, etc.

Within IEEE, however, the notion of peer review is different. When you submit a work for IEEE publication, people are going to look at it and see if it is your own, that you haven’t plagiarized it, if it’s novel and original, if it has technical merit—things like that. For the work that IEEE members have been doing for sustainable development and humanitarian activities, if we try to leverage the open source hardware and software that’s available out there, we also have to adopt the appropriate peer-review process to guarantee a consistent level of quality. Now that IEEE has committed to open source, one key question must be answered: How shall we address the need to ensure quality if IEEE is going to release hardware and software in an open source way so that all of us can share it?

Alfredo Herrera is an electrical engineer with over 18 years of experience in digital design and verification, mobile communication systems, technical project management and optical networking communications. Alfredo is currently a member of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee (HAC) and chair of IEEE Region 7 Humanitarian Initiatives Committee (HIC). He is currently a PhD student at the University of Ottawa and an intern at the Center of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN).

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