Technology for Global Good
In 2019, Fortune Global 500 firms spent close to $20 billion on corporate social responsibility activities. A 2015 study of the world’s 50 largest humanitarian non-governmental organizations found that total annual spending more than doubled to $18 billion over the previous 10 years—a number greater than the national GDP of one-third of the world’s countries. And in 2017, the United Nations reported that the number of volunteers worldwide had reached 970 million. Despite staggering numbers, the collective, enduring impact of these efforts is often limited due to lack of coordination, dialogue, intentionality, and evaluation, among other factors. How can individuals and organizations realize greater return on their investments of time and resources?
IEEE is dedicated to serving a very large field—more than 423,000 members and counting from more than 160 countries—but at the core of its mission is a dedication to leveraging members’ technological expertise to benefit humanity. IEEE tackled the challenge to deliver measurable impact through the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT), a program designed to create solutions to diverse problems across the globe through local partnerships.
IEEE SIGHT was conceptualized and launched in 2011 in Kerala, India by former IEEE Humanitarian Committee Chair and IEEE Kerala Section Chair Amarnath Raja. SIGHT is a global network of groups consisting of IEEE members and volunteers who identify and address local problems by partnering with local communities and applying their technical skills. With projects that range from water wells to wireless communication systems for catastrophic emergencies, SIGHT groups can be formed at either the professional or university level, must consist of at least six IEEE members, and are expected to:
- Identify a local community in need and devise a plan to provide solutions.
- Engage in a “feet on the ground” initiative that contributes positively and sustainably to their local community.
- Participate in and create training and professional development opportunities in key areas to implement sustainable and impactful projects with local communities, including:
- Overview of sustainable development
- Engineering and sustainable development
- Human-centered and community-based solutions
- Social impact project management
- Social impact assessment
- Build various capacities including, but not limited to, recruiting new volunteers, engaging volunteers, building community partnerships, and securing funding.
- Submit an annual report to the IEEE SIGHT Steering Committee on their activities and group membership.
IEEE hired its first dedicated staff person to work with the Committee and manage the SIGHT program in 2012. That year, the first 10 SIGHT groups were created in India, Colombia, Bolivia, China, and the United States.
In 2013, SIGHT added 20 more groups to a total of 14 countries. Kartik Kulkarni, the SIGHT Steering Committee Chair from 2013 to 2016, guided the program, established necessary structure, and led the efforts within IEEE to contribute to global development efforts leveraging technology expertise. As part of that work, IEEE developed a SIGHT project application process that collects information on the needs of the community, proposed solution, anticipated outcomes, process for measuring impact, and other key elements. SIGHT also launched the Operations Committee to review the group application submissions and encourage groups to develop unique approaches and working plans. In 2016, the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee (HAC) became a committee of the IEEE Board of Directors, and SIGHT was enshrined as part of HAC’s Operations Manual. Today, SIGHT continues as one of the HAC Subcommittees and one of its primary means of implementation.
Strategic communications, public awareness, and community dialogue have been part of the SIGHT initiative from the beginning. SIGHT launched a Twitter account in 2011 and added a dedicated Facebook community in 2012. In the following years, SIGHT would create an Instagram account and a LinkedIn page. In 2019, The SIGHT Steering Committee Chair and longtime volunteer leader, Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan, launched the “Ask the Chair” series to foster global collaboration and enable members from all over the world to ask questions about the program.
Evaluation is also critical to the program. In 2019, SIGHT further refined its approach to impact assessment to more accurately measure the outputs and outcomes at the program level and the project level, including the “social return on investment.”
SIGHT continues to grow and develop partnerships in communities around the world. From 2016 to 2019, SIGHT awarded nearly $400,000 toward funding sustainable development projects, including initiatives in Jordan, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. IEEE SIGHT now has 148 groups in 50 countries.
This growth created opportunities for increased program funding and visibility. In 2019, SIGHT established a fund through the IEEE Foundation, a separate entity, that allows the program to complement existing funding from HAC in order to meet growing demand among IEEE members for project funding. In the same year, SIGHT created the SIGHT Group of the Year and SIGHT Volunteer of the Year Awards to publicly recognize the contributions that its volunteers are making to the program’s mission.
An individual with a severe handicap in Bangladesh is provided with a solar-powered wheelchair that significantly improves mobility in an environmentally friendly and inexpensive way. In India, a program reduces the number of overhead powerline contact injuries and fatalities. While the projects are small in scale, these focused, local projects contribute to a much larger impact as part of a globalized effort.
As a global network of groups and individual volunteers, IEEE’s SIGHT empowers partnerships with underserved communities and local organizations to leverage technology to build sustainable solutions like these and many others. The result? Over 7,000 people have joined the program as individual members, 148 groups are working in 50 countries, and 61 projects have been implemented in underserved communities across the globe since 2015.
“[Members] need meaningful engagement opportunities in IEEE beyond access to professional and technical resources. SIGHT provides a very fulfilling experience which directly harnesses their skills in helping their local communities; it inculcates community leadership, develops a purpose-driven network, and orients them towards creating a sustainable social impact. —Kartik Kulkarni, 2013-2016 SIGHT Steering Committee Chair.
“This was a really satisfying experience for all those involved since the community helped the whole time with workforce and hospitality. From our project, we gained knowledge, improved technical skills, expanded our network, and made bonds with the community. We encourage engineers, IEEE members, volunteers and anyone willing to help to implement humanitarian technology projects—we guarantee you will have a great experience.” —A SIGHT group who conducted a funded project.
Meier, Stephan and Lea Cassar, “Stop Talking About How CSR Helps Your Bottom Line,” Harvard Business Review, January 31, 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/01/stop-talking-about-how-csr-helps-your-bottom-line.
Diez de Medina, Rafael, “Volunteers count. Their work deserves to be counted,” UN Volunteers, November 2, 2017, https://www.unv.org/swvr/volunteers-count-their-work-deserves-be-counted.