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Tech to the Rescue

How the newest tech innovations are making a big global impact.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year, the costliest natural disaster in the world next to the Japanese tsunami, tech played an important role in rescuing people and surveying the destruction. After as much as 40 inches of rain drenched the state, causing catastrophic flooding and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, first responders and cleanup crews had their work cut out for them.

One of the biggest challenges during Harvey was ensuring that areas were safe to re-enter, sometimes even before the floodwaters began to recede. Satellite technology and the newest apps came to the post-Harvey cleanup rescue, analyzing what dangers lurked beneath the waters and whether toxic spills could pose threats to humans and animals. In some of the hardest hit cities like Houston, SkyTruth, a U.S.-based environmental service organization, became a lifeline.

Spill Tracker is used to report hazardous pollution in hurricane-ravaged regions.

SkyTruth uses tools like Spill Tracker to monitor the environment during and after natural disasters. After Harvey, for example, Spill Tracker helped people accurately report on hazardous pollution caused by oil and waste in the hurricane-ravaged region. By leveraging GPS mapping technology via desktops or mobile apps, citizens, local governments and responders alike could use the tracker to communicate updates about flooding and pollution, making rescue and cleanup safer.

“We use satellite imagery and remote sensing technology to analyze and help the public understand the environmental scope of natural disasters such as hurricanes,” explains Tracey Foster, a spokesperson for SkyTruth. “Driven by the belief that better transparency leads to better management and better outcomes,” says Foster, “we envision a world where anyone, anywhere can use this information to protect the places they care about.”

After the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast in 2010, the largest accidental oil spill in U.S. history, SkyTruth accurately surveyed the damage using an early version of the mapping technology. SkyTruth estimated the spill to be 25 times worse than reported, forcing the company to acknowledge the scope of the massive environmental cleanup that would follow.

While these trackers leverage big data and satellite tech to survey land and water — the development of maps, software and tools is serving some of the most complex public and research needs. “By sharing our findings, like stunning images and robust, science-based data, with the public for free,” says Foster, “we move policymakers, governments and corporations toward more responsible behavior.”

Tackling The World’s Challenges

Gains in innovation are a boon for the bottom line and also a harbinger of even greater social responsibility. CTA’s Let’s Go Humans campaign is a rallying cry in the tech industry asking for developers to champion technology that has a positive impact on the world.

Take Christopher, a 13-year-old who likes to play basketball and piano. When he was just two months old his mother learned that her son was visually impaired, but with the use of eSight electronic glasses, Christopher can now see his mother’s face.

eSight electronic glasses allow the visually impared, such as 13-year-old Christopher the ability to see.

Stories like these have helped the campaign bring attention to technology that’s leveraging solutions to achieve social good. Companies like Aira, which develops solutions for the visually impaired, and researchers at Case Western that are building neuroprosthetics to stimulate the nervous system, are leading the way.

“Technology touches nearly every part of our lives,” says Justin Spelhaug, general manager of Microsoft Tech for Social Impact. “It can also be used to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.”

Spelhaug and his team are helping to guide the philanthropic arm of Microsoft into some of the most influential areas of development. For example, Microsoft donated $1 billion in Azure cloud services to 90,000 nonprofits worldwide.

The success of this venture led the company’s promise to bring services to more than 300,000 nonprofits globally in the next two years. Its website helps people find technologies and services that can aid them. “Our industry has a big role to play when it comes to ensuring technology is used for good, reaches communities in need and is designed in an inclusive way,” says Spelhaug.

At Microsoft, social responsibility is very much a part of the DNA. The company’s work is driven by Microsoft Philanthropies through programs such as Hack for Good, which empowers employees — including developers, engineers and non-technical professionals — to create custom technology solutions for the challenges nonprofits face.

Hack for Good has produced inspiring projects making a real difference, ranging from big data tools to help researchers find the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome to 3D-printed limbs for people with disabilities.

Medical Teams International is another great example of how tech is being used for good. In Uganda, which faces one of the worst refugee crises in the world, Medical Teams International provides medical care to one million patients a year using new technology solutions via the cloud.

“Its staff used to rely on paper records,” explains Spelhaug. “But since its care providers generate about 10 million medical records each year, it was nearly impossible for the nonprofit’s healthcare professionals to sort through mountains of paper to quickly find lifesaving trends in the data.”

Medical Teams International provides medical care to one million patients a year using new technology solutions via the cloud.

Today, Medical Teams International uses an app built on Azure services donated by Microsoft Philanthropies, to revolutionize the way it works. “The app, designed by Cambia Health Solutions, has dramatically increased the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and treatment by uploading medical records to the cloud,” says Spelhaug.

As tech developers — from startups to big names — continue to look toward a digital future dominated by social media and the cloud, philanthropy will play an even bigger role in the dissemination of both. “We’re already seeing how technology is being harnessed to do social good,” says Spelhaug. “If more social impact leaders had access to technology and the right skills to use it, imagine how many more solutions would emerge to solve the world’s biggest social and environmental challenges.”

The Technology for Social Impact group is also engaging with startups and incubators to create a pipeline of innovation for nonprofits to help technology professionals build solutions internationally. “We will help build the kind of ecosystem that works well for businesses — a community of providers that will distribute cloud services and deliver support and migration services for nonprofits,” he adds.

Preventing Crime, Saving Endangered Species

In Kenya, one of the biggest threats to rhinos and elephants are poachers. In Africa more elephants are being killed than being born. The threat to wildlife is so serious that the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) partnered with Kenya Wildlife Service to launch a system called Instant Detect. The camera trap system can monitor areas where poaching is common and send real-time images worldwide to prevent the further slaughter of endangered species who are critical to the ecosystem.

The goal in Kenya is to help local governments tackle poaching proactively. Because the technology, which uses military grade sensors, can catch poachers in the act, ZSL believes that Instant Detect can have an even bigger impact worldwide.

According to Sophie Maxwell, head of the conservation technology unit at the ZSL, “Instant Detect is designed to be quick and easy to deploy and reposition.” Using multiple systems, it can cover several areas at once, and if poachers become aware of the system they cannot predict where others are located. “Even if a poacher manages to evade rangers,” she says, “the high-quality images taken can be used for evidence in investigations and prosecutions.”

To create this system, ZSL has worked with several tech partners like Raspberry Pi and Seven Technologies Group, winning a Google Global Impact Award in 2013 and the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2016.

“These vast reserves are often in remote locations with limited protection,” says Maxwell. “There is an urgent need for technology to help strengthen law enforcement practices and scale up the capacity and effectiveness of the small teams that manage these sites. They need low-cost, low-power, long-lasting technology designed to safeguard wildlife in these environments.”

Instant Detect can monitor areas where poaching is common and send real-time images to protect endangered species.

With the use of covert low-power acoustic, magnetic and seismic sensors and cameras, human intruders can be targeted on both land and water. The device is camouflaged and can send instant alerts to rangers when poachers are detected. “This greatly expands a ranger’s capacity to monitor intrusion routes around-the-clock,” says Maxwell, “and allows rangers to respond before poachers have a chance to get close to the animals.”

“Poachers,” says Maxwell, “use remote routes to gain access to protected areas, often selecting routes where terrain is complex and foliage offers good cover from view. No other conservation surveillance systems (including radar or drones) can see or monitor these unconnected remote locations for any length of time.”

The good news for users of Instant Detect is that once deployed, the system can remain as a permanent, vigilant presence. By being extremely low-power and ruggedized, it requires little maintenance and can stay in the field for an extended period.

Natalie Hope McDonald