December 2010

I shall make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles.”

Thomas Alva Edison


An opportunity to solve some of the pressing needs of impoverished nations may be effectively addressed by the active sharing of open hardware solutions. As other articles in this issue of the OSBR demonstrate, open source software is already being used as an effective technology to address humanitarian needs in developing countries. The adoption of open hardware, as an alternative to commercial off-the-shelf products, may be another effective solution to global development challenges. In this article, we will not discuss the socio-economic aspects inherent with global initiatives; but there is a need for meaningful dialogue to come up with appropriate and long-lasting solutions.

The focus of this article is on one of the recent activities of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic engineers (IEEE): the Humanitarian Technology Challenge. The Challenge identified three humanitarian problems that could be solved through technology and challenged participants to find an open-source approach to tackle them. The challenges were Reliable Electricity, Data Connectivity, and Personal Identification Records. This article describes the work part of the Reliable Electricity challenge from three perspectives: i) that of the initial HTC Reliable Electricity team; ii) its offspring, called Community Solutions Initiatives (CSI); and iii) an IEEE Canada group called the Humanitarian Initiatives Committee. All of these groups are part of the IEEE.


The United Nations (UN) reports that the lack of modern fuels and electricity in most developing countries entrenches poverty, constrains the delivery of social services, limits opportunities for women, and erodes environmental sustainability. Currently, it estimates that 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.4 billion people lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating.

These populations are forced to use lighting and heating methods that are associated with potentially deadly health risks, have negative impacts on the environment, and cost 5-100 times more than electricity. The poor are spending a disproportionate share of their income on energy when compared to the developed world. This is making the climb out of poverty even harder.

The kerosene lamp is the most common alternative to lighting a home with electricity. The kerosene needed to light a home costs most families between 10% and 40% of their income. These lamps emit hazardous fumes that fill the lungs of the residents, particularly the children when they sit close to the lamps to read. Inhaling kerosene fumes is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Worldwide, burns and smoke inhalation are responsible for over 322,000 deaths annually according to estimates from 2002. These numbers are probably grossly underestimated, but they provide a sense of the scope of a problem worth eradicating. Electricity is a safer and less expensive technology than kerosene; and affordable and reliable electricity for basic lighting and low energy appliances can certainly improve the living standards for families in developing countries.

Medical clinics in rural communities are in desperate need of lighting and refrigeration for blood storage. For example, maternal mortality worldwide accounts for more than half a million deaths a year, and 99% of these deaths occur in underdeveloped countries. The availability of reliable electricity for these clinics will greatly reduce these staggering statistics and the human tragedy they represent.

IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge

In 2008 the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge was formulated as a joint effort funded by the IEEE Foundation, the Vodafone Foundation, and the UN Foundation. The objective was to have a major impact on the eradication of poverty by supporting the UN Millennium Development Goals. The Challenge would contribute to these goals by inventing a range of useful advances in technologies. These advances would rely solely on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or new for-profit ventures to develop deployment opportunities by means that would be determined through the Challenge’s activities. The Challenge was designed to be a collaboration between technologists (led by IEEE) and humanitarians (led by UN Foundation) with the objective to identify humanitarian problems that could be solved through technology. Further, it challenged participants to find an open-source approach to tackle the problems they identified. Through collaboration online and in workshops, the Challenge relied on the altruistic and voluntary participation of technologists, humanitarians, nonprofit organizations, students, and government employees.

In 2009, a Humanitarian Technology Challenge conference brought together over 150 attendees with approximately equal mix of humanitarian and technology representatives. Three selected challenges were documented and ratified by working groups that were tasked to find solutions for them and the first of these challenges will be the focus on this article:

  1. Reliable Electricity: This includes low-power stationary facilities; rugged, mobile power supplies for emergency settings; mechanical transducers; passive generation devices (e.g., charge as you walk); and renewable energy hubs.

  2. Data Connectivity of Rural District Health Offices: This includes two-way transmission; daily data batch transfer; emergency and outbreak alerts; more affordable or higher-bandwidth services; mapping of existing global connectivity; and the creation of a data relay network with intermediate field offices.

  3. Individual ID and Tie to Health Records: This includes secure, confidential ID for patients; emergency response and chronic care applications; and routine care for migrant populations.

A follow-up workshop focused on defining plans for field tests of solution ideas. It brought together about 70 people, with representation from 15 countries. The workshop focused on defining plans for field tests of solution ideas, including input from representatives of NGOs to address the realities of field test implementations, along with funding and partnership opportunities. From these efforts, three groups have emerged to address the Reliable Electricity challenge:

1. Reliable Electricity: The Reliable Electricity team adopted a technology-transfer approach, which was prescribed at the Humanitarian Technology Challenge workshop. With this approach, the team would define a system that addresses an identifiable set of needs. For example, instead of focusing on metropolitan areas that have sporadic access to electricity, the team would focus on rural areas that lack access to electricity. This type of solution requires the help of local institutions, such as health services, to support the adoption and diffusion of the new technology.

The Reliable Electricity team is focused on a 250 Watt power generation and load management system to provide a scalable, renewable energy hub for the Reliable Electricity challenge. The objectives for this project were to firstly produce a working system that was configured to gather data on user behavior and field stresses, and secondly to test a first cut of the design of a power system that could be totally self-managing and operable by people that were totally unfamiliar with electrical technology and were perhaps even illiterate. These two issues were the main drivers for a test site selection.

2. Community Solutions Initiative (CSI): The CSI team adopted a human-needs approach based in part on the philosophy of Paul Polak. This approach builds on community-based solutions created with organizations in the field. The team consists of a core group of professional engineers plus a spectrum of multidisciplinary professionals from medical, industrial, educational, legal, business, marketing and research fields. Membership is not restricted to IEEE members or to the engineering professions. The CSI group was formed specifically to address the key transition problems of: i) how to initially deploy such technologies; and ii) how to partner with NGOs to create local business models that empower local entrepreneurs to maximize growth of local economies. NGOs are key to the solution because of their established community relationships, but not all NGOs have the needed entrepreneurial business skills to make good entrepreneurial partnerships “on the ground.”

The core principles of the CSI are:

  1. Dedication to developing indigenous entrepreneur opportunity and reinvestment in the local community. This is business development, not charity.

  2. All technology specifications, designs, business, and operations plans are non-exclusive and open source.

  3. All CSI partners work on a pro bono basis as a contribution to their professional organizations.

  4. All individual and business partners of CSI, both non-profit and for-profit, are dedicated to a success metric that sees their efforts helping millions of people emerging from extreme poverty.

3. IEEE Canada Humanitarian Initiatives Committee: This committee was created to support IEEE members participating in humanitarian initiatives or building relationships. Its mission is to enable members to fulfill IEEE’s strategic vision of being “universally recognized for the contributions of technology and of technical professionals in improving global conditions.” The committee promotes IEEE’s core value of advancing technology for the benefit of humanity by raising awareness of how IEEE Canada can best use its strengths and relevant technologies to address societal problems. In practice, this means that the committee will support the work of IEEE members involved in:

  • relief assistance during natural disasters, such as ice storms and floods

  • socio-economic development abroad, such as improving affordable electricity access in developing countries

  • awareness initiatives in our communities, such as student design competitions with humanitarian applications

As an example of these activities, the committee recently launched its first student design competition. The competition consists on improving, extending or innovating WE CARE Solar's system. For this project, WE CARE and the committee are collaborating in defining a version of WE CARE’s system that the committee will make available as open hardware to participants in the competition; students will thus be able to contribute back their ideas as open hardware. This work is a reference model being presented by the committee to the other IEEE groups mentioned in this article, to enable their work.

The committee is more of a facilitator than an agency. It adopted principles from the appropriate-technology approach, and it seeks to understand the socio-economic context of the communities it is working with before selecting a suitable strategy. For example, it is following ideas from structurist development to build the capacity to address future humanitarian projects by leveraging the IEEE culture of conferences and workshops for its current student competition.

Open Source and Open Hardware

The projects described in this article are committed to following an open source, collaborative model. The Humanitarian Initiatives Committee helps define and promote the details of what open source software and open hardware means in the context of the IEEE humanitarian initiatives.

Negash and colleagues explored the differences in the adoption behaviour of open source software between economically developing countries and industrialized countries. Their case studies lead them to identify four factors to consider in developing countries: reward and compensation, local competency, piracy, and intellectual property laws. If we adapt their conclusion to open hardware, we expect to find similar behaviour: unless there is an economic incentive for individuals and organizations in developing countries to adopt open hardware, adoption will be slow; and piracy practice in developing countries may have the viral effect intended by the open source model, but it will probably work against the creation of a sustainable ecosystem. Many developing countries depend on the government to pay for ICT projects; without this support, it is often too costly to adopt unfamiliar open source software (and hardware, by extension). Also, it has been observed that user adoption is influenced by access to a network of collaborators. Our interpretation is that open hardware, even if made widely available by unlicensed imitation, may become victim to this apparent success if there does not exist a network of volunteers committed to supporting the open hardware.

Because of the inherent openness of the volunteer work of the IEEE, patents have not been an option on any of these humanitarian projects. During the development phase, there has been no need to work on the reward and compensation factor referenced in the paragraph above. Volunteers have been working for altruistic reasons, but now that the first field trials are being rolled out, questions about liability, intellectual property protection, and meeting reliability expectations are being raised. The use of open source clearly becomes fundamental to the sustainability of the IEEE humanitarian projects. A license can probably address all of the issues that are part of the design process, while a contract can probably best tackle issues that are part of the manufacturing and procurement transactions of the assembled open hardware systems. In both instances, the open source model is the most natural to adopt. Depending on the project, open hardware can be free or commercial. For example, the sustainability of the CSI project is based on the expectation of an operating profit from the use of its open hardware mobile charging station. There is a growing number of companies making millions from open hardware. This model has tremendous potential and that is why it has been considered by the IEEE in at least one instance.

IEEE Open Hardware Projects

The following section summarizes five open hardware projects and their contributions to the overall goal of providing electricity to those in need:

1. HTC Reliable Electricity: This project is producing a 250W, integrated power-on-demand electricity supply and management system for a community centre, medical clinic or individual dwelling. This stand-alone hybrid power system that uses a 24VDC bus to minimize wire size and cost. It provides power for fans, lighting, water pumping, refrigeration, radio, and cell phone charging. All inputs and outputs have current monitoring, programmatic disconnect, and auto-resetting circuit protection. The built in data logger can collect user and environmental information for months in non-volatile memory. There is also a trial load shedding algorithm meant to optimize battery usage. The initial design is over-instrumented to provide field study feedback, later versions will be simpler.

2. CSI Mobile Charging Station: The Sirona Cares Foundation and the CSI are jointly developing and deploying sustainable businesses in Haiti to provide renewable electricity to 1 million Haitian people. This program is centered on giving Haitians the ability to earn a living by providing electricity to their community. CSI has brought together highly trained engineers to design a generating system that is easy to deploy, operate, and maintain. Together, CSI and Sirona have developed sustainable business models around this generating system. Sirona is now working with its partners in Haiti to deploy these models and integrate sustainable businesses into communities. The businesses will use a combination of renewable electricity generators (principally, solar) to provide a battery-charging service.

3. CSI WindTurbine Task Force: CSI is collaborating with professors and students at Seattle University, University of Washington, and the Seattle chapter of Engineers Without Borders to build a small-scale wind turbine. The deployment of the wind turbine into rural Africa is projected for the summer of 2011. The wind turbine is designed to be made out of materials that could be assembled in country with minimal instruction and training. The output of electricity would be stored in "community charging stations," where members of local and surrounding villages could come to refill their home batteries.

4. CSI Pedal Power: CSI is teaming with IncSys to build a pedal-powered generator that is affordable and easy to operate. The project is called Power2Light and will allow any community member to assemble and run a micro-generation business out of their home. With 10 hours of pedaling, energy can be created to light over 100 homes.

5. Humanitarian Initiatives Committee Student Design Competition: Participants in the student design competition will be asked to propose ideas that will improve or extend the WE CARE solar suitcase system, which is available under open hardware licensing. Starting points for potential projects include simplifying the installation, creating a collection of direct current (12V DC) medical devices, enabling the use of Li-Ion batteries, enabling the use of electric hand-held tool batteries, optimizing the charge controller, improving the system’s serviceability and cost, improving the system’s enclosure, innovating the connectors and cabling, and enabling recycling and sustainability aspects. The student design ideas will be released as open hardware.


Through the Humanitarian Technology Challenge and the related humanitarian projects of the IEEE, open hardware projects hold great potential for tackling the challenges facing the most vulnerable. Several of these projects are just beginning to gain traction and we look forward to seeing real impacts on this significant humanitarian problem. The IEEE aims to make a tangible impact by advancing technology for humanity.

Recommended Resources

Share this article:

Cite this article:

Rate This Content: 
1 votes have been cast, with an average score of 5 stars