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Archives for Innovation

Interview with NASA Astronaut Colonel Ronald J. Garan: Working with USAID to bring Global Development to the Next Frontier

Beginning June 2013, USAID will begin a Q&A interview series on our Impact Blog. The first in this series is an interview with NASA astronaut, Colonel Ronald J. Garan, who is temporarily assigned to USAID in the Office of Science and Technology.

In this interview, Colonel Garan discusses his journey to becoming a NASA astronaut and his interest in international development.

Astronaut Ronald J. Garan Photo Credit: NASA

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?

A: On July 20, 1969. That was the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was seven. I was only a little kid, so I never would have thought to put it this way, but even then I knew that this meant something big. Humanity had changed. Something exciting was happening, and I wanted to be a part of it. So after serving in the Air Force as a test pilot, I finally realized my dream and became a part of the space program in 2000.

Q: What got you interested in international development?

A: Well, I’ve had two passions in my career. First, I wanted to fly in space and contribute to the space program. And secondly, I’ve always been passionate about making life on Earth a little bit better. When you’re looking at the earth from space, it re-shapes your perspective. You can’t help but appreciate the sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for a significant number of its inhabitants. I wanted to make a difference.

Q: So now that you are on detail with USAID, what exactly are you working on?

A: As I became more involved with international development and humanitarian work, I saw firsthand just how much duplication of effort exists in the field. We could make development progress much more rapidly by collaborating more efficiently. So I spend a lot of time and energy working on a universal open source platform for collaboration. My dream is to be a part of a collaborative platform that allows international organizations, governments, NGOs, socially-oriented businesses, and entrepreneurs to all collaborate together, speaking the same “language” to achieve common development goals.

Q: What do you see as the most promising new technology in the international development field?

A: Without question, the exponential increase in the ability of computers to solve problems. I can’t say what form that will take in fifty years, or even five years. But the rapid and low-cost diffusion of computing power will ultimately have profound impacts on global health, food security, conflict mitigation… few aspects of USAID’s work will remain untouched by these profound changes.

Helping Others During Hurricane Season

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

The 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1 and is expected to be very active. Preparing your family and home for hurricanes is important.  But what about preparing yourself to assist others–do you know how to effectively help those who are impacted by disasters? The best way to help is easier than you think and works 100% of the time.

The simplest disaster readiness activity is also the most cost-effective and the least time-consuming for donors–monetary donations to credible relief organizations working on-site. Each disaster is unique and affects people and infrastructure differently. Monetary donations enable relief workers to respond to evolving needs as those affected migrate to safety, resettle, and eventually rebuild their communities.

Unsolicited donations delivered to Samoa after the 2009 earthquake and tsunami took up space needed by relief organizations to sort and deliver vital emergency supplies. Photo credit: Richard Muffley, USAID CIDI

Most people react to disaster events overseas by collecting clothing, canned food and bottled water for survivors. While well-intended, many of these items actually remain in the U.S. because of the high fees and cost required to transport the donated goods to a foreign country.  Others items are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization or are deemed inappropriate. For example, thirty-four countries have banned the importation of used clothing and may decline collections that arrive. In reality, needs of disaster-affected people are carefully assessed by relief professionals on-site, who provide the right goods in sufficient quantities at the right time.

USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information recently rolled out a Greatest Good Donations Calculator, created by the Colleges of Engineering and Business Administration at the University of Rhode Island. This calculator illustrates the costs of sending unsolicited donations. For example, let’s say someone purchases a teddy bear for $19.99 in Washington, D.C., intending to send it to Apia, the capital city of Samoa. According to the calculator, the total cost to send this bear (including transportation and other fees) would be a whopping $273.43! By contrast, the same amount of money could be used by a relief organization to purchase 54,686 liters of clean water locally, helping more than 27,300 people.

Monetary contributions to established relief agencies in affected areas purchase exactly what survivors need when they need it. They support local merchants and local economies, and ensure that beneficiaries receive supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.

For more information on effective donations, visit USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information.

Using Science to Warn Countries About Deadly Flash Floods

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal side effect of hurricanes. They kill thousands of people every year and cause millions of dollars in damage by destroying buildings and bridges, uprooting trees and overflowing rivers within mere minutes.

Flash floods occur when excess water caused by heavy and rapid rainfall from tropical storms or hurricanes cannot be quickly absorbed into the earth. This fast-moving water can be extremely powerful, reaching heights of more than 30 feet. But it takes only six inches of water to knock a person to the ground or 18 inches to float a moving car.

USAID responds to more floods than any other type of natural disaster, like this one in Trinidad, Bolivia in 2003. Photo credit: USAID

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance recognizes that while flash floods are deadly in even the most developed countries, they can really wreak havoc in densely populated regions around the world that lack strong infrastructure. Hurricane-prone regions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are especially vulnerable, which is why USAID works with host countries year-round to help them prepare.

Even though the onset of flash floods is almost immediate, it is possible to give up to a six hour window of advanced notice—just enough time to save lives.

The advanced warning is given through the Flash Flood Guidance System, a scientific method of accumulating rainfall data and analyzing the rate at which the ground absorbs it. USAID works closely with meteorological experts in hurricane-prone countries, training them on how this system works so that they can be on the lookout for potential flash floods. Using the system gives disaster-prone countries the opportunity to use those crucial six hours before a flash flood hits to implement emergency plans and move as many people out of harm’s way.

Six hours may seem like a lot of lead time, but it’s actually not when you’re rushing to alert remote and heavily populated villages—with limited communication—about an approaching disaster. Flash floods can’t be prevented, but USAID is committed to helping people better prepare for and recover from them. Because when it comes to saving lives and alleviating suffering, every minute counts.

13 Year Old Innovator Invents Device to Save People in Rural Africa

I know it is not every day that a 13-year-old American boy invents a device to save people in rural Africa.  I often am asked how it happened.

Chase tests out the device. Photo Credit: Rescue Travois

My mom sat my family down at the kitchen table one day and started reading aloud from a news article about the terrible toll of the 2011 Somali famine.

During the famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the long trek to a refugee center.  Parents were forced to decide which children lived, and which were left behind.

When I heard this, I thought no one should have to make such a choice, so I set to work trying to find a solution.  The harder I looked, the more I realized that there was not one yet in use. This was due to the fact that rural Africa has a severe dearth of simple wheeled transportation.

What a few rural Africans do have is a bike or wheelbarrow, neither of which is meant to carry people.

I realized that if I wanted to help in situations like the famine, I would need to come up with a device that would be: (1) simple for the refugees to use; (2) inexpensive so it could be produced in bulk; (3) hands-free so parents could carry children in their arms as well as in the device; (4) collapsible so it could be air-dropped onto the most-used refugee roads; and (5) easily assembled using just visual instructions.

I based my invention on the “travois,” a device created by the Native American Plains Indians to carry their belongings as they moved to follow the buffalo herds.  The travois is basically two poles from a teepee crossed at a main vertex and dragged behind a horse.

I spent seven months prototyping a more modern version that is collapsible, has wheels, and is hands-free.

USAID Innovation Officer meets young innovator Chase Lewis. Photo Credit: USAID

During that time, I was contacted by Meg Wirth, CEO of Maternova (and co-author of the UN’s MDG report on child and maternal health), who told me that the Rescue Travois has more applications than just in refugee situations.  She said it could be used to transport those in need of medical attention, especially women in delivery distress, from small villages to larger ones with doctors (a task often carried out with a wheelbarrow or an old door as a makeshift stretcher).  The Rescue Travois could make the trip both faster and more comfortable.

A friend of mine is a refugee from Chad and knows from hard personal experiences how much the Rescue Travois is needed for medical as well refugee purposes.  He helped me share this reality in a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sirA64d6OVo) as well as in our meeting last week with USAID CIO Dr. Maura O’Neill.

The travois also could be used in subsistence farming or in water carrying.  If the travois were made out of bamboo with simple lashings for the vertices, it would be inexpensive and easy for village carpenters to produce.  The travois would proliferate, potentially revolutionizing simple wheeled transportation in rural Africa.

A team of companies (including a wheel manufacturer), organizations, and individuals are coming together to make the Rescue Travois a reality.  Learn more at: http://rescuetravois.wordpress.com/.

Clean Hands Inc. – 5 Questions with Bear Valley Ventures

Bear Valley Ventures, a grantee of USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) program, is investigating how to radically improve hand hygiene habits in India, through product innovation. Bear Valley and partners created Clean Hands Inc (CHI) to develop new products for the urban poor that can be used by households with substandard or no sanitation and constrained access to water. With support from DIV, they have launched their pilot. 

Where did the inspiration for your approach come from?

The evidence that improved hand hygiene can have a positive impact on health is clear and there’s increasing interest globally in promoting handwashing with soap. But in the settings we are interested in – urban slums – there are many practical reasons why soap may not always be the best solution. Reasons like water being a valued resource people don’t want to waste and soaps lack of portability when people go to the toilet outside the home.

Youth in India. Photo Credit: Walter Gibson

What makes your approach different?

Like many with an eye on public health around the globe we want to improve hand hygiene at scale in a way that’s sustainable. However, our approach is different in three ways. First, our products are exclusively designed to get hands germ free post-defecation. Not because other moments like before food don’t matter but because we think defecation is a missed opportunity – what soap manufacturer wants their brand associated first and foremost with defecation! Products for post-defecation need a different functionality and positioning, and we think it’s  easier to target than eating in low-income settings as it can be made more routine. Second, we aim to get to scale through a social business model, which no one else is trying to do in this area. And third, not only are our product formats novel but we have a product ingredient that sets us apart, Byotrol®.

What are the first steps you you’ve taken to get your pilot of the ground so far?

As the funding kicked in, our first step was to fly straight to India to meet with research design agency Quicksand, our partner. Together we checked out one of our products – a foam that doesn’t need rinsing – with households in slums in Bangalore; met experts with whom we’ll work over the coming year on issues like distribution, positioning, and packaging; and re-worked our plan for the year. In parallel we’re working with Byotrol Consumer Products Ltd, our technology partner, on product formulations, which will incorporate their unique anti-microbial technology Byotrol®.

What have your biggest challenges been so far? What will be your biggest challenges in the future?

There are so many challenges it’s hard to know where to start! On the hygiene side we’re trying to innovate practices people do habitually and unconsciously. They are not driven by a belief that if I don’t clean my hands properly someone could get sick or die. So we’re not tapping into a desire that exists and will have to create one. On the product side affordability and distribution are huge challenges. And as a team we have to make sure that we use everything that happens over the coming year – including the set backs, to learn and move forward to achieve our vision of improving health through hand hygiene where it matters most.

 

 

 

 

USAID Brings New Communications Options to Remote Communities in Northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

In late April, residents across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were pleasantly surprised to receive phone calls from friends and relatives living in the remote northeastern corner of the country. For the first time, the people of Niangara, in the heavily-forested Haut Uélé District of Orientale Province, have access to a cellular communications network in their isolated community. This breakthrough in communications potential is part of a public-private partnership between USAID and Vodacom Congo to pilot four low-cost and light-weight “AltoPod” base transmission stations that will provide cellular coverage in remote, conflict-affected areas of Haut Uélé and Bas Uélé Districts.

Satellite communications equipment at Niangara cellular tower site. Photo credit: Vodacom Congo

The first Vodacom pilot tower, in Niangara, went live on April 21, 2013, and will be followed in the coming days and weeks by the activation of additional towers in Bangadi, Doruma, and Ango. Each of the four towers, all partially funded by USAID, will provide a minimum of 315 square kilometers of cell phone connectivity to 1,200 mobile phone users. This project represents one of the most technologically advanced communications initiatives attempted in the DRC. While the new base transmission station technology, pioneered by the Ireland-based Altobridge company, has proven effective and profitable for mobile network operators in a handful of areas around the world with similar profiles – low population density and poor infrastructure – it is only now being tested by a mobile network operator in the DRC. Should the pilot project prove economically viable for the company, it is envisioned that Vodacom Congo or other DRC mobile network operators will branch into additional remote regions of the country currently still lacking cellular coverage.

In launching this pilot project, USAID is seeking to increase communications options in isolated corners of the DRC that have been subject to armed attacks. This expansion of cellular coverage opens the door to potential advances in a variety of different domains, including civilian protection, humanitarian response, public service delivery, and economic activity. It is up to the individual community members in each of the target sites to decide how to best make use of this new cellular connectivity to improve their daily lives. From mobile banking applications to the exchange of health-related information to increased citizen communication with government, security, and humanitarian actors – a host of new possibilities are now available for communities to consider.

Video of the Week: Clean Kumasi: Digital Tools to Transform Urban Waste Management

In the fall of 2012, IDEO.org partnered with Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor to tackle the issue of open defecation. IDEO.org and WSUP were the recipients of a Development Innovation Ventures  Stage One grant to test a hypothesis that the application of digital tools could effectively change behavior related to the management of human waste.

Building off the lessons learned from rural community-led total sanitation efforts, the team worked to adapt that methodology to an urban context.

The team designed a system that allowed community members to report instances of open defecation by calling them in, in response to signs posted around the neighborhood. This information fed into a database of contacts managed by a community organizer who then called the participants to gather for meetings and clean-ups.

This video shows the IDEO.org and WSUP teams in action – from organizing hackathons in San Francisco to conducting field work in Kumasi, Ghana, live prototyping of the mobile platform and technology, and ultimately to the community gatherings and clean-ups.

IDEO.org’s project is supported by the DIV and Gates Foundation WASH for Life Partnership. Read more about the partnership’s new grantees.

Folow @DIVatUSAID  on Twitter and join the conversation with #DIVWash.

The Road to a ‘Data Ecosystem’ for Modern Abolitionists

In March, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners announced the winners of its Counter-Trafficking in Persons (C-TIP) Campus Challenge Tech Contest– a global call to college students to develop creative technology solutions to help prevent human trafficking. USAID invited some of the contest winners and participants to Washington, D.C., this April to participate in the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking and discuss their winning concepts with USAID staff and partner organizations – this is a blog about one of the student’s trip to Washington.

I consider it a tremendous privilege to contribute to the fight against modern day slavery. I remember a student conference in 2003, listening to the speaker’s impassioned plea to intervene on the behalf of those in chains, and yet, despite many attempts to get connected to the work of fighting human trafficking, it took the better part of the last decade for me to plug into the field.  Remembering this time of frustrated passion, I am so encouraged seeing initiatives like USAID’s Challenge Slavery invite people into the movement and engage new generations of abolitionists. There is a new spirit in the anti-trafficking movement – perhaps, the simple realization that we can now call it a “movement” captures this sense.

Traffickers have a market worth billions of dollars, and traffickers find it far too easy to collaborate online. We, on the other hand, have to work hard in order to collaborate – for example, the competition for grants in the non-profit world often dissuades organizations from working together. This creates an “anti-market” where information is scarce and people have a hard time finding places where they can help. But this is changing, as evidenced by the thousands of student groups raising awareness about human trafficking on campus and off and the success of consumer apps that target a consumer’s “slavery footprint“. Rather than spending their time trying to find some way to help, this next generation is able to spend their time actually helping.  I believe that technology can help us take this trend to the next level, by creating a “synthetic market” where information flows readily and people can easily get to the right places to plug in.

Toward this end, I believe a “Data Ecosystem” can provide the technical backbone organizations and activists need in order to collaborate – a place where all their systems can talk to each other, basically a common language for the movement. An emergency shelter should be able to send a file to law enforcement if a friend of one of their clients is in danger. A volunteer should be able to link to a website, describe their skill sets, and plug into an organization within the anti-trafficking movement. A local partnership of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be able to link up their networks and analyze the local trafficking situation together.

Technology is really about relationships – it isn’t simply a program or a piece of hardware, but a means for people to interact with other people. The best way that the ecosystem works is by creating efficient collaboration spaces or “shared networks” for partnerships that already exist – like the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition– so that we can amplify and accelerate the good work and best ideas that are already happening. Then, we connect the networks, and from their conversation, we get a grassroots picture of what’s really going on and what we can all do to help. If we get all the really great tech people involved in the anti-trafficking movement in a room together, empowered by their leaders to build this shared space, I truly believe we can make all of this happen.

Virginia Tech Students Fight Human Trafficking, One App at a Time

In March, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners announced the winners of its Counter-Trafficking in Persons (C-TIP) Campus Challenge Tech Contest– a global call to college students to develop creative technology solutions to help prevent human trafficking. USAID invited some of the contest winners and participants to Washington, D.C., this April to participate in the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking and discuss their winning concepts with USAID staff and partner organizations. This is a blog about their trip to Washington. 

Popular culture has pegged Washington, D.C., as the home of the bureaucrat, a city where red tape rules. Our time in the capital is a testament to the narrowness of this idea. While we don’t pretend that we got a full picture of the federal government during our brief stay, the experiences we shared speak to a government that still has compassionate members and is made up of individuals that see love as “central to this fight.” This was a phrase that Ambassador Luis CdeBaca used as he spoke during the presentation of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships report on “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery.” This event was one of many meetings we attended during our two days, a time spent better understanding government intervention in human trafficking and developing further the ideas that were awarded first and second place prizes in the USAID C-TIP Campus Challenge.

C-TIP Campus Challenge Tech Contest participants meet with Sarah Mendelson, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Photo Credit: USAID

Our two winning concepts – AboliShop a web browser application that helps online shoppers make smart choices by alerting them to products that may have forced or exploited labor in their supply chains, and a Mxit trafficking hotline (PDF) that marries Africa’s largest social network with existing hotline technologies – were tuned and refined by a variety of trafficking experts while we were in Washington. This refinement process has seen us through to the other side, where we are now in a position to move toward making these products available for public use in the near future.

During our time in Washington, USAID connected us with a variety of groups, from religious leaders to large corporations to passionate activists, all aiming to end trafficking on a global scale. We saw much of the public sector’s commitment at the White House Forum to End Human Trafficking and the private sector’s commitment at the Google announcement of their Global Trafficking Hotline Network. Our discussions with these groups made a difference in the future of AboliShop and the Mxit trafficking hotline and also reshaped the way we will be involved in the fight on a personal level.

As for the future of our projects, we want to see AboliShop become a common, not a niche, experience for online consumers, which will only be possible with the energy and resources of groups willing to work alongside us. Africa is in desperate need of trafficking hotline resources, as the existing hotlines are both sparse and limited by a variety of factors. We hope that we can be part of the solution to this problem, joining the organizations already working on the ground to grow the African trafficking hotline network. Keep an eye out for news from AboliShop and Mxit in the days to come.

Harnessing the Commitment & Energy of Diaspora Communities to Transform Development

Rajiv Shah serves as Administrator at USAID

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet a Syrian-American trauma surgeon who told me about the multiple trips he had taken to Syria with other doctors to help remove shrapnel from the bodies of children.

As I listened to him share these devastating experiences, I knew that his story reflected the tremendous contributions of Syrian-Americans to the humanitarian response. Every day, at great risk to their own lives, they were caring for the injured, training doctors in triage and medicine, and helping deliver lifesaving medical supplies throughout Syria.

Whether we’re talking about the struggle for freedom in Syria or the fragile–but remarkable–transition happening in Burma, we know the diaspora community has a uniquely important role to play in addressing the challenges of today and shaping a brighter future for tomorrow.

Last year, global remittances topped $534 billion—more than 5 times U.S. official development assistance. So often the result of long hours and sacrifices, these contributions mean so much more than their monetary value. They mean the chance for a child to afford her school uniform. The chance for a young man to take out a loan and open a business. And sometimes, they make the difference between life and death – when they allow a family to buy food in tough times.

We are determined to work together to ensure the each dollar saved and each dollar transferred can make a lasting impact. Through our Development Innovations Fund, we’re partnering with a major Filipino bank, a Filipino education NGO, and a group of researchers from the University of Michigan to pilot a financial innovation called EduPay. The tool allows overseas individuals to pay school fees directly to educational institutions in the Philippines, instead of channeling the funds through an informal trustee. The tool also goes one step further by enabling you to monitor the student’s attendance and performance so you can be sure you’re supporting a quality education.

Whether saving money to send home, building a business from the ground up, or partnering with us in response to a crisis, the commitment and energy of diaspora communities holds the potential of transforming developing countries around the world. Through a partnership with Western Union, we’re helping support diaspora leaders who have a great idea to start a business, but need the resources to get it off the ground. Since 2009, the African Diaspora Marketplace has provided grants to 31 companies, totaling more than $2.2 million.

At USAID, we’re increasingly focusing on providing a platform to connect problem-solvers everywhere to the greatest challenges of our time. We call it “open-source development,” and it reflects our desire to harness the creativity and expertise of a much broader development community. Through our new model of development, we aren’t focused on our solutions. We’re focused on yours.

To learn more about the Global Diaspora Forum or to learn how to partner with USAID, the State Department, and the private sector, please visit: http://diasporaalliance.org/.

Join conversation on Twitter (@USAID) using #2013GDF.

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