Tech is on the way

In December, as massive tsunamis inflicted unprecedented devastation
on the countries of Southeast Asia and well beyond, Eric Brewer, U.C.
Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences
(EECS), and a team of eight graduate students and Intel researchers
were preparing to depart for the troubled region.

part of a vast, five-year CITRIS-affiliated program called Information
and Communication Technology for Billions (ICT4B), Brewer, the
principal investigator, and his team are spending the first half of
2005 working with local residents, non-governmental organizations, and
industry partners in India and Sri Lanka to install and study new
technology developed specifically for the four billion people worldwide
who live on less than $2000 per year. College of Engineering Dean
Richard Newton has compared the program to "a peace corps for

"Life in these regions is fragile on a good day,
so when something goes catastrophically wrong, it's far worse than the
same thing would be here. Technology can help," says Brewer.

fact, there's evidence that it already has. A former resident who'd
received some technical training was able to call the one of the few
phones in his Indian fishing village, Nellavadu, warning them in time
to evacuate. Although 300 perished in a neighboring village, everyone
in Nellavadu survived. "That's proof that even a very simple
information system can in fact save lives, and did save lives in this
village for sure," says Brewer, who has been working for the past year
with residents of the town, which is located south of Chennai.

by a $3 million National Science Foundation grant and generous support
from partners Intel, Microsoft, and others, ICT4B team members are
returning to Nellavadu and similar villages to erect WiFi antennas that
reach distances of 10 to 30 kilometers, providing isolated villagers
affordable, easy access to weather conditions for fishermen, crop
prices for farmers, health news, and, when possible, warnings of
imminent disaster.

address shortages of doctors in poorer regions, they're also testing a
computer program that uses artificial intelligence to diagnose diabetic
retinopathy, a common disease in the developing world associated with
malnutrition and diabetes. For every hour spent examining photos, a
surgeon could instead perform five cataract surgeries. "The hope is
that the computer can detect 90 to 95 percent of the cases itself. If
we can save surgeons a thousand hours a year in diagnosis time, that's
five thousand more people that can see," Brewer explains.

longer-term project is focused on affordable, portable, chip-sized
sensors that could identify diseases like Dengue Fever in victims
without hospital-lab facilities. "Most people don't live near
hospitals, so they don't get tested," says Brewer.

success is dependant on deploying new, use-based technologies rather
than simply applying existing ones. Conditions in developing regions
require tools that are low-cost, can run on limited power supplies, and
are usable among people with no prior technical experience. To that end
a sub-group Brewer founded called Technology and Infrastructure for
Emerging Regions (TIER) is improving such tools as a voice-operated
user-interface to help bridge the digital divide for people who can't
read or write.

Brewer points out that working with CITRIS has
really improved the project's effectiveness. "We're partners in the
general vision of better use of technology for society.
But in particular, CITRIS is valuable in this context because it's
multidisciplinary. CITRIS facilitates mixing social science and
technology in a way that traditionally is hard to do," says Brewer.

while the biggest, most important beneficiaries of ICT4B will be the
people living in these poor regions, California will also gain in the
form of long-term market development, increased world stability, and
continued low-priced imports.

For now, ICT4B is still in the
experimental phase–investigating, creating, and testing much-needed
solutions, but Brewer is certain the outcome will be good. "It's really
hard to know what the killer applications for these groups are, but we
have five years, so we'll figure it out," he says.


For more information:

"Berkeley's New Peace Corps for Technology" by David Pescovitz (Forefront, Fall 2004)


Eric Brewer's Web site

"Tech Initiatives Aim to go Global" by Don Clark (Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2004)