Seattle and the Developing World: Bill Gates, UW Profs Speak at Global Tech Conference in Qatar

4/20/09

Seattle has become a major global health hub over the last decade, thanks in no small part to having the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world leaders in funding for global health research, in our own backyard. Now, an emerging and related discipline is also finding an increasing number of connections here—global technology. Researchers around Seattle (and elsewhere) are thinking outside the box to come up with innovative, inexpensive technologies that can be easily implemented in developing countries to improve quality of life there.

“Technology is naturally mixing with global health as there is much low-hanging fruit where a little tech can make a big difference,” Gaetano Borriello, a University of Washington computer science professor, said in an e-mail. “Seattle is a hub for both, so it is a natural place for this new development to be happening.”

This past weekend, the third annual IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development took place at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus in Doha. Seattle-area researchers, specifically from the UW, made quite a showing at the meeting. Several Microsoft projects were presented too, and Bill Gates showed up to give the keynote talk.

Here are some global technology projects underway at the UW and presented at the meeting:

—*bus (or Starbus), a transportation tracking system developed by Borriello and UW technical communication professor Beth Kolko. *bus relies on only GPS and SMS technologies to track any vehicle by cell phone, as long as that vehicle has been equipped with a simple tracking device (*box). The researchers tested the system in Seattle this year and plan to start tests in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, soon. In areas with limited transportation and no means of communicating their schedules, a system like this would allow residents of those areas to get the most use possible out of buses and trains.

—MultiMath, a system that uses multiple numerical keyboards to allow students to share a computer in a classroom situation, led by UW computer scientist Richard Anderson and the UW Center for Information and Society’s Joyojeet Pal. The technology would allow a single computer to go farther in resource-poor settings, and allows children more interaction with each other to boot.

—AndroidRosa and JavaRosa, two open-source applications for data sharing on cell phones in the developing world, created by Borriello and his colleagues. The applications are part of the larger open-source cell phone-based data collection project OpenRosa. The idea behind Borriello’s applications is that sharing information such as medical records or tracking disease spread using paper records is slow, but establishing traditional online sharing systems is unrealistic in poor settings where computers, Internet service, and even electricity may be hard to come by. Cell phone usage is common even in poor countries, presenting an intriguing and efficient alternative to paper records.

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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