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Good code, big problems

Here’s one great way to use your tech skills

This technologist changed his career to help the poor.


These days I spend a lot of my time thinking about how technology can help the poorest people in the world improve their lives. It’s been a big focus for me since before Melinda and I launched our foundation. But looking back, I think I could have started down this path even sooner than I did.

People with a STEM background have a lot to offer the world of global health and development. That’s one of the reasons why I write about innovation so often here on TGN: I want to encourage software developers, inventors, and scientists to consider how they can use their skills to fight inequity. It’s deeply rewarding. You get the chance to learn from super-capable people—health care workers, farmers, political leaders—and work with them on tools that will empower them.

Last year I heard a talk from a young technologist who came to this realization sooner than I did. His name is William Wu, and he gave a fascinating demonstration at our foundation’s annual Goalkeepers meeting in New York City. Here are some highlights from his presentation:

After hearing William’s talk, I learned more about his story. He grew up in the Bay Area in the ’80s and ’90s. His parents helped him get excited about math and science from an early age. William studied engineering and computer science in college and grad school, ending up with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford. While in grad school he met his future wife, Jiehua Chen (she goes by “JC”), who was getting a Ph.D. in statistics with a focus on global development.

After a short time writing code at various startups, William landed a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, designing a telecommunications system for satellites including the International Space Station. It was fulfilling work—he had been obsessed with space since he was a kid—but eventually he realized he didn’t have to look to the stars for interesting problems to solve.

A turning point came when JC was working on soil analysis in Africa. The field team she was working with needed to convert thousands of data points on a spreadsheet into GPS coordinates, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it quickly. When JC mentioned the problem to William, he knew it could be solved with just a few lines of code. In minutes he had written a small program that did the job.

JC helped William see that someone with skills and interests like his could make a big difference in global development. In 2012, they founded their company, Quantitative Engineering Design, which develops software and hardware to improve farming and health care in developing countries. QED now employs about 20 engineers and scientists and works with national governments around the world as well as organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The soil project that William describes in the video above is just one example of what QED is doing. They also built the data processing software used in Kenya by the CHAMPS project, an initiative that our foundation is funding to learn why so many young kids still die in some regions.

Another QED project involves digitizing medical forms. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, health clinics use paper-based, handwritten medical registries. These registries contain a lot of (anonymous) data about how many patients come in and out of the clinic, the staff’s workload, the prevalence of different diseases, and so on. But because this is all done on paper, it’s hard to analyze the data for larger trends. QED is pilot-testing an app that would allow organizations to keep using paper-based books but quickly digitize the results. A health worker would use her mobile phone’s camera to scan the handwritten information, get it transcribed using optical character recognition, store it in the cloud, and export it for analysis, all in 60 seconds.

It’s too early to predict the impact of any of these projects. The point is that people with tech skills can find fascinating problems to work on and terrific partners to work with. It’s great if you decide to make a career of it, but you don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference is the willingness to learn about a problem and use your talents to help solve it.

Our foundation maintains a list of sites that can point you to volunteer opportunities. It’s worth a look.