CIOs Without Borders
by Tony Kontzer We in the IT press spend a lot of time writing about how technology helps organizations to achieve business objectives, but what we don't get to write about enough is the potential for technology to solve huge societal challenges.
Then along comes a group like CIOs Without Borders to boost our faith in IT innovators as enablers of large-scale change on a human level.
The brainstorm of a group of big-hearted IT professionals, CIOs Without Borders is an early-stage nonprofit effort with a big goal--namely, to use technology to fill the gaps in medical knowledge in some of the world's most impoverished locales. The group boasts a membership of 250 that's ready to volunteer wherever needed, and is overseen by a three-person advisory board and a 12-person volunteer staff of directors.
The group wanted badly to offer its assistance following the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Haiti last December, but so many of its fledgling members requested to go, and transportation into Haiti was so chaotic, any effort there had to be delayed.
"We're too young of an organization to mobilize that fast," says Executive Director Atti Riazi, CIO of the New York City Housing Authority and former CIO of global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. She says the group hopes to be able to assemble a team that would travel to Haiti in eight to 10 months to help set up an IT infrastructure for schools and hospitals.
In the meantime, CIOs Without Borders is focused on its first program, in Rwanda, where one of the world's highest infant mortality rates and common diseases like diarrhea going undiagnosed combine to take far more of a toll than is necessary. The group has government approval to deploy E-health systems at hospital and clinics throughout the country, essentially training nurses to perform triage and dispense medications for up to 75% of the cases that currently go untreated.
But making this happen requires money, and that, Riazi says, is proving to be the hardest part. CIOs Without Borders hopes to raise $750,000 for its Rwandan effort during 2010, with a long-term goal of $2.5 million that would allow it to set up the E-health system in 25 villages. Ultimately, Riazi estimates, that investment could save millions of lives over the ensuing decades.
The group also has been working with the Vietnamese government on helping to combat the impact Agent Orange continues to have 35 years after the end of the Vietnam War. That effort involves building a Web site filled with information on affected areas, symptoms, treatments, as well as an interactive map diagramming the efforts of all the volunteers on the ground throughout the country to prevent duplication of efforts.
If it sounds like CIOs Without Borders is establishing an ambitious agenda, it's because there are so many places where a little technology can go a long way in improving the quality of life. But it's important to remember it's not the technology, per se, that's at the center of the group's efforts. It's all about what the technology provides access to. "Our goal is not to give technology," says Riazi. "Our goal is to give knowledge."
Riazi hopes that once word gets out about what CIOs Without Borders is doing, it will not only attract more volunteers, but also serve as a model for other similar efforts. "IT people should take on a cause because technology truly has an immense power," Riazi says.
And as a determined group of IT folks who want to make a difference is discovering, it's a power that goes far beyond bottom-line business impact. It's the power to make lives better.