Humans of IEEE SIGHT: Amarnath Raja, a SIGHT Founder and CEO of InApp in Kerala, India

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 2.57.09 PMHumans of IEEE SIGHT profiles volunteers working to improve the quality of life in underserved communities around the world. This month we are pleased to introduce Amarnath Raja.

Amarnath Raja is the CEO and co-founder of InApp, a software development company based out of Trivandrum, Kerala. He is an alumnus of the IIT-D and is a seasoned technology expert with several years of experience working for IBM Japan, JP Morgan Chase and ‘milma.’

Raja is an active volunteer in IEEE and has, among other things, held the positions of Kerala Section Chair and IEEE Humanitarian Committee Chair. In 2015, he received the prestigious LKW Transnational Award from IEEE, granted for significant contributions to global IEEE humanitarian activities and member engagement, conceptualizing and creating the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) program and helping spread it as a channel for engineers working together to bring the benefits of technology to the entire world.

IEEE SIGHT: What inspired you to help found IEEE SIGHT?

AR: Back in 2004-05, we had a series of natural disasters and a tsunami in India. Many of us engineers helped in the relief and rehabilitation efforts. We needed more engineers and support and tried to appeal to IEEE for help. However, there was no mechanism within IEEE to coordinate engineers in such situations and little could be done. Our efforts soon got recognition within IEEE and our story appeared on the cover of the IEEE Annual Report of 2005.

The pursuit of this dream of organizing and enabling IEEE members to apply their Engineering Knowledge for helping the underserved people of the world, led us to push for IEEE SIGHT.

  1. IEEE SIGHT: What were the difficulties in getting IEEE SIGHT going?

AR: Surprisingly there were none! Initially, we formed an affinity group in the Kerala Section. Soon, we came to know of the Humanitarian Technology Challenge and the IEEE President Lew Terman’s determination to steer IEEE in this direction. I joined the series of meetings of the HTC. However, there was something lacking – the general membership involvement that we saw at the grass-roots was not present in HTC.

Later on, at the Sections Congress in Quebec in 2008, I was lucky to be invited to present a session on our work. This was widely appreciated and the R10 directors invited me to form a Humanitarian Affinity Group at R10. Later on in 2011, the then IEEE President Dr. Moshe Kam, set up a Humanitarian ad hoc Committee and invited me to be its Chair. The members of this committee, with the active support from the IEEE President, placed a proposal before the IEEE Board of Directors in June 2011.

I was fortunate enough to be able to present the proposal to the IEEE Board. The board not only accepted the proposal in toto but also granted an annual budget for the HAC of over $1 million USD! Thus, the HAC was formed and later on December 11th, 2011, SIGHT was formed under the HAC. It was my greatest joy to see IEEE SIGHT inaugurated by Dr. Peter Staecker at Trivandrum in Kerala, where it all started.

You asked if there were any difficulties? As they say in English “It was all a cakewalk” with the support of everyone from the IEEE president down to all the members. Let me put it this way: It was an idea whose time had come and it had to be. I am thankful that I could contribute so much to its formation.

  1. IEEE SIGHT: How was such a beautiful name “IEEE SIGHT” coined?

AR: Initially, we had called the member-based Humanitarian Groups in IEEE an “Affinity Group” based on the GOLD and WIE which preceded SIGHT.

However, we wanted the entity to be all pervasive in IEEE, be it MGA, TAB, EAB, Publications or even the GOLD and WIE. We wanted it to cut across all other OUs and each OU should be able to form groups for humanitarian work. Thus, we had to have a name different from ‘Affinity Group.’ We thought about alternative names… ‘Special Interest Group’ was suggested as an alternative. Thus, we had a wonderful acronym Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology – SIGHT. A beautiful name with a lot of meaning. It stuck 🙂

  1. IEEE SIGHT: What has been your most lovable or memorable IEEE SIGHT moment?

AR: Of course, the inauguration of the first IEEE SIGHT was a memorable moment for me. Going beyond this, the most memorable moment was a visit to a tribal village with a group of students. I could see that it was a new experience for the students and the tribals in interacting with each other. I am sure it will go a long way in motivating the students to take up social development programs wherever they are in life.

  1. IEEE SIGHT: What is one thing IEEE SIGHT should consider doing? Are there any suggestions or a message you would like to give to IEEE SIGHT?

I am happy that SIGHT has grown the way it has. However, it has more or less retained its role of undertaking discrete projects around the world. I would personally like to see SIGHT move forward in two interrelated directions.

(1) In increasing the intercommunication and networking between SIGHTs. I would like to see SIGHTs working together and achieving far greater impact in whatever they are do.

(2) The SIGHTs are currently in a flat structure with all the SIGHTs tying in only at the Apex Steering Committee. This structure has limitations and I think has reached the limit of manageability. A more delegated and decentralized structure may be useful in making SIGHTs more effective in achieving its vision.

  1. IEEE SIGHT: What suggestions can you offer to encourage more YP and WIE members to be involved in SIGHT? What are the challenges and possible solutions?

AR: Similar to my last suggestion, working without a structure could be a challenge. Perhaps, having a global theme for Humanitarian Work under WIE or Young Professionals could be a way forward.

I am wary of giving direct suggestions as they tend to be acted upon without a proper thought process. However, here is one: We could go by a two-year theme. For example, a theme could be “Reducing Infant Mortality,” and it would start with a study and come up with gaps where engineering could help. It may come up with things like: Cheaper sterilization equipment or incubators for neonatals and implementing it on the ground through collaboration with NGOs, UN bodies and government agencies.

Other themes could be Geriatrics, Disabilities, Clean Water, connecting to Isolated Communities, Education and many more.

I strongly believe that IEEE YPs and WIE members are very talented, and if we can harness their energies towards the application of technology for the benefit of the underserved, it will be IEEE’s best contribution to humanity.

A global coordinated effort in any specific area will mean something will get done on the ground. However, these efforts will mean working outside our comfort zones and a good leadership will be required at all levels for motivation and implementation.

  1. IEEE SIGHT: How can IEEE SIGHT collaborate with other IEEE technical societies, such as IEEE MTTS, IEEE RAS, IEEE PES, IEEE IAS, IEEE SSIT, IEEE EMBS and so on?

AR: Technical societies are core to to IEEE and many members spend most of their volunteering time in its activities. Hence SIGHT Groups in the TAB and Societies are of utmost importance. They form technology verticals and can be the best platform to initiate global theme-based activities as described above. I know that a lot of good work is happening in SIGHTs of Robotics, PES and others. It is now up to the SIGHT leadership to take these, create themes out of these and encourage implementation in all geographies. This will make SIGHT truly global :-).

  1. IEEE SIGHT: Open question: Is there anything you’d like to say that we haven’t given you the chance to mention, yet?

AR: Yes, two points, if I may:

  1. Thanks to the work of the SIGHT enthusiasts, a number of SIGHT groups have been formed all around the world and the numbers are crossing well over 100. I feel it may be time to examine the distribution consciously and fill in the gaps both geography-wise and technology-wise. For example, I am really surprised why SIGHTs have not come up in Africa. In the technology areas we find a gap in the Computer Society and other computer-related societies.
  2. I would like to acknowledge and appreciate the role of the IEEE Staff in creating and managing SIGHT. But for them, the SIGHT would not have taken off.  Holly, Jackie and others have worked hard with dedication and commitment to the cause and we have to understand that it is the single most important reason why we are here. I would like all of you to join me in thanking and congratulating them.