Atefeh Riazi of CIOs Without Borders and the New York City Housing Authority says both jobs are about improving human conditions.

IT for the Greater Good

CIOs Without Borders seeks to lift up the world's most vulnerable populations through smart use of technology.

As one-time global CIO at advertising goliath Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Atefeh Riazi felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, and not just because of the corporate IT universe she oversaw.

In that position, Riazi traveled the world extensively, often finding herself in developing markets. "With this type of travel comes awareness about poverty and a lack of healthcare and education -- it touches you deeply."

Particularly awakening, Riazi recalls, was watching Chinese children using discarded circuit boards and wiring as playthings. "You know these are filled with lead and mercury, and one of those pieces of equipment could have been mine, shipped to China irresponsibly. This moved me, and pushed me to get engaged," she explains.

Having since left Ogilvy, Riazi is now CIO for the New York City Housing Authority. But once she tucks her twin 3-year-old daughters in bed at night, Riazi's focus turns to CIOs Without Borders, a global nonprofit organization she helped launch two years ago. Similar to what Doctors Without Borders does for medical professionals, CIOs Without Borders brings together the IT community in philanthropic endeavors that use technology to solve everyday human problems.

For example, CIOs Without Borders is working to implement an expert medical system in Rwanda, a country in which 400 doctors serve a population of 10 million people, says Riazi, who serves as executive director of the organization. With one doctor for approximately every 25,000 people, Rwandans "die from things you and I take for granted, like basic hygiene," she says.

"This is an impossible situation," says Ed Friedman, professor emeritus of technology management at Stevens Institute of Technology, a CIOs Without Borders partner located in Hoboken, N.J.

A laboratory technician works at a rural clinic in Rwanda.

Photo: E. Friedman

Rwanda or Bust

Friedman, who has studied how best to address the medical crisis in ­Africa ­under the auspices of the United ­Nations, has visited Rwanda a number of times. There he found doctors working at a small number of hospitals in larger ­cities, in the ministry itself or as faculty at medical schools -- but not so much at the country's 350 rural clinics, each of which serves about 20,000 people or, in total, 7 million Rwandans.

"At one visit to a major regional clinic," Friedman recalls, "I found a staff of about eight ‘professionals' -- but not one of them, including the clinic director, had more than a high school education. This is horrendous."

The only way to solve this intractable problem is via new paradigms for delivering healthcare, Friedman says. "It struck me that computers could be very useful. Wherever you have a rules-based environment, where given certain information there's a rule for what you do with it, that can be handled by a computer."

1 to 384
The ratio of doctors to patients in the United States

1 to 23,379
The ratio of doctors to patients in Rwanda

Source: The World Health Organization

Researching that idea, Friedman discovered that such a tool, the Early Detection and Prevention System 2000 (EDPS2000), already exists. Developed by The George Foundation, the tool has been enabling computer-assisted medical diagnosis in rural India for nearly 10 years. Friedman is working to adapt EDPS2000 for use in Rwanda.

The tool is a database of medical conditions common to sub-Saharan Africa running on a basic PC, and doesn't require Internet connectivity. "A patient's conditions could be reviewed in a 10-minute interview administered by a high school graduate who hasn't studied computers or medicine but is intelligent and can select ‘yes' or ‘no' answers from a checklist," Friedman describes.

To those who might argue that replacing humans with machines isn't the best way to go about fixing this crisis, Riazi offers: "If we can use an expert system to triage and be able to help 70 percent of the people literally not being served today, it's a tremendous opportunity for the population."

Indeed, independent experts who have studied the issue concur that medical training isn't a feasible solution. "It would take 20 years and huge resources to train enough doctors to get up to minimal standards. Plus, what we see in countries like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria that do have medical training capabilities is that the doctors leave to work in places like England, the U.S., Australia and Canada," Friedman says. "The brain drain is enormous, and there's no way of stopping it."

Although CIOs Without Borders has myriad other projects under way -- bringing technology to hospitals and schools in places such as the Philippines, for example -- those are more local in nature. Project Rwanda is a critical one for the organization because people across the country will feel its impact, Riazi says.

While Project Rwanda began life at Stevens, under Friedman's leadership and working in conjunction with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, CIOs Without Borders quickly embraced the cause. Stevens and Einstein have obtained the Rwandan government's go-ahead for the project. Further progress, however, requires additional funding.

CIOs Without Borders is working to raise the $2.5 million required for the next stage of the project, a pilot test with roughly 15 clinics. After the pilot, which would run for roughly a year and a half, would come large-scale deployment. For that, Riazi says, CIOs Without Borders volunteers would travel to Rwanda, as needed, to help get the clinics up and running and help train staff on the technology's use.

Giving Back

"They say if you want something done, give it to the busy person -- and I'm very busy, as is my colleague Sunil Verma, CIO of retailer The Children's Place and CIOs Without Borders, who devotes many weekends to moving the projects forward," Riazi says. "But CIOs Without Borders is something that I do with a sense of mission."

The number of individuals who have joined CIOs Without Borders since the organization's founding in mid-2009

Sometimes, that isn't easy, Riazi says. With fundraising a primary objective, she and her fellow volunteer board members, who also have full-time positions and families, must constantly network. "You do make sacrifices with leisure; however, you're much happier doing something you truly believe in," she says.

That idea is resonating with hundreds of IT professionals around the globe, including Patrick Clancy, associate vice president of IT at The New York Botanical Garden, a nonprofit organization partially funded by the New York City ­Department of Cultural Affairs.

"[CIOs Without Borders'] mission is absolutely necessary, and it seems to come at the right time, both need-wise and with what technology can do in the circumstances," Clancy says.

Given the right opportunity, Clancy likes the idea of doing the IT fieldwork that might be possible through such an organization. "I'm not quite there, but I am getting closer to retirement every day," he says. "And when I start to think about what I'm going to do when I retire from my paid job, it seems silly to take a lifetime of experience and knowledge and go fishing."

Riazi implores all IT professionals, as well as the industry in general, to take action.

Go to to learn how the CIOs Without Borders organization came about.

"The world is changing, and technology is leading and enabling a tremendous amount of this change -- some good, some bad," Riazi says. "We must be involved and engaged to reduce the negative and contribute to the positive impact."

Riazi, naturally, embraces this philosophy in her day-to-day job, too.

"If you look at poverty, health-related issues, education, disadvantaged youth -- these are things that we at CIOs Without Borders work on in emerging markets, but I also can contribute here and improve the social fabric of New York City," Riazi says. "To me, both jobs and roles are about improving human conditions."

Helping Haiti

For Les Berry, director of IT service management at Denver International Airport, the impetus to join CIOs Without Borders came along with his desire to help in the aftermath of last year's earthquake that devastated Haiti.

"I've been really moved by what's happening and by the many people giving their time, energy and effort to help. But they are doing things that I don't have expertise in, like medicine," says Berry. "So I've been looking for a way to use my technology skills in Haiti in particular."

Berry is collaborating with a friend, Jeff Simpson, a medical account manager at AT&T, to form a local CIOs Without Borders chapter in Denver. Its express purpose would be finding ways to use technology to help Haiti. "It seems to me that a lot of things can be made better there using technology -- perhaps transmitting medical records and doing remote diagnostics for doctors on the ground in Haiti or building a cell phone infrastructure, for example. We just need to get creative about it," he says.

John Emerson
Dec 23 2010