Tech projects for social good recognised with $1m prizes

1 March 2017

Two inspiring projects harnessing the power of technology for social good have been awarded ‘Technology Against Poverty’ prizes worth $500,000.

From developing a low-cost, easy-to-operate method to remove arsenic and deliver safe and clean drinking water, to improving learning outcomes for children in India and Cambodia by combining technology and interactive education programs with local facilitators – the inspirational work of two UTS academics and a UTS Law graduate are among four projects that have been recognised by the Technology Against Poverty prize.

The prizes, worth $500,000 each, have been awarded to four local non-profit innovators, recognising their inventive use of technology to solve key social and development problems in the Indo-Pacific region, through a partnership between the Australian Government’s innovationXchange and Google.org, the tech giant’s philanthropic foundation.

Tech for learning

Clary CastrissionThe 40K Foundation, founded by alumnus Clary Castrission OAM (Bachelor of Arts in Communication- (Media Arts and Production) Bachelor of Laws, 2007), was awarded one of the prizes for the organisation’s innovative approach to improving access to quality education in regional and remote schools in India and Cambodia. Through its 40K PLUS program, learning materials are delivered through android tablets by local facilitators who are passionate about helping children to learn.

Castrission established the 40K Foundation in 2005, after “accidently” becoming a social entrepreneur while studying law at UTS, when one of his professors suggested travelling to the developing world to put making a difference into practice.

After a trip to South India, Castrission pledged to build a school for one of the communities he visited, and returned to Sydney to found 40K. Since then, the foundation has expanded into the 40K PLUS pods which offers literacy and numeracy platforms to children in villages, and Castrission has been since honoured with Commonwealth Day Award for Citizenship (2009), the Australia-India Friendship Award (2012) and was one of three Young Australian of the Year State Finalists in 2011. He was also awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2014.

The ‘Technology Against Poverty’ prize will go towards furthering the foundation’s plans to assist thousands of children in India and Cambodia over the next two years, aiming to reach 1.1 million children in 10 years.

Clary also stopped by to share his remarkable story with 2SER’s The Chat:

Engineering solutions to improve drinking water from the ground up

Distinguished Professor Saravanamuth Vigneswaran and Dr Tien Vinh Nguyen, both from the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT were similarly recognised for their project to remove pollutants from groundwater in the Red River Delta of Vietnam.  This densely populated area is beset with serious public health issues caused by high levels of arsenic in the groundwater.

Arsenic poisoning is a slow process, with people often unaware they are being poisoned as they suffer major health problems including cancers, gastrointestinal disorders, muscular weakness, nerve tissue injuries, blackfoot disease and intellectual impairment.

Current systems are neither cost-effective nor efficient at removing arsenic. The UTS team is working with Vietnamese partners on a local solution to a local problem in an area of about 20 million people. Partners include the Vietnam National University (VNU), Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) and local manufacturers.

They are deploying inexpensive technology to provide a model for clean water, which can be adopted worldwide to improve water quality for more than 130 million people in the 70 plus countries worldwide experiencing toxicity from naturally occurring arsenic.

“There are three key components to this system: an organic membrane, a tank/drum in which the membrane is inserted, and an absorptive cartridge made from locally available industrial waste products,” Distinguished Professor Vigneswaran said.

Local manufacturers can produce, install and maintain the membranes and the cartridges, creating local jobs in an area of high population growth.

“The filtration can be powered by gravity or solar or by hand pump. Membranes will last up to three years, while the cartridges absorb the arsenic and are periodically replaced with new ones (every three to six months). The waste cartridges will be turned into safe building materials, so the system safely disposes of arsenic waste.”

The system will also remove bacteria and solids from the contaminated groundwater, delivering water that is clean and safe to drink, and is scalable: for example, a 10-cubic-metre system will provide uncontaminated water for 100 people.

“This sustainable system will both maximise locally sourced resources and minimise arsenic waste and environmental pollution, improving health and quality of life," Distinguished Professor Vigneswaran said.