Digital Transformation of Development Traineeship Brings AI and Data Analytics to Under-Resourced Settings

Under a new NSF-funded research program housed at the Blum Center, the Digital Transformation of Development (DToD) Traineeship, students are using their research skills to apply digital tools, such as machine learning and AI, to the issues and challenges of poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and more — in pursuit of digital and technological justice, equity, and empowerment.

Berkeley and UCSF Professor Irene Chen speaks to students in class white pointing at presentation during DevEng 203 and DevEng 210.
Berkeley and UCSF Prof. Irene Chen speaks to students in DevEng 203 and DevEng 210. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)


By Alisha Dalvi and Sam Goldman

Navigating around town, tailoring our workouts to our level of physical fitness, knowing when our packages will arrive: The boom in data collection and analysis has been a boon to our daily lives — and a new paradigm for businesses, organizations, and governments to optimize efficiency and improve services. It feels ubiquitous. Who hasn’t taken advantage of the digital revolution?

It turns out, many communities haven’t been able to. From marginalized neighborhoods nearby to many areas around the globe, the tools that increasingly govern and improve our lives are not available or not tailored to serving everyone, be it personal wellbeing, environmental health, or economic security. 

But under a new NSF-funded research program housed at the Blum Center, the Digital Transformation of Development (DToD) Traineeship, students are using their research skills to apply digital tools, such as machine learning and AI, to the issues and challenges of poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and more — in pursuit of digital and technological justice, equity, and empowerment.

“There’s a lot of recognition of the potential of rapidly emerging technologies like AI, new analytics, scalable cloud computing, and novel data sources,” says Matt Podolsky, DToD program coordinator. “But these advancements have not been particularly targeted to under-resourced communities and issues that pertain to them. We aim to address that shortfall.” 

After an initial planning year, the five-year program kicked off Fall 2022 with its first cohort of nine master’s and 16 PhD students. Though their formal traineeships center around three DToD-themed courses that are taken over two or more semesters, the program aims to keep them involved for the entire duration of their graduate studies. A handful of fellows receive one-year awards covering tuition and fees, plus a stipend; the fellowship also offers the unique opportunity to apply for travel grants for self-arranged internships, where they conduct fieldwork and applied research with and within low-resourced communities. For PhD students, the program additionally allows them to work toward the designated emphasis in Development Engineering, an official minor for PhDs. The interdisciplinary skills developed in DToD include everything from technical writing skills to ethical data collection, all with the goal of producing fair and inclusive analysis to benefit underserved communities.

One of the key courses students take in the Development Engineering ecosystem, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” provides a hands-on opportunity to develop a tangible solution — say, a simple-to-use, easy-to-carry solar-powered water pump — to real-world problems — say, climate-impacted farmlands. The focus is always on incorporating the context and needs of people and their communities.

“It encourages students to develop a solution that involves the end users in the design process and could be scaled beyond just a small research prototype,” says Podolsky. 

Another class, “DToD Research & Practice,” is a seminar featuring guest speakers including thought leaders and researchers from UC Berkeley’s faculty and experts in industry applying AI and data technologies for social impact, who work on everything from how to incorporate AI in development to finding early signs of eye disease using machine learning. This class also allows students to present their own work to peers, providing feedback to each other while learning about interesting research across campus. That model fosters collaboration, support, and skills in communicating research to those outside one’s discipline.

Rajiv Shah, former administrator of USAID and former Blum Center trustee, approached Prof. Shankar Sastry during multiple board-of-trustee meetings about building on the Center’s mission. 

“The brand of the Blum Center is really technology and mechanisms, incentive designs, and so on to lift people out of poverty,” says Sastry, the Center’s former faculty director, the College of Engineering’s former dean, and DToD’s principal investigator. “And Raj said, ‘Why don’t you take it to the extreme? And why don’t you see how you can combine these latest greatest technologies?’”

Thanks to Development Engineering pioneer Prof. Alice Agogino, the Blum Center already had a track record of success with National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) programs. Meanwhile, Dr. Yael Perez, director of the Center’s Development Engineering programs and the coordinator for the InFEWS NRT, felt it would be a boon for students with digitally minded social-impact projects to receive the same kind of holistic support that InFEWS students had for their own social impact work. She hoped to see more social impact–minded students come out of programs like those of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. And Shah’s idea came back to Sastry.

“It became rapidly clear that technologies in AI and machine learning, as well as Internet of Things and cloud computing, all of that was booming,” he says. But what he found missing was “how you would bundle them into services that could then be offered for people to better themselves, and at scale.”

Around 2019 and 2020, “by the time we were putting this [program] together, most corporate boardrooms were talking about digital transformation. And they didn’t exactly know what they were talking about,” Sastry adds. “But we taught that by digital transformation, we really meant: How do you take these advances in AI, machine learning, IoT, cloud and edge computing to provide services — be they in healthcare, in energy, in distributed energy management — to be able to really enable economic development.”

“We could give our students an appreciation not only for these algorithms,” he says, “but also what happens when you use them.”

The first cohort’s fellows come from disciplines and departments across campus, from various branches of engineering to city and regional planning to the School of Information. Over 60 percent of the first cohort are women and nearly half are underrepresented minorities. 

Ritwik Gupta works with collaborators at the United States Geological Survey to measure soil water retention after the 2021 Dixie Fire.
Ritwik Gupta works with collaborators at the United States Geological Survey to measure soil water retention after the 2021 Dixie Fire. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)

Among this first class is Ritwik Gupta, a PhD student at Berkeley’s AI Research Lab, who focuses on computer vision for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, along with public policy for the effective and safe usage of such technology. Working with a diverse set of partners such as CAL FIRE, the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit, and the United Nations, his research on tasks such as assessing damage to buildings from space and detecting illegal fishing vessels in all weather conditions has been deployed worldwide.

The work of classmate Evan Patrick leverages geospatial science and ethnography to evaluate forest restoration efforts in Guatemala and explore the ongoing impacts of the El Niño Southern Oscillation on landscapes and livelihoods in the country. The Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) PhD student worked with two MDevEng capstone groups in the Potts Lab to model the carbon benefits of plantation expansion in Guatemala and to use social media audience estimates to investigate ENSO-driven internal migration in Central America.

Sarah Hartman, in her fifth year of an ESPM PhD program, first got involved with the Blum Center through its first NRT on innovations in food, energy, and water systems. She wanted to continue what had been an “absolutely wonderful experience,” and DToD just happened to be relevant to her work using technology, engineering, and science to improve water and agricultural conditions in low-resource settings.

“The way the program’s designed is really nice,” she says, “because it gives you exposure to people who might be outside of your discipline but are using methods that might be of use to your particular application.” For instance, in one DToD class, a visiting professor discussed how she translated the skills and technology involved in using AI to build others’ personal wealth into using AI to detect early health concerns in low-resource settings. 

The programs’ benefits, however, extend beyond official class content.

“I really appreciate the balance they strike between professional opportunities and community-building opportunities,” Hartman says. “And sometimes it’s the small things.”

During a class presentation, Ritwik Gupta points to dark vessel detections generated from his xView3 AI model within the Department of Navy's SeaVision platform.
Ritwik Gupta points to dark vessel detections generated from his xView3 AI model within the Department of Navy’s SeaVision platform. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)

Like coffee and cookie breaks. Students like Hartman find inspiration and collaboration during opportunities to socialize during class. “There’s a lot of value in the informal conversations that we have around the structured lecture content,” she says.

Take, for instance, Gupta’s work using machine learning and satellite imagery to understand the toll Russia’s war in Ukraine is having in cities. His methods, Hartman found, could add a new layer to her work understanding how the war is impacting Ukrainian agricultural resilience, such as better, faster insight into the status of key agricultural infrastructure like grain silos and ports. This cross pollination improves her ability to conduct real-time analysis in a continuously evolving situation.

Going forward, Podolsky plans to implement more workshops on topics from data visualization to effective communication skills, such as op-ed writing. “We really just want to add to the research training aspect beyond just coursework,” he says. 

But in the big picture, Sastry says, the DToD program is about more than just the implementation of digital development solutions in accordance with the needs of people in under-resourced settings. It’s also about what comes before that process even starts.

“I think it’s great to do interventions, it’s great to think about clean water, it’s great to think about energy,” he says. “But what’s really emerging from this series is students getting a sense of empowerment to go and change the world. And that quite often transcends specific solutions. I think we’re giving them that, and we’re giving them some optimism.”

“Because at the end of the day, the technology is great, but it’s the starting point,” he adds. “It’s not the endpoint; the services are the middle point; and then the empowerment for people is really the endpoint. So it starts with empowering our students to empower the people to help themselves.”

DevEng Team Creates Toolkit for Decision-Makers Aiding ‘Doubly Vulnerable’ Populations

“FireTools,” developed in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities.

Students and instructors of Fall 2023's DevEng C200 class all posing for a class photo
Fall 2023’s DevEng C200 class (Amy Pickering photo)

In California, it’s hard to overstate the impact of climate change–fueled wildfires: Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a 320-percent increase in burned areas, 268 lives lost, and in just the past five years, an estimated $60 billion in lost revenue.

At the national level, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is also concerned about wildfires as it focuses on post-disaster recovery, and there exist a variety of wildfire-resilience toolkits meant to guide decision-makers’ efforts to help people prepare for and recover from wildfires. But according to Erica Anjum, there is not enough attention on low-resource areas. These communities are doubly vulnerable: not just at greater physical risk from wildfire but also facing “intersectional social vulnerabilities,” says Anjum, a city and regional planning graduate student. Indicators of these can include, but aren’t limited to, income, housing status, age, and disabilities. “Different vulnerabilities render people vulnerable in different ways — all of which are relevant in planning resilient communities,” she says. 

Enter “FireTools,” an online toolkit prototyped by Anjum and her graduate-student teammates in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies.” Their toolkit brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities. 

FireTools is a hub for resources such as community- and fire-mapping tools, funding sources, landscaping best practices, evacuation preparedness and resilience centers, and data-privacy considerations — all things decision makers rely on when assisting and preparing communities before, during, and after catastrophes.

“Apart from the very crucial impact on loss of lives and property, the intervention will lead to more collaboration between stakeholders in the fire preparedness, resilience, and recovery spaces,” said Master of Development Engineering student Titli Thind. “The process of building the toolkit has spurred conversation between previously disconnected key decision makers, and we hope that this continues.”

DevEng C200, a core MDevEng course open to grad students from a variety of backgrounds, provides an opportunity for students to partner with professionals to tackle problems that require the skills of Development Engineers. That process requires understanding the focus area’s stakeholders, end users, and their contexts; testing hypotheses for effective technological intervention; iterating these solutions’ designs; evaluating their efficacy; and proposing a way for scaling up their use. 

Professors Amy Pickering and Mathieu Aguesse lead the class. Class projects have included an app for farmers to engage with one another, build community, and monitor the health of their wetlands; a comprehensive handbook for more efficient greenhouses for farmers in the climate change–impacted eastern Himalayas; expanding and diversifying the products and market for plastic-recycling social enterprise Takataka Plastics; a mobile platform, focused on data-governance management, that allows for the collection, sharing, and analysis of data from low-resource settings; analyzing and modeling the widespread deployment of a water-chlorination device; a simple-to-use, easy-to-carry solar-powered water pump; an affordable, foaming soap dispenser; improving the outcomes of unhoused people with a better online platform that’s used by both unhoused folks and San Francisco caseworkers; and the improved integration of frontline public health workers in a platform that provides primary-care services in Guinea. 

Along with Thind and Anjum, FireTools was developed by Xuan Huang (MDevEng), Kanyawee Srikulwong (development practice), and Ashley Woodward (civil and environmental engineering).

The team started with research data on wildfire resilience, practices from other fire-prone regions like Australia, and 14 case studies of communities and their decision makers who have faced fires before. They spoke with first responders and planners from previously hard-hit California communities. Their due diligence brought to light specific problems that the team sought to address, such as multiple authorities or organizations collecting the same data in the same communities post-fire (which risks retraumatizing vulnerable fire survivors) as well as some neighborhoods’ lack of accessible evacuation routes. 

“This project is a great example of how valuable it was to interact with the wildfire toolkit’s end users to create a product that addresses their needs,” Pickering said.

The tools in the kit — such as a post-fire data-collection process and landscaping best practices — evolved and grew with further stakeholder interviews and feedback, culminating in the website, a toolkit distribution plan, and a business model. The plan is to provide the toolkit to primarily local decision-makers and planners for free, with the team proposing funding for growing, improving, and testing it from primarily federal agencies with a stake in disaster-resilient communities.

The team built its toolkit as a “living document,” where the at-risk communities themselves can share their own insights and experiences to further refine authorities’ ability to help them. Those same authorities can use the toolkit to further inform their disaster planning and coordinate with other agencies with whom they’ve historically had limited collaboration. 

This whole process of producing a technological intervention in accordance with end users’ needs, however, is not over once the toolkit is put to use; it won’t be much good if it’s not sufficiently achieving its goals. 

So, the team plans to measure their solution’s efficacy by, among other standards, the number of planners who take up the toolkit, collecting feedback from decision-makers in places hit by wildfires, examining whether its use has streamlined data collection, and whether doubly vulnerable populations’ trauma associated with collecting sensitive data after a catastrophe — worsened by duplicative surveying — has been reduced. 

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Merced will continue working on the toolkit, Anjum says. But regardless of how the toolkit may have to be adapted, its goals continue to be reduced loss of life and property, improved data collection and interagency dialogue, and all-around better wildfire preparedness and resilience. 

“We want to share our experiences and expertise,” one local planner and survivor of the record-breakingly deadly and destructive 2018 Camp Fire had told the team, “so others don’t lose as much as we did.”

Patricia Quaye: Empowering Rural Women and African Culture Through Fashion

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society.

Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

By Alisha Dalvi
Political Science, Global Poverty & Practice ’24

In the summer of 2021, Patricia Quaye took a 15-hour journey from her home in Awutu Breku, a small town in Ghana, to Berkeley to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the Master of Development of Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. While she was 7,000 miles away, her heart remained close to home, and in the summer of 2022, Quaye went back to Ghana to build on her organization dedicated to giving back a better livelihood to her community. 

Quaye had founded SHE 4 Change in January of that year as both a business and a foundation to provide women in her community with more opportunity; SHE stands for Support Her Empowerment. “That is exactly what the project is doing,” says Quaye. 

Patricia Quaye in a colorful top from SHE 4 Change featuring traditional African prints and matching handbag
Patricia Quaye wears SHE 4 Change, featuring traditional African prints. (Courtesy photo)

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society. These women are often paid much less than what the cost of materials and their labor are worth. SHE aims to break this cycle of poverty by paying women fairly and expanding their market. Quaye took advantage of her time as a student in Berkeley to study the global market and adjust her designs to a broader range of individual tastes while sending the profits back to women in her community. The high quality of SHE apparel extends its customer base beyond those who can only afford the simplest clothing. 

Quaye recalls, from her conversations with the seamstresses, instances prior to founding SHE 4 Change where customers didn’t return to pick up their clothes after dropping them off for sewing, as they, too, were poor and may have later decided they could not afford the sewing costs after all. Some even refused to pay the previously agreed-upon cost. This leaves many women stranded. 

“Imagine going through four-plus years of training to acquire a skill, but because you are located in the ‘wrong’ place and people don’t know about your skill, you don’t grow professionally, and you can barely put food on the table,” Quaye says. 

Quaye’s cousin, a seamstress for over 15 years, inspired SHE 4 Change. When COVID-19 hit, Quaye saw her struggle — her cousin lost her few and only patrons to the pandemic, leaving her unable to afford even a basic meal. Quaye wanted to help and began looking for organizations that could assist skilled women like her cousin find patrons or obtain resources. But she couldn’t find any support, with many organizations unresponsive or simply declining to help. Quaye wanted to take matters into her own hands. 

A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)
A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)

Quaye’s project-based classwork in the MDevEng program required her to connect more deeply to the community she’s serving. After conducting research and interviewing women, she realized this was a challenge across many regions and communities in Ghana, not just for her cousin. Rural women often lack the tools to sew high-quality garments, therefore most individuals living in big cities and urban areas, who can afford higher quality wares, don’t “believe” in rural women’s capacity to produce the quality they require, she says. This limits seamstresses to rural markets with lower rates for their work hours. 

Quaye cites her own experience for her dedication to creating opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. “I grew up in a poor background,” she says. “I know what it means to not have opportunity. I know what it means to not have food on the table or know when the next meal you’re going to eat will be.” 

The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)
The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)

So over the summer of 2022, along with a summer job and internship, Quaye went back home to her small town of Awutu Breku to be hands-on with her fashion enterprise. This entailed working with her mother to create designs, searching for and purchasing fabric in Accra, Ghana’s capital, from female vendors, and bringing fabric and supplies back to the seamstresses who then sewed the designs using their own machines. While SHE seamstresses can repair existing clothing, they focus on making new ones from scratch, supporting women fabric vendors as well. These fabrics are traditional African prints and patterns which hold historical and cultural significance. The SHE logo itself showcases the traditional Ghanaian symbol of the sankofa in the “E,” a bird that signifies retrieving good from the past. 

The most valuable part of her time at home, however, was the face-to-face interaction she had with her team — getting to know the women in person rather than over the phone. She had met these seamstresses through her mother, a community organizer who encourages girls to get involved in political decisions that affect them. Her mother provided Quaye with connections and further instilled the importance of empowering the women around her. Quaye shared the excitement of the project with them, learned the impact it could have on them and their families, and came to better understand her seamstresses’ work environment. 

A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)
A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)

Nowadays, SHE’s piloting stage features six women, but Quaye plans to hire over a dozen more before an official launch. She officially registered SHE 4 Change as a company and a foundation, obtained a company bank account, and created social media accounts for the brand. 

More challenging are the finances. Quaye had used her Berkeley scholarship stipend to cover fabric, packaging, and other production costs. But she also went looking for funding from both NGO- and government-sponsored, women-oriented organizations to provide her seamstresses with reliable machinery to guarantee a better and safer working environment. As more profit comes in from an international customer base, equipment can be purchased to lower the seamstresses’ time and effort, thereby lowering the cost of labor. This then allows for their service to be affordable for their own community as well, creating a chain reaction of relieving financial insecurity. And as the foundation grows, Quaye hopes to train more women. “It’s important that this project allows women to empower themselves, so they can empower other women as well,” she says. 

Since graduating from the MDevEng program, Quaye has continued gaining experience as the sustainability coordinator at a retail company in the Bay Area, where she’s deepened her understanding of the clothing industry. In

Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

July 2023, Quaye was awarded with the Mastercard Foundation Alumni Scholars Impact Fund, powered by the Big Ideas Contest. With this funding, she is building a SHE 4 Change Sewing Center in Awutu Breku, and in March will head back and officially launch the SHE 4 Change line of products. She hopes to get more funding through other channels to support the project. All the while, she continues monitoring the impact of education on women in Ghana and is committed to follow up with research that can expand the impact of SHE 4 Change and similar endeavors to more countries through the SHE 4 Change Foundation.

“I don’t want people to buy just to help the women, but because the women can produce quality products, and they feel the value when wearing the clothes,” she says. 

Indeed, Berkeley peers and teachers who have tried SHE 4 Change’s wares have loved them and become patrons. “The support from the DevEng department, my classmates and professors, always pushes me to know I am making an impact. It is like a family that is on the same mission with me,” she says. 

The MDevEng program itself has played a massive role in how she approaches her foundation, ensuring that she stays tuned to the needs and aspirations of the women on her team.

Going forward, Quaye hopes to see SHE 4 Change take off into a global brand known for empowering women while providing unique clothing. She also hopes to continue to break Eurocentric barriers by using fashion to showcase traditional African prints. Instead of having the world dig out culture and resources in Africa, she says, “we can bring the culture to the world by keeping heritage and local women alive through our garments.” 

Master of Development Engineering Graduates Second-Ever Cohort

Photo by Amy Sullivan

Yordanos Degu Zewdu clearly remembers the moment she decided to become a changemaker helping those most in need: as a young kid in Addis Ababa, on the way home from shopping with her mother, right before the start of the school year.

Degu Zewdu and her mother came across a father and his two children. He appeared ill and was begging desperately for food for his hungry kids. The suffering and desperation moved the young Degu Zewdu deeply.

“But as a kid, I had no means to help. So I stood there, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness,” she recalled. “My mother, the kindest person I’ve ever known, generously gave the father money to buy food for his kids, brightening their faces with joy.”

Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

In that moment, she realized that “when I grew up, I wanted to be in a position to help communities and families in need.”

Degu Zewdu, who continues fulfilling that promise as a Development Engineer, recounted the story to her peers and their families last Friday evening at the commencement ceremony of the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering program’s Class of 2023 — the second-ever cohort of what is likely the world’s first such degree program. The group of 30, hailing from 13 countries, crossed the stage at Banatao Auditorium following three semesters, an internship, and a capstone project.

“We are here to celebrate the hard work you have put into this program and to honor your commitment, your courage, your tenacity, and your compassion,” said Prof. Kara Nelson, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. “And we thank you for the work that you are doing to make this world a more just place, a more equitable place, and more peaceful. You are an inspiration to all of us.”

The Class of 2023 worked on projects ranging from tracking and optimizing plastic waste collection for recycling in Uganda, to household sanitation and hygiene in Ethiopia, to policy needs as California transitions to greater renewable energy.

Despite impressive accomplishments in the classroom and out in the world, the variety and magnitude of the world’s problems can make DevEng work feel “like planting a singular seed in a vast desert and hoping for a forest to grow tomorrow,” said the evening’s other student speaker, Anjali Ravunniarath.

Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“I stand here, with the same big problems and no easy solutions. However, I have found solace in this community in the last year and a half,” she said. “Together, we’ve dissected a lot of systems, understood parts of it, and occasionally tried to see if we could fix a few. The problems may not have disappeared, but our collective efforts make it seem less daunting, and that’s truly what I’m grateful for.”

This constant change-making journey won’t always be smooth sailing, counseled the evening’s commencement speaker, Ranjiv Khush, a water scientist, member of Marin County’s water board, and co-founder of Aquaya, a nonprofit producing data and tools to support universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Even the most accomplished development engineers, like Prof. Amy Pickering, don’t get it right every time, he said.

“Here’s the thing: Amy and all of our other heroes, they make embarrassing professional mistakes. They mess things up. They feel ashamed,” he said. “Just like us.

Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“The difference,” Khush added, “is that they’re really good at rolling with it. They shake it off. They refuse to let their mistakes define them. Be the same: Shake it off. Please, do not let your mistakes and your embarrassments dissuade you from anything or get in the way of your success.”

Prof. Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony with a challenge to the newly minted master’s-degree holders: “I want to challenge you each day after this program, as you move on with your careers, as you find your passions, as you live your passions, to be the best person that you imagined you could be while you were in this program.”

It was a sentiment with echoes of advice Degu Zewdu had offered earlier in the evening.

“As we set forth on our individual journeys,” she said, “I urge each of you to embrace life’s unpredictability, step out of your comfort zones, show resilience, remain open to the countless opportunities that await. It is in these moments of growth and uncertainty that we will unveil the authenticity of ourselves.”

DevEng Photo Contest Winners Highlight Both the Promise and Fragility of Technological Interventions

Development Engineering is a field of research and practice that combines the principles of engineering with economics, human-centered design, entrepreneurship, natural resources, and social science to create technological interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. It’s a technical field, one often rendered in blueprints, lines of code, and physical devices.

But depicting DevEng to lay audiences is vital not just to raising the field’s academic profile but to growing the capacity of a discipline that tangibly improves lives as well as to highlight the richness and complexity of the communities DevEng aims to serve.

Each summer, students in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program and the PhD designated emphasis in DevEng implement DevEng interventions close to home and far away, documenting their work and their environment as they go. This year’s DevEng Photography Contest highlights the best of this summer’s photos and videos, from the sometimes-precarious state of electrical power in rural places to novel technologies for delivering medicines and medical supplies. (Coincidentally, the three winners were captured in the same country.) Jacob Seigel Brielle and Isaac Seigel-Boettner, the talented Cal-alum duo behind Pedal Born Pictures, joined DevEng staff in judging this year’s submissions.


1st place

“The fragility of rural power”

Samuel Miles, PhD student, Energy & Resource Group; DevEng designated emphasis

“This is a picture of a young boy carrying out his chores in rural Rwanda,” says Miles. “The background shows rural infrastructure — in this case, a sagging power line held up by a local tree. It encapsulates the opportunities and challenges of modernity — the possibility that the boy grows up benefiting from electricity, but also the dangers poor planning represents to safety.”

Judges commended the great intersecting lines in the composition and how the photo’s symbolism deepens the more one dives into the image.


2nd place

“Zipline Drone Landing”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student


Dersch’s video depicts a medical delivery drone landing. The company behind it, Zipline, is a Silicon Valley start-up operating in various African countries, including Rwanda. “They make deliveries constantly to all the hospitals in Rwanda that contain blood, medicines, and supplies,” says Dersch. The company provides “quality employment” for their staff in Muhanga, Rwanda, she adds, and is being considered for her research team’s sites for solar power and water filtration units, since they require a landing pad for deliveries. “The drones are a really cool adaptation for developing countries when the road infrastructure makes time sensitive deliveries like blood difficult to accommodate,” Dersch says.

Judges appreciated the depiction of a fascinating new technology being used for good — and the importance in DevEng of testing tech first.


3rd place

“Rural health clinic energy transitions in Rwanda”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student

“I like this photo because it showcases the complexity of working in rural locations where cows are grazing on hospital grounds next to new technology implementations,” Dersch says. “This photo was taken in a very remote location in the ‘Thousand Hills’ of Rwanda, a gorgeous place. We were at the location conducting qualitative interviews on the energy transition at the health clinic and picking up power monitoring sensors.”

Judges recognized this photo for the deeper story and symbolism behind it. Plus, “these sorts of juxtapositions help explain more of the why behind DevEng,” Seigel Brielle says.

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship