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Friday, July 19, 2019

Engineer and inventor of the year, Barbarita Lara: "We want to create the world's first interconnected emergency network”

The Asia-Pacific region is one of the most natural disaster-prone areas in the world, because 70% of disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones and volcanic eruptions, occur in this vast territory.

The world’s largest earthquakes have occurred in APEC member economies, such as Chile, Indonesia, the United States, Japan, Peru, China, Mexico and the Philippines. That is why the Forum, through the Emergency Preparedness Working Group (EPWG), will address this issue during the SOM3 meetings to be held in August in Puerto Varas.

This concern, however, is not only shared by APEC or public or private organizations, but also by citizens, such as computer engineer Barbarita Lara (33). Through her emergency information system application SiE, she has been able to help the population affected by natural disasters to communicate even when mobile phones have no Internet connection, reception or even a SIM card.

In this interview Barbarita Lara tells us about her passion for engineering, the creation of SiE and about her next steps in the field of technology where, as she explains, it is uncommon for a woman to speak as an expert or an inventor. 

(Q) Where did the idea for the Emergency Information System come from?

On February 27, 2010 there was an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 in Chile. Before it happened, I had a gut feeling that there was going to be an earthquake, but my husband didn't believe me. So, I went to spend the night at my parents' house with my four-year-old son. That night we went to bed very late, at 3:30 in the morning. Four minutes later the earthquake began. My first impulse was to pick up the phone and tell my husband "I told you so", but it was impossible because after such disasters cellular antennas usually collapse and there is no internet or working mobile networks. 

This catastrophic event made Barbarita realize that even in 2010, there were no technologies or methods available to inform the general population after a natural disaster.

Five years after the earthquake happened, the university began to create the SiE (Emergency Information System) application, which allows people who have been affected by a disaster to communicate even when their mobile phones lack an Internet connection, reception or even a SIM card.

“In technical terms, what we do is reuse the radio infrastructure to send encrypted messages and decode them on our cell phones, so that we can receive post-disaster information in a timely manner,” says Barbarita. 

 (Q) Can you tell us about the development of this project?

At first many people didn't believe in us and support was hard to come by. We were sponsored by Corfo (Chile’s Economic Development Agency) and then the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) through my thesis, but there was always a looming doubt as to whether this would work out in the end. We continued with our work and eventually got support from the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK (RAEng) to become world-class entrepreneurs and innovators. Later, we received private investment to patent the app, and SiE became the invention of the year.  

(Q) So, what's the next big step?

We were chosen by Bill Gates as one of the ten low-tech inventions that are changing the world. We are considered one of the five most socially impactful digital solutions on the planet. For me, the next big step is to prove to other people that they can achieve this, too. If I can plant that tiny seed in people's head to help them create more technology, that’s what the big step will look like: transforming Chile into a technological development hub and showing that we can effectively help the world's population from our remote place at the end of the world.

(Q) You are the first Chilean to be listed on the MIT’s worldwide list of innovators under 35. How has this affected the project and your life?

My life has been turned around completely. I have spent a year traveling around the world showcasing this technology. I feel very proud to represent Chile in the field of global innovation and to prove that, even in this far corner of the world, we can create meaningful technology with a strong social purpose that can help so many. It also inspires me deeply to have the ability to inspire others, letting students know that dreams do come true, that even though there may be little support at first, even if life isn't perfect, the possibilities are there. Nothing is impossible; it is up to us to make impossible things happen.


Thanks to her remarkable project, Barbarita won the "best Chilean Innovator" category in the Natida Chilean of the Year awards. She was also included in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) worldwide list of innovators under 35 who are creating the devices of tomorrow.

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