Argentina | Belgium | Brazil | Costa Rica | Global | Hong Kong | India | Indonesia | Japan | Philippines | Spain | Taiwan | United Kingdom | United States-New York | United States-North Carolina |


The 2018 winners of the fourteenth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award have been announced. Awarded by IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty, this is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to its employees.

This year recipients are from 13 countries—comprised of ten teams and five individuals, including a joint effort between teams in the US and UK. For the first time in the history of the award, each winner or winning team will also receive a USD 10,000 grant from IBM to be given to their not-for-profit or school partner organization.

Since 2005, the IBM Volunteer Excellence Award has recognized a select number of IBM employees who embody IBM values through their dedication, innovation and personal commitment.

This year’s winners applied IBM strategic technologies such as Watson, analytics, and social media to serve critical community issues and the environment. They created innovative programs to help close gender and skills gaps, and provided migrant students with role models; they worked with people with disabilities, rural and under-served communities, cancer patients and organizations around the world.

Below are summaries of the award-winning individuals and teams from 2018; each will be featured in a story of service in the coming months.

Argentina—Environment (team award)

Facial recognition of whales? Fundacion Cethus tracks and protects endangered species of whales and dolphins who visit the waters off Argentina during migration and mating season. In early 2018, the organization approached IBM for help monitoring and identifying different cetacean individuals—an extremely difficult task in the open ocean. A team of IBM volunteers led by German Santini turned to Watson Visual Recognition in coordination with upgraded drone image capture to more accurately classify and catalog the mammals; an IBM Grant supported their efforts. A process that used to take up to three months is now envisioned to be instantaneous—vastly improving efforts to reduce threats to endangered species. With additional funding support in 2019, more data and images for Watson will accelerate results and improve accuracy.

Belgium—Educational equity (individual award)

The factors are complex, but the facts are unavoidable: in Belgium, children with migrant backgrounds do significantly poorer in school than those born in the country. In 2017, Rihab Hajjaji, an IBM consultant, founded an NGO to promote equity in education in Belgian schools with a focus on role modeling for school-aged children, information on educational options and exposure to innovation through master classes and tech fairs. With the help of over 50 volunteers, more than 800 students participated in activities in 2018, facilitated by numerous IBM Activity Kits and supported by an IBM Community Grant. A technology fair by the organization attracted 15 other companies, the Minister of Digitalisation and media attention. Rihab was named one of the 50 “Future Builders” of Belgium by a local newspaper and the Social Economic Council of Flanders acknowledged her organization as a best practice for involving women and minorities in higher education.

Brazil—Skills development; gender equality (team award)

Technology is arguably one of the worst sectors for gender equality, with women vastly underrepresented despite pioneering initiatives just as significant as men. In Brazil, IBM volunteers are working with the organization Reprograma to close the gap through a multi-month training course for women. Based on their experience as women in technology, they run the mentoring journey to help students prepare to work at a tech company. The mentoring sessions include discussions about blockchain, Watson, as well as visits to IBM facilities, while also focusing on issues vital to women in the technology workplace. At the conclusion of the course, 100% of participants said they wanted to work at IBM.

Costa Rica—People with disabilities (individual award)

Yohanna Alvarez created the people with disabilities (PwD) business resource group for IBM Costa Rica and led IBM’s involvement in Señatón 2018 —an initiative to support the translation of texts into the Costa Rican sign language through the development of an application or computational system; the event took place at IBM and attracted media coverage across the country. She has been an active advocate for PwD in Costa Rica raising the profile of PwD employees at IBM and throughout the country through various events including an inclusive soccer match between an IBM team and the Costa Rican national PwD team, as well as a sensitization campaign to illustrate the changes PwD face every day.

Global (US and UK)—Not-for-profit capacity building (team award)

An unprofessional or shoddy website can doom the noblest intentions of a not-for-profit—discouraging volunteers and donors. Starting in 2016, a team of IBM volunteers in the US and the UK have worked with 48in48 to help other non-profit organizations create high quality websites, which would normally be beyond their capabilities, in a short but effective burst of activity: 48 websites in 48 hours. The lead IBM volunteers have coordinated over 130 other volunteers in six cities to build websites. They have created materials and a playbook, so location leads can recruit volunteers and maintain a strong IBM presence at their events—creating a model for other companies to follow. The team has built 61 websites, the equivalent of USD 2 million in digital services, while using IBM Activity Kits to help nonprofits develop their own website maintenance and marketing skills for self-sufficiency.

Hong Kong—STEM; new collar skills (individual award)

In Hong Kong, nearly 100% of CIOs in a recent survey cited concern with IT skills for growth. Samson Tai, a distinguished engineer and chief technology officer for IBM in Hong Kong, has spent the last 10 years actively and voluntarily doing something about the problem. Among numerous efforts, Samson recently conceived and led a series of free data science workshops at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He conducted “Train the Teacher” classes, lecturing on the Watson API for university professors, and held training sessions in VTC for secondary and vocational school teachers. Samson used IBM Activity Kits with his expertise in AI, blockchain, cloud and IoT to create his own enablement materials. In 2018, he received the Bronze Award for Volunteer Service from the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department.

India—Not-for-profit capacity building (team award)

With an estimated 980 million people living in rural conditions in India, access to quality education is an ongoing challenge. A volunteer team of nine IBMers is using technology to improve how an NGO in India provides remote mentoring, virtual counseling and skills development to students in rural communities. IBM volunteers developed a mobile app, called MobiCouncel, for easier interaction between students and counselors. They created a bot integrating Watson technology to help counselors respond to questions with ease, reaching larger number of students. They also conducted eight weeks of remote coding sessions for students, while using IBM Activity Kits to lead multiple STEM workshops for students and teachers. An IBM Community Grant enabled the volunteers to create a digital study circle and conference room enabling a women’s program to conduct remote mentoring sessions and strengthen alumni connections. Over 1,000 students have benefited from these initiatives so far.

Indonesia—Environment (individual award)

Indonesia’s unique placement on Earth in the zone known as the ring of fire makes it particularly susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. Izzat Farahidi, an IBM application architect, tapped his professional network to bring together an Indonesian NGO, a government agency and IBM experts in IoT, Watson and analytics for a three-day design thinking workshop to assess how new technology can minimize the impact of seismic events. The ecosystem of partners and stakeholders Izzat is putting together is an important step in forming a long-term and strategic disaster relief collaboration for natural disaster mitigation that can be based on the use of IBM advanced technology. Based on the workshop, the Indonesian government has invited the creation of a joint team from IBM (NY, Japan and Indonesia) and the local NGO to explore a sensor analytics solution.

Japan—Healthcare; social media (team award)

Many cancer patients find comfort and unexpected benefits by sharing their stories—to help other cancer patients as well as their loved ones—while also learning from the experiences of other patients. For three years, an IBM team of marketers in planning, social media, events support and data analytics, has helped GanNote, a local NGO, collect and disseminate the deeply personal and powerful stories of cancer patients in Japan. The volunteers managed a six-month campaign last year that resulted in a 130% increase in Facebook likes, almost 362,000 YouTube viewers and 1,800 channel registrations, and coverage in national media. A crowd funding initiative achieved 187% of target and enabled the publication of 50 cancer patient stories. An IBM Community Grant supported the use of dictation and interview data to analyze patient anxieties, thinking, pains or personal situations. In the coming months, the team will collaborate with Keio University for patient data analysis using Watson. A chatbot application for breast cancer patients, originally developed by the IBM Pink Run project will be incorporated for public delivery through the LINE platform using Watson.

Philippines—Education; skills gap (team award)

IBMers leading the IBM Cebu Innovation Bootcamp are helping to bridge the technology skills gaps in seven government-run high schools. They’ve developed a curriculum and recruited other IBM volunteers to teach technological concepts and introduce students to the basics of working with IBM Cloud and IBM Watson, as well as how to create solutions using IBM Design Thinking. Depending on the school, IoT and TJ Bot are added to the program, which ends in a hackathon with students defending their case studies on the application of technology. Over 400 students have participated, covering three major cities in metro Cebu.

Spain—Education; new collar skills (team award)

A large IBM volunteer team, working with the Regional Ministry of Education in Madrid and school teachers, conceived "Watson goes to school," a pioneering project to introduce artificial intelligence to students in schools and vocational training, and specifically in the use and construction of applications with AI. Now, artificial intelligence and Watson will be part of the daily curriculum in 12 high schools in Madrid—the first time the topic is formally part of education requirements in Spain. Volunteers are helping teachers and students throughout the school year, offering them access to the Watson cloud platform to use and build real-world applications. The course received extensive media coverage in Spain as the European Commission estimates a lack of specialized IT professionals will create 825,000 job vacancies by 2020—the course is designed to prepare students for many of those jobs.

Taiwan—Mentoring (team award)

Creating a cycle of excellence is the goal of “Mentor the future mentors,” a program developed by IBM volunteers in Taiwan with The Alliance Cultural Foundation to serve rural communities. The IBM team applied their consulting skills to evaluate how youth volunteers can be cultivated and groomed for career success and also encourage new youth volunteers to sustain the volunteer pipeline. The team assessed and prioritized workplace skills, then mentored the students in the identified areas, including trends in tech, design thinking, leadership and communications. 100% of the students said the mentoring changed their perceptions about the workplace and are now more confident to face challenges.

United Kingdom—STEM (individual award)

Easy-to-use resources are valuable assets for volunteers that accelerate their time to deliver value. Dale Lane created and delivered one of the most popular volunteer activity kits and platforms in 2018—used by volunteers in over 100 countries and cited in several academic papers. Dale’s “Train Your Computer with Machine Learning” activity kit uses open source software, Watson and IBM Cloud to present 24 activities to help teach kids coding and artificial intelligence. He has personally led students in the activities many times, though the kit is entirely self-service—teachers and volunteers can set up and manage their own access and usage for the activities, which have been translated into nine languages.

United States (New York)—Not-for-profit service delivery (team award)

Analytics are changing how businesses create new products and that same technology is now helping not-for-profits improve the reach and quality of their services. IBM volunteers are working with the United Way of Westchester and Putnam (UWWP) on an innovative solution using machine learning techniques to identify key social service gaps—using factors that hadn’t been considered before—to evaluate enhanced service delivery to specific populations. Based on the model, UWWP could achieve 35% greater impact and help 9,000 more families with limited access to basic social services. The approach was presented at the United Way worldwide conference as a replicable model, applicable in 16 states. “They created a breakthrough in our way of seeing and thinking,” said a UWWP officer.

United States (North Carolina)—Mentoring (team award)

For 15 years, IBM volunteers have led a mentoring program offering personalized guidance to students for career advice at North Carolina State University. Co-located with IBM RTP, a longstanding relationship has formed providing joint research, adjunct professors, a senior engineering project class, a design class, and most recently one of IBM’s new Q-labs. The program has created over 200 mentor-student pairs in 2018 and spawned similar approaches at six other local colleges.

Join the conversation. Tag your tweets with #IBMVolunteers, #goodtechIBM, #IBMVolunteerExcellenceAwards and follow us @IBMVolunteers.