After years helping communities ravaged by natural disasters, Emilio Velis named ED of Appropedia

The scenes that unfolded before my eyes were nothing short of shocking. The communities had been reduced to rubble. Houses once filled with life now lay upturned, their former inhabitants grappling to salvage whatever they could. The grief of losing loved ones during the disaster compounded their agony. Experiencing these realities firsthand, I burst out of my safe bubble in life and confronted the harsh truths of my country.

  • 12 months ago
  • July 1, 2023
8 min read
Emilio Velis promoting open hardware at Miami Maker Faire 2017 Emilio Velis promoting open hardware at Miami Maker Faire 2017
Interview Subject
Emilio Velis is an industrial engineer deeply passionate about the fusion of innovation, design, and technology for the betterment of society. Currently serving as the Executive Director of the Appropedia Foundation, he tirelessly works to promote knowledge accessibility in the realms of sustainability and poverty reduction. Drawing from his extensive experience in community development, open hardware, and open licensing, Emilio advocates for the responsible utilization of emerging technologies to tackle global challenges, ranging from community violence to climate change. As a recent participant in the Green Web Foundation Fellowship program, he delved into the realm of motivating digital technology users toward climate justice. Additionally, Emilio has joined the Post Growth Institute as a fellow, engaging in thought-provoking discussions on convivial societies. Being a member of Open Climate, he is actively involved in designing and facilitating the upcoming Open Climate Fellowship in 2023, fostering collaboration and action on climate-related issues.
Bacgkround Information
Appropedia is a dynamic platform dedicated to fostering collaborative solutions in sustainability, poverty reduction, and international development. It serves as a wiki, allowing individuals from all backgrounds to contribute and edit content. It functions as a green living wiki, encompassing diverse aspects of international development and aid. Through open participation, stakeholders can discover, create, and enhance scalable and adaptable solutions. The platform encourages the exchange of information, collaboration, and discussions on various topics, ranging from reducing ecological footprints and harmonious coexistence with nature in developed countries to exploring low-cost technologies for use in the developing world.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — In the aftermath of the tropical storm Ida, I joined a group of TECHO volunteers as we ventured into shattered shoreline communities. The devastation was overwhelming – homes reduced to rubble, families desperately salvaging what remained, and the weight of lost loved ones palpable in the air. 

Shocked by this experience, I embarked on a mission with two friends to design a revolutionary device that operated seamlessly on a mesh network. It provided vital connections in even the most remote areas. This endeavor sparked years of fulfilling work in community development, where I witnessed firsthand the transformative power of technology in improving lives and fostering connectivity.

Read more environmental stories from around the globe at Orato World Media.

Now, I find myself in a position I never imagined, serving as the Executive Director of Appropedia. This role allows me to continue my passion for technology and innovation, channeling my experiences and expertise.

A change of heart kindles industrial engineer to become empowered volunteer

While studying industrial engineering, I sensed a disconnect between my studies and my true aspirations. I underwent a distressing phase dominated by anxiety for months. Realizing that quitting wasn’t an option, I resolved to complete my degree while finding a way to pursue the path I wanted to take.

During my final year in school, as I embarked on my thesis project, I reached out to Un Techo Para Mi Pais to gather necessary research and information. Unexpectedly, the Executive Director presented me with a simple condition: “You must become a volunteer.” This seemingly small requirement proved to be a transformative moment that altered the course of my life.

On my first day as a volunteer, the sun felt scorching hot. I had to wield a hammer and I learned to install roofs. The demanding physical labor took some getting used to, leaving me exhausted and drenched in sweat by day’s end. Yet, the experience proved deeply fulfilling.

Confronting natural disasters and building hope

During that time, the devastating impact of natural disasters astounded me. One day, we toiled tirelessly to build new homes, only to witness our progress thwarted by the next heavy storms.

The knowledge that families suffered awaiting the completion of their homes weighed heavily on my heart. It ignited a sense of duty to return and give my best as a volunteer. I came to truly comprehend the vulnerability of both homes and families in the face of nature.

The same year I embarked on my journey as a volunteer, the tropical storm Ida ravaged our coast. The relentless downpours and monsoon-like conditions left me trapped, unable to venture outside. It felt utterly surreal. Within four hours, the equivalent of two months’ worth of rain poured down, keeping me in a constant state of worry.

Witnessing the havoc wreaked by the storm, many TECHO volunteers formed groups and ventured into shoreline communities to offer aid. The scenes that unfolded before my eyes were nothing short of shocking. The communities had been reduced to rubble. Houses once filled with life now lay upturned, their former inhabitants grappling to salvage whatever they could. The grief of losing loved ones during the disaster compounded their agony. Experiencing these realities firsthand, I burst out of my safe bubble in life and confronted the harsh truths of my country.

Moved by my harrowing encounter with natural disasters, I gave up any attempt to seek an engineering job and instead joined Habitat for Humanity, working closely with fellow volunteers. This path led me to serve the nonprofit organization for eight years, dedicating my life to making a difference for those in need of a home.

“I ventured into the realm of innovation”, collaborating with like-minded individuals proves powerful

As the Open Hardware Movement gained significant traction, I heard about a competition to create an emergency device capable of aiding people within the critical first 72 hours of a disaster. Intrigued by the concept, I approached two friends and suggested our participation.

To my delight, both friends readily accepted, and our collective endeavor commenced. One friend had expertise in electronics, while the other specialized in social architecture. As for myself, I took charge of the design aspect. We pooled our skills to create a simple device that facilitated communication among villagers during emergencies. 

Our device operated seamlessly on a mesh network, eliminating reliance on phone signals and enabling even the most remote areas to establish critical connections. This groundbreaking innovation possessed the power to save lives by facilitating swift reactions and emergency alerts. What made it truly remarkable was our thoughtful inclusion of color options – red, green, yellow, and white – to cater to individuals who faced difficulty reading. These vibrant hues served as visual indicators, effectively communicating the urgency or safety of their circumstances. 

While we did not win competition, we did secure a grant from FRIDA in Uruguay. This invaluable support enabled us to implement and expand our invention within the Getsemani community, working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. 

While constrained as a pilot project due to limited funding, an undeniable impact emerged

Next, my team and I conducted workshops with villagers, seeking their insight and initial reactions during disasters. We wanted to know how they communicated with others. 

Through a series of thought-provoking photographs depicting flooded communities and individuals navigating high-water levels, we encouraged participants to identify levels of urgency using color markers. Astonishingly, most marked everything as “RED!” This led us to recognize that while not every situation can be deemed an emergency, every circumstance proved important to the people, and required immediate attention. 

Consequently, we designed diverse approaches to conduct community assessments. Witnessing the profound engagement and newfound optimism in the people’s eyes as they discovered alternate solutions for future disasters felt immensely rewarding.

While the pilot project ended, we synthesized our knowledge from the community work and the devices. We crafted card games for workshops aimed at educating and fostering a more effective response system within communities. We did some work with Public Lab, which yielded remarkable outcomes. 

Eventually, we shared a heartfelt lunch with members of the communities we assisted. They expressed genuine gratitude for the tangible difference our efforts made in their lives. Overwhelmed with joy, tears welled up in my eyes, and my heart swelled with pride. This journey encompassed so many things I felt deeply passionate about—innovation, volunteer work, technology, and community development.

Finding common passions: a chance encounter

In a stroke of pure coincidence, in 2019, I met Andrew Lamb who shared my same passion. Little did I know, he served as a member of Appropedia’s Board of Directors. [Appropedia is a wiki-based website that contains content relating to poverty, sustainability, and international development.]

We engaged in a phone call to explore collaboration on a project, and I became increasingly captivated by our common interests in technology and development. During our conversation, I shared some of my work, and noticed a profound change in his voice. His tone grew serious, as he inquired about the progress I made executing those ideas. I confessed that they were still in the conceptual phase.

Without missing a beat, he extended an invitation for me to attend an event in Poland, and I eagerly accepted. Before parting ways, he asked if there was anything else he could do for me. I responded, “I am open to new opportunities.” He assured me he would consider something.

From disaster response to CEO: taking the lead role at Appropedia

Just two days later, an email arrived in my inbox, offering me the incredible opportunity to become the ED of Appropedia. At first, I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. I deeply cherished my job at the time, which allowed me to fulfill my passion for volunteerism. However, I sensed a yearning for something more. 

After much contemplation, Andrew flew to El Salvador to meet with me. His approach impressed me. Andrew displayed a genuine understanding of the challenges faced by individuals like me, pursuing unconventional career paths in technology and innovation, particularly in Latin America. Not only did he comprehend my perspective, but he also provided unwavering support throughout our discussions. It became evident his intentions were sincere and he was truly invested in making a positive impact. 

I distinctly remember sitting together at a restaurant near the capital, surrounded by the scenic view of a volcano, as he officially offered me the role. In that emotional moment, I strove to maintain my composure. With a sense of peace in my heart, I accepted the offer.

Since then, my journey with Appropedia has been filled with delightful surprises. It brings me immense joy to learn that people from around the world view our platform as a valuable resource. Although my time in the field has temporarily paused, I firmly believe the work I am doing now is equally significant. It allows me to shed light on numerous projects that will shape the future.

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