21st Century IT for humanitarian programming

IT as an industry has played a supportive role to organisations but mainly as a “back office” service. The scope of this support service has traditionally ranged from fixing personal computers for individuals to keeping large cooperate data systems such as finance, HR and document storage running. But things need to change and in fact, they are changing as the IT role starts to adapt to a new 21st century way of working. In the humanitarian space, the delivery of programmes are beginning to use more technology. This means that the programmes people will require expert advice about technology to build and then run successful technology driven programmes.  

One of the barriers to success is that there is a disconnect between IT people and the humanitarian people who run programmes. On the IT side, they use incomprehensible language or can appear to be inflexible about how technology is delivered. The programmes people can sometimes typecast IT into a limited role thinking that all IT does is to fix computers and perhaps have little to contribute to the delivery of programmes.  

In this article, I am going to shine a spotlight on the wide range of technologies that IT teams support and then propose a model where technologist can work closely with the programmes teams to deliver great results for the populations which are supported by programmes.

The limitless scope of technology

IT is not just all about laptops and email accounts. We would not think of a hospital as a place just full of doctors. There is a range of specialists such as heart surgeons, tropical medicine experts, phycologists, pathologists, Nurses, Nuclear Medicine experts, Dietitians, radiographers just to name a few. The world of IT is similar with many specialists covering a mass of different technologies. Maybe “IT” as a brand no longer works?  Perhaps we should change it?

So using its current brand, what can the IT team bring to programmes?  Quite a lot in fact. The Tuesday Technical (and blog) has been running since 2014 and has plenty of examples of technology being used in a field setting. Here are just a few examples of where solutions go well beyond what is considered traditional IT:

UAVs (Drones): This is an emerging technology in the Humanitarian Sector. Initially smaller quad blade units have been used for aerial video, but larger UAVs have been used in search and rescue operations and to deliver medicines. The Emergency Telecoms Cluster established a new working group to work out how this new technology would be used within an emergency response setting.

Sustainable energy solutions: Technology needs electricity rights?  So who owns it?  It’s still technology and should sit within the same tech family as traditional IT. Sustainable energy is needed to run any remote tech that we might place in a remote community. Solar energy systems are often not sustainable as programme design often lacks the methods which could be used to keep systems working. But the good news is that there are now potential partners emerging which can deliver energy on a cost recover model.

In the emergency setting, as we use tech to deliver information and services to the affected communities via smart or feature phones, then we need to provide the means for people to charge their devices.

Communications and connectivity: One of the new buzz words is “Communications as aid” Whether it’s the provision of mobile phones to facilitate family reunion or Wi-Fi hots-spots, the future will see a rapid increase in the provision of communications and connectivity to the populations affected by a disaster. Providing connectivity and communications via radio, satellite or local networks has been core business in the Humanitarian IT sector and we are really good at it.

Internet of Things (IoT): In a connected world, we are starting to see a growth in a multitude of devices which are connected to the internet. Examples include real time vehicle tracking, Cold chain monitoring, and environmental sensors. This technology can be used to give early warning of water supply issues to communities or allow central support teams to monitor the health of a remote solar energy installation.

3D Printing: NGOs work in remote places which are difficult to get to. 3D printing is gaining in popularity and in a nutshell, this technology will make objects accurately. Early technologies have been able to create plastic items and potentially able to create plumbing items for WASH programmes. Technology is moving on, and more complex items can be made. Some units now print 3D objects using metal! 

There are many more examples I could give where technology can add a lot of value to programmes. These are just practical examples. There is also a huge industry of data products such as mapping (GIS), Health (HIS) and so on.

Working together as a team

The technologist need to come out of the basement and speak to the programmes experts in plain language. At the same time, the programmes experts need to open the door and let the technologist in. The good news is that we are already seeing the beginnings of this approach. But we need to keep up the momentum to get even closer so that where technology is used to support programmes, we deliver success.

My personal view is that the brand “IT” has run its course and needs to be replaced. ICT4D has gathered some support, but still not dynamic enough. “Technology for Programmes” or T4P might just do it! 

So what does T4P look like in the 21st century?  How can we bring the technologist to the programmes table?  The answer is simpler than you might think. Humanitarian programmes have been running for many decades with organisations like Save the Children approaching 100 years of aid delivery. The technologist can add much more to future programming as technology becomes more reliable and available. Here is an idea on how this can work:

Programmes teams already have a perfect model which delivers excellence. For most programmes there will be a tangible output which could be along the thematic areas of food, shelter, education, health, wash, child protection, and much more. For each of these thematic areas, programmes people will access technical experts for their input. This leads to a programme design which can then be fleshed out with a budget and implementation plan.

Technology has a role to play and I would like to see a new breed of T4P experts joining the team to work alongside all of the other thematic experts supporting the delivery of programmes. The T4P expert will need to be a good communicator and act as a broker between the programmes team/thematic experts and then the appropriate subject matter experts (SMEs) within the technology teams. Ideally with T4P experts involved in programme design from the start, we will be able to have a more positive impact where technology is needed.

IT as a function as a service provider will still be needed, but IT departments will need to expand and include a new pool of T4P talent to help deliver 21st Century programmes. There will need to be some mind-set changes. In larger organisations, more flexibility will be needed to deliver solutions to programmes as the old model of “One Size fits all” is not likely to work. T4P experts will need to build up a knowledgebase of solution so that when a new programme is considered, the following thought process is used: 

1.       For the new programme, what is their technical needs?
2.       What are we doing already in other places which is similar?  Do we already have an appropriate solution?
3.       If not, what are others doing?  Is there a solution we can buy off the shelf?
4.       And if there are no current solutions, can we build one? 

IT teams and the new breed of T4P experts will need to get out and network. Organisations like Nethope and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster are already working on beneficiary facing solutions. Though these extended networks, T4P experts can keep up to date with the new technology which is being developed which will contribute to the T4P expert becoming the Trusted Technology Expert for Programmes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mobile World Congress 2018: Latest tech news from Barcelona

The Mobile World Congress is the annual gathering of the mobile phone industry each year in Barcelona. Some commentators (The Register and BBC Technology) have slammed the event as boring. For those who went to Barcelona with the intention to discover new smartphones, then yes, innovation is a little thin on the ground as most smartphones look similar and mostly Android based. 

But the mobile world is much more than smart phones. The Internet of Things (IOT) is a concept where mobile connectivity connects devices and services to the internet. MWC2018 was bursting with plenty of innovation this year. 

IOT is an evolving market and we will see plenty of innovation over the next few years which will be very useful to the aid sector. In this article we will explore a handful of solutions which may be useful to NGOs.

Mobile phone technology have evolved massively over the years. Whilst historically set up for  voice communications, the networks are getting more geared towards providing increasingly  faster data services. Future 5G technology will be able to exceed 100Mb/s. The current 3G and 4G technologies are delivering good services in many countries. In some developing countries,  traditional wired infrastructure does not exists and we are seeing a leapfrog affect where nations ignore building traditional copper infrastructure in favour of building reliable mobile networks.

In the years ahead, it’s likely that many NGO offices will be using major mobile network operators for office internet connectivity.  You might think this approach might be far in the future when 5G arrives. The reality is that good quality mobile internet is “here and now” as long as the right technology is used to access the networks. New multi-channel routers means that we can get more out of existing 3G and 4G networks simply by using multiple SIM cards simultaneously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

e-sim technology: When first introduced, the SIM card was the size of a credit card. The SIM was reduced to the mini format and then followed by micro sim and finally the nano sim. The electronic SIM (e-sim) is a new approach where a virtual SIM card is delivered to device electronically. This approach will make life easier for people who travel as they might in the future have a wallet of e-sims stored on their smartphones so that they can access the best rates and use local numbers in the countries where they are visiting.

E-sims have yet to find their way onto smartphones, but they have arrived already in some technologies such as the Telna GSM router. The router is fitted with four e-sim channels which means that 3G or 4G performance is quadrupled over single SIM technologies. The device is cloud managed which makes provisioning of services easy.

The four e-sims are loaded by Telna, but for organisations which have better rates with other providers who use traditional plastic SIM cards, they still can be used as the SIM cards can be sent to Telna where they are then applied to the device in e-format.

The Telna system could be a suitable option to many NGO field sites as it gives organisations the flexible technology needed to switch providers easily in a rapidly changing market. Reliability can also be improved as different networks can be applied to the four available channels.

This technology is going to be applied to Save the Children emergency response pre-positioned equipment. Traditionally satellite technology such as BGAN and  VSAT has been used in emergency settings, but as we learnt in some parts of the Caribbean in 2017, GSM networks have improved their resilience and come back online quickly. So how much does this technology cost?  The router is $999 and data costs $25 per GB. When compared to some packages in developed countries, this might appear pricy, by when compared to a 5Mb/sec VSAT connection which costs $5,000 per month (maximum throughput of 25GB), the 3G router would only cost $625 to deliver the same volume of data.

One other innovation from Telna is the sticky sim – this is a sticker which goes onto a standard SIM card turning the existing SIM card into a dual SIM.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AT&T: As a global brand, AT&T has some IOT products in the market.  AT&T recently  signed global agreement with Caterpillar (Makers of engines, generators and construction equipment) to use GSM networks to monitor the performance of assets. For NGOs, this IOT offering could be a great way to monitor the health and fuel performance of generators.

AT&T is also working on a range of technologies to support healthcare. Telemedicine technology is available to carry out basic checks such as heart rate / blood pressure and even to analyse saliva for certain indicators. This information can allow qualified doctors in remote locations to diagnose conditions and prescribe medicines.

The transport of Vaccines is also a challenge in hot countries,  the tech flask (in the picture) has the ability to monitor location and temperature of its contents whilst in transit. This gives the confidence to medics that the vaccine is safe and have arrived in good condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Eutelsat:
WMC2018 is all about terrestrial solutions…, right?  Well amongst the hundreds of 3G tech companies I was surprised to see Eutelsat pushing its latest spin off company Konnect.  Over the past two years or more, Eutelsat has been very vocal about its future VSAT offering (Ka Band). The new satellite internet technology is targeted at the domestic market and aims to go head to dead with other internet providers, especially in rural settings.

With the roll out of fibre across Africa, Satellite based internet could be regarded as a shrinking market. But when you look at the number of physical cables connecting Africa to the rest of the world, it is clear that there is a finite amount of capacity which may be problematic to the various companies emerging to supply internet based services. More sea cables will improve the situation, but in the meantime, the Eutesat/Konnect offer might add some value, especially to rural communities.

Konnect services are not available commercially yet. Trials are planned in Kenya and some other countries in the next few months. At WMC2018, Konnect was showing off a rugged unit which incorporates VSAT, Wi-Fi and a content server. This technology would be a great system to use in a rural school as some content can be loaded onto the box for education (and not rely on live internet). This system is also designed to manage a power feed from a solar energy system.

Conclusion: Whilst the World Mobile Congress lacked breakthroughs in new smartphones (Apple and Google tend to launch products at times of their own choosing), there was a great deal of innovation on display which leavers the benefits of a connected world via GSM. Shengen is regarded as the Silicon Valley of China. Lots of innovators from Shengen were at MWC2018 showcasing a lot of technology. IOT is going to be the new buzzword over the next couple of years. The MWC forum is an area for NGOs should watch as this is where we will be able to identify excellent tools to help our humanitarian community delver technology enabled programmes.

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Using technology to influence communities

In the UK, for many years, the Government have tried many methods to influence the behaviour of the population for their own good. We know that smoking is bad for us, but its legal. So to discourage smoking, the government places high taxes on tobacco to discourage smoking. On the roads, the wearing of seatbelts in cars or helmets for motor cyclists are mandatory as part of an effort to reduce road deaths. The trouble is that whilst governments want to do things which are to the benefit of citizens, they are often accused of being the “nanny state” if they use too much carrot and not enough stick.  

Softer methods are being tried to influence behaviours in the UK. The government  formed the “Nudge Unit” to explore ways where behaviours in the population can be changed for the benefit of all. The unit uses social media amongst other tools to promote behaviours such as going to the doctor for check-ups are certain times in our lives. This would include campaigns such as breast cancer screening or blood pressure checks for folks of a certain age.  

There are endless reasons why a government may wish to nudge people to do things for their own good. In developed countries, governments will use radio, TV, social media, newspapers and other channels to influence behaviour. But in the developing nations of the Global South, how can governments and NGOs influence the population which a significant number of people might be illiterate, or lack access to infrastructure and technology?  In this article, I want to shine a spotlight on an organisation called Literacy Bridge. They have a very innovative approach to message rural population and a way to measure how successful their approach has been.  

For many years, health NGOs and UN agencies have delivered programmes which improves the health of the nation. Malaria is one of the biggest killers. We know that we can reduce malaria infections through programmes to distribute bed nets. But how do we get the population to use the nets properly and to refresh the insecticide in the nets? How can we promote other health related topics such as breast feeding, routine vaccinations, and other important messages? 

Social media does have a role to play alongside radio and TV broadcasts, but it will exclude a significant percentage of rural communities as many people do not have access to a smartphone. Where smartphones exists, they are mainly used by men which means that some messages targeted at women will not be passed on.

Literacy Bridge  is using technology to get messages to rural communities in a very innovative way. Their talking book is a robust unit built by ARM, a leading edge technology manufacturer which was spun off by the University of Cambridge in the UK. The talking book has a series of pre-recorded messages stored on a memory card which can be played by members of the community where the technology is distributed. The memory card is sufficiently large enough to allow families to record feedback for programme managers to collect.  

Each unit has a unique ID and its location is registered when it is handed over to the community. Whilst it is deployed, in addition to the recoded feedback, the system also logs what messages were played and how often. Over a period of time, project teams will visit the communities to collect the data and to replace the existing content with new messages. This exchange of messages and data can be done using an application on a smartphone.

The talking book runs on standard batteries. In communities where batteries are hard to source, project teams can supply rechargeable batteries with a solar charger.  

Literacy Bridge is a “Not for Profit” and is very keen that its product is reliable and has a very positive impact on the communities where messages are being delivered. Their approach is to partner with organisations to deliver messaging as part of a wider campaign. They are driven by success and have worked with organisations such as Care and UNICEF.  

To deliver reliable and sustainable technology, they do not sell talking books. They use a leasing model through local partners who will ensure that the units are supported in country.  

The quality of content is very important to Literacy Bridge.  They want messages to be accurate, and appropriate to the communities where the technology is being used. The content will be in local dialects and may take the form of interviews with senior role models, songs and plays.  

So, what does success look like?  Well in 2013, Literacy Bridge was running a programme in partnership with UNICEF in Ghana’s Jirapa District in the Upper West Region. They reached 44,000 people in 49 communities. The feedback demonstrated that 50% of pregnant women and children were more likely to sleep under bed nets when using talking books.   

Conclusion: The Literacy Bridge approach  can be regarded as ICT4D. Within the SCI IT team, we like to call it “Technology for Programmes (T4P)” as we feel that simple practical solutions to real problems is the way forward to alleviate suffering now. In the wider ICT4D community, there are people looking at artificial intelligence and big data. I am sure that the big conferences which promote these big ideas as an academic exercise will deliver something amazing in the near future. However whilst academia works hard to ask the big questions on how we can use big data for the greater good, at the same time, we need to stay focused on identifying simple and sustainable innovation which can have an instant impact on communities today.  

For more information, please visit www.literacybridge.org.

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How does ICT support disaster response?

Across the aid sector, the opinion is divided about the sort of role ICT can play in disaster response. In some organisations such as WFP, technicians are sent with the first wave of responders as experience has proven that reliable communications and power supplies are needed for the very beginning of the response. Other organisations senior managers often question why “IT” needs to be involved at all. Some of these misconceptions is often flavoured by an individual’s personal experience with an IT team at the transactional level.  Simple tasks such as setting up printers, resetting passwords and de-fluffing mice might be the only activity people might see from technicians.  

In a fast moving emergency response, the humanitarian team will need to use reliable radio, satellite and other communications to coordinate the response. The flow of information is important between the response teams and their coordinators back at HQ. For the high profile responses, media teams will need to get video footage from the frontline so that the organisation can hit the headlines with the latest report from the response teams.  

In this article, I am going to set out the increasingly important need for technology in the emergency setting and explain how the IT department has worked over the past year to build a team of emergency responders, invested in quick deploy equipment and have developed some clear standard operating procedures to define the role technicians will play in future disaster responses.  

What role does ICT play in emergencies?
When a disaster happens, the affected population may have critical needs for food, water, shelter and medical care. For children, there will be additional requirements such as child protection/ safeguarding and education. The 21st centary NGO may need to rely on a range of digital services to deliver some of the urgent aid to the affected community. Whilst bringing aid to the emergency, the responders are also required to take care of their own safety and security. In all of this activity, Technicians have a very important role to play as the technology used in an emergency setting may be wide ranging and complex.  

The immediate priority is to set up communications so that the response team can operate. Typically this will consists of portable satellite communications such as Thuraya and Iridium for voice communications and BGAN for data. As these systems are expensive to run and have limited capacity, the communications setup will be scaled up to high capacity satellite internet systems (VSAT) and where needed, radio systems can be established so that staff have at least 2 forms of communications device (Most organisations require redundant communications as part of a security policy).
Beyond the communications, the technicians are on hand to ensure that safe power suppliers are provided and that IT infrastructure is quickly established so that all of the response team can start to access internet based services.

 Within the first 48 hours of arrival, the technicians will have established the technology for the operational base from where the emergency will be managed. Beyond 48 hours, a more accurate picture starts to emerge about how large the response will be, the geographical cover and how many sites will need to be set up.  The technicians on the ground will be working closely with the wider humanitarian team to design the communications and technology for the response, build the budget and define the procurement plan.

 In addition to the infrastructure, the technicians may be involved in further technology related tasks, here are just a few examples:

·         Fleet management technology and tracking.
·         Setting up complex short range radio communication
·         Assessing power needs and then setting up power supplies
·         Implementing UAVs (drones)
·         Providing technology solutions for the communities affected by the disaster.
·         Solar energy solutions
·         Deploying IOT (Internet of things) – e.g. remote sensors etc.  

In addition to the technology design and delivery tasking, the technicians will engage other organisations such as Nethope and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster so that technology based activities on the ground can be coordinated.  

Effectively the technical specialists have knowledge and expertise to deliver the required solutions in just about any environment, even at sea!

The people

Our approach has been to build a virtual team from volunteers who are already in the existing ICT global workforce. This model is sustainable and cheaper to deliver than having a dedicated team of people on continuous standby. This way of working will bring a range of further benefits as follows:


·         As all team members have a full time role within Save the Children’s ICT team, they will already know our technology standards and will be very familiar our current ICT procedures and standards
·         Team members are based in all regions which mean that they can often get to the scene quickly.
·         Regionally based emergency responders will have more local knowledge of the technologies used in the same region, suppliers and how to manage importation of technology.
·         Language can sometimes be a barrier. Our model to use regional people means that very often they will speak local languages.  

We are developing SOPs for each region in which our local teams have a voice. We feel that the combination of our global subject matter experts in emergency response and the local knowledge of our regional teams means that we can develop solutions which are appropriate to the sort of emergencies in each region and what sort of technologies are in common use.  

Our ICT global workforce is already familiar with Save the Children standard technology (which we also use for emergency response). The existing skills needed topping up with some additional subjects such as quick deploy VSAT, communications planning and emergency response management. A programme of course were delivered in the UK, Nepal, Kenya, Panama and Sierra Leone to build these skills.

We have already procured quick deploy equipment which is now located in Nairobi and Panama City. This equipment consists of a quick deploy VSAT, wireless access points and other technologies which allows us to quickly provide fast internet access for an emergency response office for a fixed monthly price.

 The Kit
For the countries which are at risk of disaster, but do not permit the import of such technologies, we are working closely with IT teams in these places to develop local emergency response solutions. Myanmar is one such country where we would not be allowed to import our global kits, but we can procure a local solution for internal use within Myanmar.  

The kits have been designed is such a way so that they can be carried on normal commercial flights. We have tested this model twice. Firstly an actual deployment from UK to Haiti, and then later on, we tested the model again when we relocated a new system from the UK to Kenya with just one staff member!  (Using porters at the airport of course!).  

The VSAT is also complimented with a framework agreement which allows us to access a global network of satellites at preferential rates. Typically we would anticipate a fixed fee of around $5,000 per month to run a connection with no limits of the volume of data sent/received. Some people might think this to be expensive, but consider this. The BGAN internet terminal (which is small and compact) costs $5 per MB, so for $5,000 you will only get 1GB of data. For those of you with data-packages on 3G phones, you might understand why 1GB of data would be insufficient for a team of responders.  

Not all emergencies require VSAT. There might be emergencies such as drought or pandemics we might respond to. Responses might be in places where 3G cover is good. We have some technology in our kits to allow us to use 3G and 4G coverage to provide a wireless network for our teams. This technology along with a couple of wireless access points will easily fit into a medium sized peli-case.

Before attending the training, we asked our students to participate in some online VSAT training hosted by the Global VSAT Forum (GVF), so that all students arrived at the course with a detailed understanding of the VSAT Theory
Each course lasted for about 5 days and incorporated an emergency scenario. As a result of this programme, we have now trained around 30 people.

If we deploy technicians to a response, we are likely to send two people. There are two defined roles as follows:

 Emergency ICT & Energy Team Leader: Responsible for the overall response and works closely with Global and regional managers to coordinate the response. Also engages with external organisations such as the ETC where needed. Also responsible for the high level and complex design of technology solutions for the response.

Deputy Emergency ICT & Energy Team Leader: Responsible for the delivery of user facing services and manages the day to day activities of any local IT people who are recruited for the emergency. Works closely with the Logistics team to ensure that the ICT supply chain runs smoothly.

As we have people based in all regions, one or both of the roles might even be filled by people already based in the country where the disaster has taken place.

 

 

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Using ICT to deliver education

Previously, I have explained how advances in solar energy and future budget satellite broadband will be an enabler for educating children. In this article, we will take a closer look at how technology can be used to deliver educational content to children in various settings. Please read on to learn more about the technology, the settings in which the delivery of education needs to be prioritised and finally how the technologist needs to work closely with the educationalist to create value for money ways of delivering educational content.  

The Technology
Technologist have been accused of inventing solutions and then imposing them on a particular setting. This often leads to failure which leads to a lack of confidence in the  IT sector – we can turn this around. Successful projects will start with conversations between the education stakeholders and technical experts who can then seek out the best technical solution to deliver education. The way in which educational content can be delivered is numerous, here are some popular examples: 

·         Individual learning through the use of online applications, tablets and smartphones.
·         Teacher lead tuition in a classroom environment (sometimes with very large class sizes).
·         Supervised learning in a controlled environment.

From a technology point of view, a programme based on teacher-led education will be the cheapest to deploy as a small number of computers will be needed, perhaps just one. This approach also keeps the costs of supporting services such as power supplies and internet connections to a minimum. Using the technology, teachers are enabled to present content to larger class sizes. Outside of class time, teachers will be able to access the equipment to help them to keep their skills up to date and perhaps to learn new subjects to teach? The chief challenge to this approach is to make sure that there are sufficient good teachers in the first place. This can be a massive challenge for some countries where quality teacher development programmes are either poor quality or non-existent.

So how do we provide education to children in the communities where there are no teachers? This is where technology can bridge the gap, but its more expensive. Technologies exists which enables teachers to run classes from remote locations. Some software houses have developed solutions where student computers are linked to the teachers computer.

The teacher has full control over the student computers so that formal learning can be conducted. Using the control buttons, the teacher has the ability to launch specific education content either for the whole class or on a student by student basis. There is also a function which blanks the students computer screen displaying the text “Pay attention to the teacher”.

Via remote links, qualified teachers can run classes to a larger audience over many sites simultaneously. Local supervisors are present at each site to facilitate the students. In an off grid setting, the same technology can be used by classroom supervisors to run some of the pre-loaded lessons.

Looking more closely at self-paced online learning, there are hundreds of providers in the market like Cornerstone who have built up Learning Management Systems for a wide range of topics. Much of this online training has its roots into workplace training for compliance topics such as health and safety. But if a google search is made for LMS which work in an online/offline environment, choices are more restricted. Choices become further reduced when there is a requirement for multiple platforms (Microsoft, Apple and Android).

The purpose of LMS is to serve up training and to monitor the students’ progress. This can lead to a course completion certificate or qualification once the module is complete.

So – what about offline self-paced learning? One of the revolutionary products emerging is the Actionable Data Book (ADP) is an advance on the e-book approach as it contains word search, video and interactive content. Where it differs from the e-book is that the ADP standard is non-proprietary which means that as an IEEE standard which takes a different approach from the propriety systems like Nook or Kindle. The ADP format is a standard which will run on systems regardless of brand.

Context driven solutions
Taking a step back from the technology, let’s look at examples of contexts which education is delivered and some of the associated challenges: 

  • Refugees/IDPs: Figures from the UNHCR (May 2017) states that there are over 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Just over 21 million of these people are under the age of 18. Where populations are displaced, education is disrupted. The conflict in Syria is leading to a lost generation where a significant cohort of children will not receive education. The task to capture 21 children and provide education is enormous. Technology will have a major role to play in addressing the need. In settings where people have smartphones, some education tools can be distributed through apps. In some settings, distributing technology to children can place them at risk from mugging.
  • Disaster Preparedness: There are many communities who normally have access to education, but are at risk from natural disasters such as Cyclones, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. In such circumstances pre-positioned technology can be sent to places of shelter to set up classrooms so that children can continue education. Such preparedness plans could be aligned so that education delivered could be aligned to national curriculums (if they exists).Quite often such interventions are short term using quick deploy satellite communications systems such as the SpeedCast system used in Australia.

 

  • Rural: In developing countries, technology enabled education will have a very positive impact on a large rural population. Whilst Africa is mostly off grid in rural settings, the combination of sustainable solar energy solutions and the arrival of low cost internet access within the next two years is going to make the delivery of education easier in rural places. In developing technology aided educations is not going to be cheap. Future programme delivery must be sustainable. This means that it needs to incorporate an ongoing funding model, perhaps with some cost recovery, a reliable supply chain of contents, technical management to keep the technology working, and an element of M&E to capture the programmes impact on communities (leading to continuous improvement).

Education content
What do we teach the children using technology?  This is a question for the education experts to solve and clearly it will be context driven. In the emergency or refugee setting, there are basic life skills content covering topics on how to stay safe in the hostile environment. To deliver education using technology, it’s the educational content which needs to drive the project. Developers of such content should consider designing their solutions to work on as many technologies as possible. In India, the Vodafone Foundation is supporting the Social App Hub, https://knowledge.socialapphub.com. This is a directory of education and life skills apps which have been reviewed and validated by experts.

So returning to our teacher/student example, the success in developing a via product is by ensuring that the solution used to deliver education is content agnostic. If its built in the Microsoft windows environment, we start to get the flexibility so that teachers can either launch pre-made content or even develop their own content using tools such as PowerPoint.

So, to conclude, Technology has the ability to improve education in a variety of settings. With the arrival of cheaper internet access just over the horizon, now might just be the right time to lobby donors for funding to run large scale programmes to educate the next generation.

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Using Drones to save life

For many years, Drones have received plenty of coverage in the media mainly for negative reasons. Military drones operated by the US Air Force and other national militaries came to prominence soon after 9-11. They can be used for various operations such as surveillance and intelligence gathering, Electronic warfare where powerful transmitters disrupt communications and weapons systems and drones are used to carry weapons which have been used to take down targets and to kill people.  

In more recent years, small battery powered drones have become widely available in many countries on the domestic market. For less than $1000, any member of the public can buy a small drone over the internet without any requirement to demonstrate any capability to operate the drone safely. Its these drones which are now regarded as a pest by some authorities. Whilst most owners will operate drones responsibly, there have been plenty of incidents where drones have been flown too close to commercial aircraft thus creating a lot of angst for pilots and airport authorities.  

Drones have been used by criminal gangs to check out a property before raiding it. Drones have been used drones to smuggle drugs and other items into prisons. Criminal activities like this has now spawned a new industry where security drones or other devices are made to take down drones which are being a pest or engaged in illegal activity.  

But can drones be used for a positive outcome?  Yes, definitely. The drone’s elder sister, the airplane is not that much different to a drone. In fact, is an aerial platform which does not have a person on board flying it. So not that different from an aircraft as all – yet we do not view the word “Aircraft” with the same disdain as do for a drone, despite the fact that there is aircraft currently being used to kill people in Syria and other war zones.  

In this article, I am going to shine the spotlight on how drones can be used for missions which have positive outcomes and perhaps save lives. NGOs are viewing this new technology with great interest. Some organisations are already using them. In the years ahead, we may see drones playing a significant role in humanitarian operations.

Branding
There is no doubt about it, the word “Drone” is problematic, and many have come to the conclusion that this world has such a strong association with war, loss of life and widespread deduction. “Drone” as a term is so toxic that organisations using this technology for humanitarian purposes are using a longer description “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs”. Various working groups have been set up to develop a set of best practices for operating UAVs. The subject of winning hearts and minds so that UAVs become an acceptable tool in humanitarian work rather than being a threat or a pest is very high on the agenda. We will take a closer look at the UAV work groups later on.  

The basic UAV
UAV technology is now widely available as a mainstream product. Typically these units cost less than $1000, and limited to aerial photography. The commercially available UAVs tend to be compact and use four rotors to sustain flight. On a full charge, these UAVs have short flight times (typically 30 mins or less), but this is sufficient to conduct short flights to obtain very local aerial photography. At the low end of the budget spectrum, UAVs are controlled by a WiFi signal which tend to limit the operational range to 100m or just beyond. It is possible to operate these short range UAVs beyond 100m using pre-programmed flight paths, however this can be a little risky!

Extending the range and payload.
The humanitarian community started its UAV journey by using the smaller units which provides aerial photography of an area affected by disaster. For earthquake situations, UAVs are well suited to search and rescue work as they can help the responders to work out the best way to access a site. As these UAVs are light, there is practically no downdraft which means that they will not cause further issues by causing unstable structures to move further.

 

Beyond aerial photography UAVs have many other uses. Fixed wing UAVs can stay airborne for much longer and cover more ground. This can enable organisations to carry out a rapid assessment over a wider area after disaster strikes to identify populations in need. At sea, organisations are helicopter UAVs which runs on aviation fuel. MOAS is using UAVs off the coast of Libya to identify refugee boats in need to rescue. With a range of 100KM, the UAVs can search a large area quick which then means that the ship can get to where it’s needed more quickly.

UAVs as they get larger are able to carry more weight. Amazon is piloting the technology to deliver parcels to customers. The same approach can be used to get vital supplies to remote locations. Long range information discovered by UAVs can be quickly added to GIS and the shared in almost real-time with all stakeholders.

There are now organisations looking into developing UAVs which are capable of carrying people. The BBC reported recently that one organisation is working on a UAV which can carry a paramedic and a patient from a road accident scene to hospital.

UAVs as an aerial planform can be purposed for other tasks as well. Different types of sensors could be mounted on UAVs to measure atmospheric risks or to act as an airborne relay to transmit radio information.

It’s time to get ready!
UAVs will have a significant role to play in both emergency and development humanitarian aid. The UAV area will be a complete “Can of Worms” as there will be many regulatory authorities taking a great deal of interests and perhaps resisting deployment. Such authorities will include military, civil aviation, communications, privacy/data protection and so on. Whilst there will be initial resistance (and in some places UAVs will be no-go), NGOs will need to get ready to take advantage of UAVs and what they can offer. As a community, we need to take a very responsible approach so that UAVs are operated in a very responsible way. If as a community, we take a cavalier approach and put UAVs in the sky without permission and coordination, we will draw a lot of attention to ourselves and may face a complete block to future deployments.  

To get ready to embrace the value UAVs have to offer, the aid community must take action now to ensure that humanitarian use of UAVs are viewed positively by all stakeholders. Getting ready means two things: 

·         Firstly, NGOs need to understand what different types of UAV is capable of. They need to be innovative and advocate for the development of solutions which can be hosted on a UAV platform for the benefit of humanitarian operations. There is a definite overlap with ICT4D here. How we approach using UAVs need to be decided as a joint enterprise between humanitarian programmatic people and technologies.

·         Good coordination is essential. We are at the very beginning of the UAV ear and this is a great opportunity to be efficient and professional from the very start. Organisations such as UAViators now exist and are developing best practices for operating UAVs. Commercial entities now exist who operates high quality UAVs. Organisations like the Emergency Telecoms Cluster and Nethope have established working groups manage coordination of the UAV topic.

·         Establishing best practice will be the key to success. Whilst we have to work to get support from various government departments, it’s essential to work with local communities. There needs be community sensitisation built into any UAV operation so that communities know in advance what these new flying machines do and what value they will add to the humanitarian effort. 

So what does “Good UAV Practice” look like? Ideally I would like to see the NGO/UN sector operating UAVs in a very managed and professional manner. It must not be the “free for all” where many individuals put cheap domestic UAV pests into the sky – we will just get push back from communities and authorities.  Ideally it is better that a small number of professional UAV operators evolve to provide services to multiple agencies who are operating in the same area. The operators could be commercial or perhaps a small number of specialist units which sit within UN agencies or NGOs. Ideally with organisations such as the ETC and Nethope taking the lead, we will end up with many NGOs tasking a single resource to access standard (pre-agreed) data.

This approach will promote better quality UAV platforms and services and keep costs down. As we will not be filling the skies with pestilence, the NGO sector will gain the trust and respect from authorities and local communities. If we take a more cavalier approach, NGOs will not be permitted to fly UAVs and take advantage of the benefits they bring.

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Can satellite technology improve a child’s education?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela  

Across Africa, children face many barriers to accessing a good quality of education. In rural communities the installation of new water points can encourage families to send children to school rather than making them walk many kilometres to collect water from a contaminated source. But one of the biggest challenges is that where education is provided in rural areas, the quality is not great. In many places, teachers are lacking skills and do not get support from central education authorities. The fact that teachers are not being developed, means that children are not receiving the best education possible.

In many countries, new satellite technology could become the catalyst we need to make a change to how rural education is delivered.. Over the next few years, satellite operators will be launching new high throughput satellites (HTS). In this article I am going to present the argument about how this new technology could be a massive disrupter to how education is delivered in rural locations. HTS satellites will arrive over Africa in the next couple of year. This will open up a new opportunity to  deliver education.

How the new satellites might have a positive impact on the quality of education.
A good quality internet connection alone will not deliver education, but when combined with good technology, appropriate content and skilled teachers, progress will be made. The perfect recipe for delivering excellent quality education will need these ingredients;

·         Teachers: Technology will never replace teachers. This is very evident in the way that the internet revolution has not put teachers out of work in locations which already have fast internet connections, so it’s not going to be any different in rural communities. Teachers will still continue to deliver face to face teaching and will manage the overall teaching experience for the children in the school. Using the same technology, the teachers themselves will be able to build upon their own skills.

·         Content:  The hi-tech world of rockets launching satellites into space is very impressive but in the end all of this technology is basic plumbing which connects students to a source of knowledge. As a technologist, it’s easy for me to design the infrastructure to deliver information to any remote site on Earth, but it’s the information which flows through these connections which is important. So as part of any distance learning programme, it’s important that we deliver appropriate high quality education content which at least covers numeracy and literacy but preferably covering additional topics such as culture, history, science, technology and languages. Government education departments will be key stakeholders and will have a view on what subjects to prioritize. Quite often, there will be a national curriculum which leads to a formal national qualification. One of the benefits of the connected world is that as content changes, it becomes quickly available to all students nationwide.

·         Technology: In the classroom, a combination of tablets and laptops will need to be provided with the appropriate education tools. It’s worth noting that there are many useful education software packages which do not rely on the internet for delivery. This means that some education can still be delivered even if the network is offline. There are risks to manage as well. The internet is a rich place where children can access plenty of high quality and rich content. It is also a very dark place full of content which is not appropriate for children to see. It is important that on any school internet connection, there is technology built in to prevent children accessing harmful sites on the world wide web.

Teaching the teachers
In many professions, people need to learn new skills or update existing skills, this applies to teaching as well. In many rural communities, teaching standards are often inadequate whereas in urban situations, teachers can be proactively managed and have their skills updated. If we were able to wire up rural schools to the internet, then this opens up the opportunity to deliver webinars or online workshops to the rural teachers so that they can be just as good as the urban teachers. As children are not in school all of the time, periods of time can be set aside so that teachers can develop their skills.  

Sustainability
To deliver a viable internet driven solution for rural schools, we have to approach the provisioning of the technology in a responsible and controlled way. If we were to provide the technical environment and set up the connection, the whole thing would likely grind to a complete stop a year or so after its been set up. This means that any project to deliver connected schools would need to be set up in such a way that the system was actively managed and interventions would be taken as equipment faults occur. In a nutshell, the roadmap to a successful and sustainable programme  looks like this: 

·         Electricity: Electrical power can be delivered from a solar energy systems (and supplemented by a wind generator in some locations). These systems can be designed in such a away so that there would be a number of day’s autonomy designed into the system to allow  for periods when there is significant cloud cover. The power supply will be matched to the load within the school (computers, lights, internet etc.).  Cabling and other power components will need to be kept in strong metal enclosures to prevent unauthorized modification.  Teachers and support staff will need to be trained how to operate the system and to prevent unauthorized items being plugged into the energy system. (if the wider community taps into the power, it runs out, and the school IT stops working!)


·         Load: Where possible, low power solutions will be used. For lighting, LED technologies can be really efficient. Android tablets and laptop computers would be selected in favour of desktop computers as they use less power.

·         Monitoring: The “Internet of things” or IOT is a new approach where  cheap technologies are being used to monitor and control things in all sorts of settings. We can use web based solutions to regulate content and internet access across many sites from a central point. The power supply system can be set up with monitors which reports on power consumption. As power data is monitored, it’s easy to detect sites where batteries are starting to hold less charge than they used to or even to detect if more power is being used than the system is designed for. With this sort of monitoring, information can be used to dispatch an engineer to a site to deal with a minor issue before it turns into a major fault taking the school complete offline.

·         Preventative maintenance: In some countries, the number of rural schools can be counted in the hundreds. This is more than enough to justify setting up a team of technicians to proactively manage the upkeep of the school estate. In some places which are hard to reach, spares might be pre-positioned so that local staff can carry out simple repair tasks (such as changing a battery) under the remote guidance of a technician. As satellite systems drop in price, it may be possible to keep spare parts in each location for the satellite system.

·         Connectivity:  This will be a continuous overhead cost which needs financing. The new satellites are going to make the prospect of such programmes viable as the cost of providing connectivity will be cheaper than it is now. The other revolution taking place is the role out of fibre across some countries. This is going to lead to 3G cover in some rural locations which means that we may not need to put HTS technology into all schools. As costs fall, it may be possible to use both technologies in some locations where satellite acts as a back-up for 3G?

 Communicating with Communities (CWC)
There is a massive movement in the humanitarian sector where connectivity is being provided to communities affected by disaster.  A school does not operate 24 x 7,  there could be a spin off where an internet hotspot could be set up for community use adjacent to the school. Such connections would be principled and secured. CWC projects should however only be included in places where internet services do not exist at all. The NGO sector is often considered as the “provider of last resort”, but the ”do no harm” principle means that it would be irresponsible to set up free internet connections forcing local business out of work.  

Conclusion
High Throughput Satellites will arrive over Africa in the next couple of years. This opens up a new opportunity for educationalists to deliver some very bold and high impact education projects for children. As a technologist, I am ready to do my bit to make this happen. So my call to action is for us (the NGO sector) to form a coalition of education experts, fundraisers and technologist so that we can be ready to change rural education for the better when HTS arrives.

Perhaps this sort of activity would live up to what Nelson Mandela had in mind?

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How ICT can assist maritime search and rescue operations

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa has led to a significant movement of people. Each week, thousands of people are risking their lives to reach Europe by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. So far and estimated number of 3,000 people have already drowned this year. Save the Children and other NGOs have launched ships to rescue the many people who put to sea in unseaworthy boats. On board the rescue ships, the NGOs take care of immediate medical needs, provide food and water and transport the rescued people to a safe port in Europe where they will be looked after by the authorities.  

Technology has a very important role in support Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Being on a ship has a lot of similarities to working in a remote field site ashore. Similar technologies are used, but there are also technologies used in such an operation which are unique to the marine environment. In this article, we will explore the technologies used to support SAR operations.

Operational overview
The movement of people from Turkey to Greece has significantly reduced due to the deal reached between the EU and the Turkish Government. Further west, the situation is very different as people leave the shores of Libya to attempt the long and treacherous journey to the Italy, Malta and other destinations. Save the Children, MOAS, MSF and other NGOs are running search and rescue ships under the coordination of the Italian Coastguard. This operation has become even more necessary as people traffickers are sending boats to sea of ever decreasing quality. In some cases boats are being sent with just about enough fuel to reach the areas where rescue ships operate.  

 The boats are often overloaded which means that getting people off them is dangerous and requires a lot of communication with the people on board in advance of rescue. NGOs are using cultural mediators who have the language skills to explain to people how to leave the boat safely. The main danger is capsize of the boat caused by all people on board rushing to the same side of the boat to be rescued.

It is now the peak season for migration as the sea is fairly calm. But rescue is still needed when weather conditions deteriorate as the boats continue to put to sea. The traffickers just sell off tickets at half price. People are taking huge risks as the likelihood of people coming to harm increases significantly in bad weather.  

Airborne Surveillance
moas_droneUnmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs) are being used by MOAS. In humanitarian work, we try to avoid the term “Drones” as military drones have been used in many places to fight wars. The use of UAVs is well established in disaster response where small battery powered UAVs are used to gather aerial images.

MOAS has partnered with Schiebel and have two long range UAVs on the rescue ship. These UAVs are miniature helicopters with powerful engines running on aviation fuel. They are controlled from a ops room on the ship by trained pilots.

When on deployment, these UAVs will cover a large area of up to 100 miles from the ship. From the on-board cameras, boats needing rescue can be identified and locations shared with the Coastguard. Depending on the location of SAR ships, the nearest ship will be tasked to conduct a rescue. This could be the MOAS ship if it was the nearest.

Tracking the SAR FleetaisOn land, safety and security managers are often keen to know the whereabouts of vehicles on the road in places where the situation is insecure.  In maritime operations, there are also security risks to ships from threats such as piracy. There have been incidents reported by some  ships and as a result, most organizations involved in the effort have developed procedures to deal with such situations.  

Tracking the locations of ships is very easy and does not require much up-front investment in technology as any ship over 300 tons which operates outside of national waters is required to carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS) under the IMO SOLAS regulations. This requirement was introduced in 2002 and has been extended in some countries to cover national coastal and inland waters.  

AIS operates on the VHF radio frequency at a maximum power of 12.5W. Each ship transmits its location, speed, heading, identity and other information about the ship. The original intention of AIS was for collision avoidance (supplementing RADAR which displayed just displayed range and bearing of objects which reflected a signal). As the system was designed for the purposes of collision avoidance, the system was never intended by the IMO to be a long range tracking service. However long range tracking has evolved thanks for private sector and the internet .

AIS signals are in the public domain. It’s very easy to buy an AIS receiver for $100 and with some ingenuity, the data can be displayed on a google map. Some hobbyist have demonstrated this though setting up AIS websites which display live data from ships at sea. John Ambler created a google map for the busy waters surrounding the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England (see http://www.john-ambler.com/ais/google.html).

Commercial AIS tracking websites such as MarineTraffic.com have appeared and brings together a global network of people operating AIS receivers. Many of these sites are free to view, but for a fee, there are more advanced functions available. In recent years, low orbiting satellites have been equipped with AIS receivers so that ships can be located outside of the areas covered by the land based AIS stations. The AIS websites will normally charge a fee to access the Satellite AIS. As satellite AIS is evolving, there can be significant gaps of up to 8 hours between position reports.

Another benefit of using the “paid for” services is that organizations can mark out areas on the map so that operations can be informed about key events such as when a ship leaves port, arrives at its destination or enters into a specific area. In some operations, SAR ships will be required to keep a certain distance from the coast and only allowed to enter a specific area to conduct a rescue. Alerts can be set up to let operations staff know when such areas are entered.

Emergency & routine communicationsgmdss
Many NGOs have safety and security policies which require there to be at least two separate modes of communication. On land, this may include radio and satellite communications. Local mobile networks are sometimes included if they are considered to be stable enough. The main purpose of such policies is to enable teams to be able to call for help from specific trusted contacts. As NGOs take to the sea and conduct SAR operations, the need to reach out for help when the rescue ship itself encounters a problem is covered under the various laws and standards which regulates ships (flag state & IMO).

All commercial ships deploying to sea are required to carry equipment which complies with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). For many years, ships have been equipped with various types of radio. In the late 1970’s the worlds very first commercial satellite communications network INMARSAT was introduced to shipping and later on was adopted by NGOs and other sectors working ashore. The complex array of radio and satellite communications was managed by the ships radio officer.

In the 1990s. GMDSS was launched and became a game changer. As a new standard, GMDSS integrated all modes of radio and satellite communications into a single control console where routine and/or distress messages could be sent easily at the push of a button. The design of GMDSS systems meant that all communications could be handed by the bridge crew thus making the role of the Radio Officer redundant.

There is a well-established system at sea where as soon as a distress is sent by any vessel, nearby ships are required to assist if they are able (and it’s safe to do so). Every part of the worlds ocean is covered by a capable rescue authority which coordinates a range of rescue assets ranging from helicopters to warships. Where NGOs commission ships for SAR operations, they should consider the safety and security aspect of communications as outsourced to the ship’s crew as the GMDS system on board will most likely exceeded any requirement stated in the NGO’s policy.

For routine communications, NGO teams will need their own ways to communicate with their operations people ashore. Mobile phone networks are fine for when the ship is alongside, but out at sea, satellite communications will be required for when the ship moves beyond mobile phone coverage which is typically limited to 10KM or less from the coast. Save the Children have set up Iridium for its communications on its ship as Iridium external antennas are Omni-directional. For on-board communications between the team, short range UHF radios are used which are set up on IMO frequencies designated for on-board use.

Internet accesskvhAt sea, access to the internet is just as important as it is on land.  Whilst in harbour, it’s easy to connect to internet services provided by mobile networks. Further offshore the internet needs to be provisioned through satellite services such as VSAT. On land, a VSAT dish is fixed to the ground and pointed at the satellite, shore based systems typically cost $4500. At sea, the ship is constantly moving which means more complex technology is required to keep the VSAT dish pointing at the satellite. If the dish is misaligned by anything greater than ½ degree, the signal is lost and internet fails.

Marine VSAT systems are much more expensive due to the technology involved. Typically the budget systems start out at $20,000 for the hardware. They tend not to track satellites very well in rough seas. If there is a high dependence on internet access, more robust and expensive systems costing as much as $40,000 will be needed. On top of this, there will be the monthly usage fees.

The technology is also quite expensive and complex to install. The larger systems need special consideration as the antennas and their protective domes  weigh a lot and installers need to work closely with the ship owners as these systems will have a minor effect on the overall ship’s stability.  

Save the Children  chartered a vessel which already had a VSAT installed. The KVH system is at the low end of the technology and limited to 1MB capacity which costs $4,000 a month to run. For the 12 crew on board, this is sufficient and the crew have been able to access online resources such as health information systems, email, conference calling and a tool used to collect information about the people rescued.  Many organizations are using tablets and Kobo software to collect anonymous information about the people rescued.  

Weather forecastingmet-office

Mariners are well trained in meteorology and its normal for ship crews to be able to access local weather information. As part of the GMDSS infrastructure, various coastal stations and coastguards broadcast weather forecasts several times a day. Weather information is also transmitted to GMDSS text based systems such as Navtex and Inmarsat C safety net. Generally these forecasts are limited to a 48 hours forecast window and covers a wide area.  

Save the Children is sourcing weather information the UK Met office. The forecast format provides a 5 day outlook. A fresh forecast is generated every 12 hours and sent directly to the ship by email. The forecast is for a specific location near to where rescues take place and gives the team information about predicted wind, wave and swell height. The format of the forecast was designed for the oil industry and includes wind data for a height of 100m above sea level – quite useful information for the MOAS UAV operators.

Good quality weather predictions could enhance the efficiency of the rescue operation. If sea conditions are predicted to worsen for a few days making it impossible to rescue, ships could use the downtime to return to port and replenish fuel etc.

Lessons learnt
​NGOs entering SAR operations may not have maritime experience at all, if they take the same approach to providing similar technology to what would be used on land, budget holders will be completely shocked at the complexities and costs of setting up the required technologies. It is really important that programme managers engage technical experts from the get go, preferably well before budgets are set. Technology at sea is a very specialist area which means that organizations may  need to look beyond their internal ICT teams if they do not have in house maritime expertise.

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Girls in ICT day – 28th April 2016

Today is “Girls in ICT Day” ICT recruiters will be missing out on some great talent as long as they continue to employ chaps. There needs to be a more balanced workforce. See link below for more:
https://www.etcluster.org/event/girls-ict-day.

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Great energy inventions

In the 1990’s Trevor Baylis a British inventor saw a TV program about the spread of AIDS in Africa. One of the ways to prevent the spread of AIDs and other diseases is through education and information using radio broadcasts. The dissemination of information over the airways requires the target audience to have radios. At the time, most radios needed mains power or batteries. Baylis recognised that access to electric would be a massive challenge and that another solution would be needed. baygen

Baylis immediately set to work and invented the first wind up radio which enabled the radio to be charged up by an internal dynamo operated by a hand crank.  He eventually went on to form Freeplay energy which is still operating today and still innovating new products.

In addition to radio receivers, Freeplay also produce a wide range of other products which are well suited to remote settings where electricity remains a challenge. The original wind up technology has been refined over the years and is more efficient. Freeplay has incorporated solar technology into their solutions which means that radios can be powered throughout the day without any need to turn the handle! I am pleased they have retained the concept as radios can still be used if they run out of charge during the night.

Over the years, I have seen similar products from other manufactures, but during a recent evaluations of Freeplay products, I was impressed by the quality of build. For remote locations, any technology must be built strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions and be reliable. This is really important as once the technology is shipped, it’s not easy to fly it back to the factory for a replacement.

 In this article, we will explore some of the Freeplay product and discover how they can add a lot of value to communities which are remote or affected by a crisis.

As an organization, Freeplay manufactures small portable products for families. The technology is targeted at a number of markets such as emergency preparedness, aid & development and any consumer who engages in outdoor activities such as camping.

Encore Radio
encoreThis radio is well suited for use in developing nations. The radio has been cleverly designed so that it can receive longer range broadcasts over two SW bands. For local broadcasts, the radio can receive AM and FM. I was also impressed with the built in recording function which allows the radio to record broadcasts and save them to memory cards in MP3 format via the built in card reader.

In addition to recording programs in MP3 format, these radios can be used in schools as a tool to enhance education. Any MP3 content can be played. Up to 125 audio books can be stored on a 32GB SD card!

Power for the radio and its two inbuilt bright LED lights are charged up from the crank handle at the rear or the small solar panel on the top. (A larger external solar panel is also included).

This is not the only radio made by Freeplay, there are others available which are designed for different uses such as emergency preparedness.

Energy Hub
hub
The Energy Hub is a small solar system designed for a small household. The kit comes with a controller and two lights (as pictured). An external solar panel can charge the battery up in 6 hours to full capacity. On a full charge, two bulbs on high setting will run for 8 hours. A single bulb on 50% setting will run for 32 hours.

The cables for the lights and panel are sufficiently long enough to allow for permanent installation in a small family hut.

LanternReliance Lantern
Over the years, I have seen a number of lanterns but this one really impresses me not just for the build quality, but for the overall design. Its built to withstand weather and shock and can provide light up to 45 hours on a single charge. It also has a built in Siren which is really useful in some applications.

The Lantern Library:  Good technology can cost money, and I have heard of innovative projects such as “Lantern Libraries” where lanterns are held by schools and kept charged up. The idea is for pupils to borrow a lantern from school (sometimes for a small cost recovery fee) to take home. In darkness, the pupil has a light to see their way home, and at home, the pupil can study using the light. The addition of the built-in alarm just makes the whole concept better as a child can activate it if he/she is attached.

Conclusion.
Freeplay’s original concept to connect communities to broadcasters is just as relevant today as it was back in the 1990s when Trevor Baylis launched his first wind up products. In the Aid and Development sector, mobile phone networks are used by the UN and NGOs to interact with communities. Whether it’s a cash voucher system, SMS reminders for appointments at clinics or community engagement via collection of feedback over SMS, mobile phones are needed and they need to be charged. This requirement has not escaped Freeplay as in the three technologies we reviewed, all of them have built in sockets and supplied with the appropriate adaptors to charge up most mobile phones and other USB devices.

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