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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Is your organisation licensed to use radio and satcoms?

Imagine being in a large room of a few hundred people speaking at once. This could be a social gathering such as a wedding or some other event. One person in that room has been designated to give a speech. To get control, that person taps the side of a glass and the room falls silent. The person speaks and the message is delivered. By convention, this person has the authority to get people to pay attention. People comply as convention has dictated that the person at the top table at some point needs to speak and this can only be done if everyone else plays along. Buy what if there were no convention, how does one person get heard by all? 

In the world of telecommunications, we face the same challenge. Various frequencies across the radio spectrum are used all over the world for voice and data communications. Different frequencies in that spectrum can be regarded as rooms where if everyone tries to communicate at the same time, no information is passed.  

In this article, we will take a close look at how the radio spectrum is managed. Licensing is the key method to impose order over the sort of technologies we use. Licensing will vary from country to country and in some places, if rules are broken, severe penalties can be dished out by local authorities. Read on to find out how licensing works for radio, VSAT and general sat-coms and how to avoid being caught out.

If you are short of time and cannot read the full article now, scroll down to the final section and answer my challenge to you. You answer might lead you to take actions to avoid a large fine or members of your staff being sent to prison!

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

itu

The ITU has existed as a body for 150 years. It is the specialist UN agency which governs telecommunications whether its telephones, internet standards, radio communications or satellite communications.  Initially it was founded as an international conference to make the transmission of wired telegraph signals more efferent. From 1901 radio communications started to become popular and by 1906, the incompatibility between radio systems meant that some sort of standard would be needed as a result, the very first radiotelegraph convention was produced which is now known as the Radio Regulations we use today. The ITU joined the newly created United Nations in January 1949.

The radio frequency spectrum is a very precious and finite resources. It is imperative that the radio spectrum is managed properly otherwise all radio users will interfere with each other thus making the smooth flow of communications impossible.  Over the years, 130 nations have signed up to the ITU and as a result various regulations have been agreed which reserves specific frequencies for specific uses. At sea, ships use a combination of short range and long range radio frequencies so that ship to ship and ship to shore communications take place. Channel 16 (156.800Mhz) is known to all mariners around the world as the international frequency to send a distress call. Other allocated uses will include aviation, amateur radio etc.

The is also the regulator for data communications. They allocate orbit slots for international communications satellites such as VSAT and allocate what frequencies should be used by each satellite. As satellite signals are highly directional, frequencies are often reused but when this happens, the ITU ensures that satellites which use the same frequencies are sufficiently spaced apart so that they do not interfere with each other.

Many frequencies are do not have international classification and as some frequencies are short range allocation is delegated to government agencies.

In addition to allocating frequencies, the ITU is a standard setting organization. It specifies the format used to transmit data and voice and defines how much clear space must be left between each frequency so that interference is avoided. Over the years, as technology has improved, spacing has been reduced which has allowed more channels to be created. In the maritime VHF band, capacity has doubled since the 1950s.

National Government
In each country, the government will usually have an authority which regulates the use of the radio frequency spectrum. These authorities have such an important role to play that they exist in even the newest countries such as South Sudan. A full list of regulating authorities can be found on Wikipedia.  So what do these authorities do? How much power do they have?
CCK FCC OFCOMgoss

 

 

The telecoms regulators have a great deal of power. Their expertise should never be underestimated as they will have access to technicians. In sparsely populated countries like Australia and many other countries in Africa, radio has been the main form of communications for many decades. Locally, the authorities will be responsible for the following;

  • Allocation of frequencies to organisations.
  • Equipment type approval.
  • Licensing of media broadcasting (commercial radio and TV stations)
  • Approval of unlicensed equipment (combination of equipment type approval, frequency allocation with transmission power limits).
  • Investigation and enforcement.

Some countries are more sensitive than others to the use of radio and satellite communications. Infringement of regulations will result in a range of punishments such as fines, confiscation of equipment,  imprisonment, deportation or an order for an organization to cease all activity, close and leave the country.

Some countries have a light touch approach, but others will have very prescriptive regulations which must be complied with. Regulations will apply to anything which transmits or receives and can potentially cover VHF Radio, HF Radio, VSAT, portable satellite communications and in some cases, a permit is needed for SatNav (GPS)!

In many countries, NGOs ignore such rules and fail to register equipment. The nature of communications means that the technology can be detected if used which can result in sanctions if the equipment is not licensed.

To get legal can be complex. International NGOs may need to involve other government departments. Licenses might not be awarded by government agencies unless perhaps the following permissions have been obtained:

  • Planning permission for aerials.
  • Validation by the ministry of finance to confirm taxes have been paid on the equipment
  • Proof that the organization applying has sufficiently qualified radio operators
  • Permission granted by police, military and other security related authorities.
  • Permission and support from any agency the NGO is working with.

The process is easier in some countries than others, but not the same in all countries.

How to be legal
The golden rule is to know the rules and do not break them. Here are a few tips on how to stay legal (or get legal!)

  • Know what communications equipment is legal in the country where you are working. In some places, only certain brands of satellite telephone may be used. Also beware of importing mass marketed PMR license free radios. These radios are normally sold in specific regions and comply with local laws. A PMR radio bought in Spain, can be used throughout Europe legally, but would be illegal in the USA, Asia, Middle East and Africa.
  • Do your homework first. When applying for a radio license, you need to develop a country communications plan first. Have an awareness where all of your sites are located. For longer range radio communications such as Codan HF SSB, get expert advice from a radio trusted radio expert. You need to have an understanding of what frequencies are likely to work between sites before you apply for a license.
  • Radio authorities will give you potentially complex forms asking for details about the radio, aerial and radio station location. Make sure accurate information is provided. Get advice from a radio expert if needed. If you do not understand any questions, don’t guess the answer. Always provide accurate and truthful information.

Radio licensing can be expensive as there will be multiple charges. As a bare minimum, organizations will be charged for each frequency they are allocated. In many countries, there might be a fee per every radio, VSAT or satellite phone licensed. Where this is the case, organizations will need to contact the regulator each time a new piece of equipment is commissioned.

The licensing process can take a long time. In some countries, licenses are required before any attempt is made to import a radio. It is really important that procurement teams validate that the radios are permitted in the country to begin with. SCI radio kits comply with most country standards, however be careful about which satellite phones are imported. Inmarsat products are illegal in Ethiopia, but Thuraya is permitted. There will be plenty of other examples.

Do not break the terms of any license. Licenses tend to be specific, and will become invalid if the equipment specification is changed. The easiest way organization break rules is by adding additional frequencies for which they are licensed. Organization have been caught out in Kenya and have been fined.

VSAT also needs licensing. If you have purchased VSAT from a local supplier, and they tell you that your site is licensed, ask for proof. The VSAT is only licensed if you have documentation to prove it.

The license is only valid for use by the organization it has been granted to. If the legal entity of the site changes for any reason (e.g. Equipment and site transferred to local partner), in most countries, the license becomes invalid and a new one in needed.

Special circumstances: In some countries, radios might be programmed by WFP, ETC or another UN agency. Generally they will have a blanket license in place to cover the humanitarian response community. It is essential check that any radios use are covered under such special arrangements.

The big challengechallenge

Are your communications systems in country legal?

  • Do you know where your license(s) kept?
  • Is the license up to date?
  • Does it cover all the radios owned in country?
  • Does it cover  all the frequencies used?
  • Have any changes been made to equipment since the license was granted?
  • Has any equipment been relocated?  If so, was the license updated?

How to make the problem go away.
Action will be required to establish where organisations might be exposed. Once gaps have been identified, the next step is apply for licenses in all places where they may be needed. depending upon the size of your organisation this might end up being a massive task which requires outside help. Specialist businesses such as
Hyde Associates exist to provide licensing assistance. They can project manage license applications and then continue to work with client organisations to actively manage licences so that the organisation remains legal all of the time.

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Internet from Space: Behind the scenes

Each day, hundreds of NGOs and UN agencies access internet services which come from satellites in space. Generally these services are accessed by using large dishes at sites which are located in very remote locations. These dishes and their associated electronics are known as VSAT. Save the Children is operating 50 sites across Africa. Various UN agencies such as WFP and UNHCR operate hundreds of these system. Satellite based internet is very reliable if the right provider is selected. In this article, we are going to unveil the technology behind the scenes in Germany which make this vital service to remote locations so reliable.

EMC 1EMC2

Dishes, small and large
The technology deployed to remote field sites is fairly simple. Typically a system will consist of a dish which is 1.2m to 2.4m depending upon which satellite and frequency is used. Inside, there is a modem connected to the dish outside and it’s the modem which feeds internet access into the local office network. At the teleport things are complex, much more complex. Dishes are much larger as they need to connect to many remote stations via the satellite. There may be many large dishes at the teleport as larger organisations may use multiple satellites to reach wide area via multiple foot prints.

The largest teleport in Germany is at Raisting, close to Munich. This teleport used to be owned by Deutsche Telecom but sold on to EMC, a private operator who provides services to hundreds of UN sites. This site was opened in the 1960’s and its build quality is quite amazing.  Further North in Germany is the CETel teleport which is used by Speedcast to provide its service to the 50 sites operated by Save the Children International. The CETel teleport is much newer. Unlike the massive antennas in Raisting, CETel is using smaller lightweight antennas. 

Raisting history – Cold war and football
The first aerial was built on the site between 1962 and 1962. It was initially used to provide telephone links between the EU and the USA. The dish is housed inside a dome and is still in working order, sometimes used for educational scientific experiments. The Dome and its equipment is now set up as a museum.

Aerials located at the site were used as part of the secure hotline which linked the Whitehouse in the USA to the Kremlin in Russia (Formerly the USSR). Whilst a red telephone has been used in movies etc., the cold war hotline was never a red telephone. The link was initially a telex line. Later it was changed to Fax. These days, the link exists as secure email between the two presidents.

 In addition to voice communications this site has seen some historical broadcasts such as the Olympic games. More recently the FIFA world cup was broadcast to the world during 2006 from Raisting. 

red phonedome

How it all works
The teleport is a 24×7 operation which is providing essential communications links to VSAT sites across a huge area from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian ocean. The clients range from the UN and NGO sites in remote locations to expensive superyachts and cruise liners at sea. This is serious business and a short break in service would cause a lot of inconvenience to many. In the case of some commercial operations such as oil exploration, the loss of internet access could lead to significant financial losses. On this basis, many teleports such as the ones operated by CETel and EMC have ensured that all possible points of failure have been covered.

Electricity is provided to the 20,000V site ring main by the local power company at Raisting. As a backup, there are a number of generators around the site which has the capability to deliver over 4,000 KW of power. This is enough energy to power a small town. Enough fuel is stored at the site to run the generators for a few weeks.

generorator ema tank

In the event of a power failure, generators can take a few minutes to start up. To bridge the power gap, a giant UPS system is in place to keep things running. Many of you will be familiar with the APC UPS which is a combined battery and inverter. The pictures below is also a UPS, but at an enormous scale. This UPS system is so massive that it takes up two floors. The inverter units are on the upper floor, and the batteries are in the bunker. The batteries shown below is just one bank of two in one room, there are other rooms with more batteries. The UPS has enough capacity to run the centre for up to 8 hours.
EMC UPS1 EMC UPS2
Other engine rooms exists to provide other essential services. In the picture below left, boilers are used to generate hot water which is feed to the antennas. Elements in the back of the dishes are heated by the hot water loops to prevent ice forming on the dishes. The heating is essential as the snow which forms at around 2 degrees (locally called “Sticky Snow”) can change the reflective shape of the dish, thus causing communications issues for the remote VSAT sites. Heating is really expensive so to ensure that not too much energy is used up, a very sophisticated monitoring system is in place to make sure that just enough energy is used to keep the dishes clear of snow and ice (Local monitoring panel shown in bottom right picture).
heat 1 heat 2

The power and the heating is just part of a much bigger system which connects the remote VSAT systems to the internet. We are now going to look at some the electronics;

idirect hubSignals from the dish will be routed via several systems to clean up the signal by reducing background interference. Space is a very noisy place and as the satellites are 36,000KM away, the signals will be weak, so need to be amplified. These signals will eventually arrive at a modulator / demodulator which is a device which turns internet data format into a form which can be transmitted through space.  

The picture to the left is the iDirect Hub, which is the technology used by Save the Children and other organizations for their VSAT. Other technologies such as NewTec and Hughes are also popular. These technologies are the demodulators and modulators and as you might expect, these hubs also support other tasks such as network monitoring so that technicians at the centre can check that are performing correctly.  

The hubs are kept in a data centre which is separate to the large dishes. It is here where Space meets the Internet. Signals arrive via fibre optic cables from the dishes and then linked to the internet via dark fibre to the internet. 
Some clients may host their own equipment within the teleport data centre.  

The massive aerials at Raisting are mounted on a multi-level building (Which also contains a toilet!). Fairly high up in the building is another electronics room full of racks which just deal with the radio frequency. The picture on the bottom left shows the units which convert the fibre transmitted information from the data centre. The middle picture is the up-converter which converts the signals into radio frequency, and finally the picture on the right is a power amp which makes the signal powerful enough to send to space.

Wigglyamps 1Wigglyamps 2Wigglyamps 3

From Large to Small!
Typically, VSAT stations used in the remote field sites are too large to carry in an emergency and can take time to set up. At the Raisting teleport, there is a team of engineers who design solutions for field use. The VSAT system shown below is designed to be split up into 5 cases. EMC have worked on the transport cases so that each one weighs less that 23KG which is the standard weight for each item of baggage allowed by most airlines.

Portable VSAT is really designed for short term use such as for emergency responses. It’s during a major crisis where responders will need access to the internet so that they can coordinate activities. Initially, even more portable internet solutions such as BGAN will provide instant internet access from a device which is smaller than a laptop, however at $5 per Mb, BGAN is expensive to run, which is why a portable VSAT needs to be flown in shortly after a response has been launched.

fly 1 fly 2

Conclusion
Where organizations have long term operations at remote sites, or short term projects following a disaster, it is important that people working in remote and disconnected locations are provided with a reliable connection. VSAT providers such as EMC, Speedcast, Eutelsat, Castell, AST, NSSL and many more all have reliable teleports. They build in plenty of redundancy such as multiple power suppliers, multiple internet links and even a spare standby dish which can be trained on a satellite if the normal dish fails. I have visited three of these teleports over the years, all operated by different organizations. One thing which is common to all of them is the people. They are highly trained, experienced and committed. Above all, they really enjoy doing their job in the data centre. It’s the quality of the people and technology combined which helps us stay connected with very little downtime at all.

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Beyond the Grid

One of the biggest challenges for NGOs who operate in remote places is keeping the lights on, especially in locations where national power infrastructure is unreliable. These remote locations are “beyond the grid” so any power requirements need to be provided by organisations themselves.  Generators are the most frequent solution to power problems, but are expensive to run and maintain. A simple failure of a vital component or late delivery of fuel will plunge a site into darkness for a number of days. Lack of power also means other vital services such as communications will begin to fail as backup batteries start to run out of power.

Solar energy systems are often considered as a suitable alternative. As a technologist in the aid sector, I tend to be bombarded with loads of promotional blurb about solar energy dressed up as “The latest scientific breakthrough !” I want to dispel the sales hype from these organisations as 99% of the targeted adverting I receive  is not offering anything new. Solar energy is a very well established industry, offering a very simple solution of solar panels to collect energy, batteries to store it, and some wibbly wobbly electrics to move the power around the circuits. Solar energy as a concept could be considered as a mature product and thus no different to any other market. There plenty of manufacturers and thousands of companies who sell and install the systems. And like other industries, you will find that there is a range of qualities from good to bad. So there is not really much happening which is new in the form of technical innovation.

In this article, I will briefly set out some of the reasons why we might wish to change to solar energy for some sites. I will also cover the reasons why the current approach to solar energy often ends up in failure. Finally I will explain how one organisations is kick starting a pilot to use a new model which could deliver sustainable solar energy systems. Save the Children is being offered an opportunity to take advantage of this new pilot!

smokinWhy change?
In large offices, it’s unlikely that generators can be avoided, simply due to the power needed to run the office and the lack of space to set up an array of solar panels large enough to service the power demand. There are however,  plenty of sites where power loads are modest and could be served by a solar system. A well-designed good quality solar system can outlive generators, are less likely to fail,  quiet and will not pollute. Incorrect implementation of generators lead to unstable power which can destroy sensitive electronics. Poor management of fuel supplies or theft adds to the overall expense of delivering power. During my travels, I have seen plenty of examples where the set-up of  power systems have presented an outright danger to people (a subject covered in some depth in a previous article).

Inverter

The problem with the current solar approach
Over the years,  I have seen many attempts by NGOs to adopt solar energy systems. Many of these systems have not lasted long. Some have failed within a few months after the engineers have left. In Nimule Hospital, South Sudan, a very complicated solar panel array was installed at great expense. The panels were mounted on a mechanical frame which used motors to keep the array pointed at the sun. In my opinion, this was an over engineered solution with too many components which could fail. A great solution for places with access to spares and qualified engineers,  but for a location where there is no ongoing support, this was the wrong solution.

There are other challenges. Real daft things start to happen as shown in the picture to the left. An inverter falls onto the battery bank, no attempt has been made to fix the problem.  Other things are stored in the battery room. Notice the gas bottle to the bottom right? A leak and a spark could result in a significant explosion.

Even when things are set up well and there are qualified electricians to keep on top of things, there will are still significant challenges:

  • Lack of budget or proper design leads to a solar system which is not large enough to service the demand
  • Lack of change management leads to new items being added to the site, more load means that power will not last as long.
  • Where local users are not correctly briefed in the use of power, then batteries will run out of power early.

The solar energy market also has its share of corrupt suppliers. I have direct experience of a situation in the DRC where a supplier tried to pass off cheap Chinese manufactured components as good quality BP solar systems. The fraud did not stop at that. The supplier managed re-labelled products so that panels designed to deliver 100W were labelled as 140W!  As with most industries, there is always a risk of this sort of fraud, and sadly these crooks will often get away with this practice as there is a lack of engineers working for NGOs with the required skills to spot these issues.

Whilst there are plenty of bad examples, I have seen a handful of systems which have been implemented well. In Liberia, West Coast Solar has been building solar energy systems for clinics belonging to the Ministry of Health and  Social Welfare for many years. Their approach ensures that their solutions are fit for purpose and deliver power efficiently for year. As a standard approach, WCS builds in some autonomy so that enough power is stored in batteries to keep the lights on during the days when the weather is overcast.

How the approach to providing solar energy will be disrupted.
Until scientist start to make massive leaps forward in ways that would enable solar panels to produce more power and for batteries to be able to store more energy, we need to find breakthroughs elsewhere. Why is this important?  Firstly, if these technical breakthroughs happen, it takes a long time for new innovations to reach the market as mass produced products. Secondly, the current technology is fit for purpose, it’s just the application of the current technology where breakthroughs are needed.

In a nutshell, here is the solution!

Be more holistic when considering a solar energy system: It is not good enough to just replace a generator with a solar energy system. The design should also change the technology we buy which uses power. Why?  A good solar energy system will generate power for a few hours each day. Energy is stored in batteries. Once all of the energy has been used, there will be no more power created until the sun comes out again. One of the biggest drains on power is caused by inverters, a device designed to convert DC power stored in the batteries to 220V AC. Inverters waste money and its possible that they can be eliminated completely by using DC circuits only. Here are some examples:

  • LED lights have moved efficient energy consumption forward significantly over the past 5 years. Some LED lights can produce the same amount of light as a 100W bulb, yet only consumes 5W or less.
  • Radio equipment runs on 12V, so why do we need to waste energy at the inverter to generate 220V and then use a transformer to reduce it back to 12V again for the radio?
  • Laptops are more efficient than desktop computers. So why not buy laptops for the office and charge them using the same DC charges as people use on aircraft?
  • 12V printers can be used in office spaces.
  • Mobile phones and satellite telephones can also run on 12V. We routinely charge these devices in cars, so why not on a 12V grid in the office?

There will be some things where we will always require 220V, that’s fine, but if we can reduce as many items to 12V as possible, then our energy budget starts to look very sustainable.

Consider a managed solution: A new social enterprise based in Norway may have the solution. Kube Energy wants to work with NGOs to deliver sustainable solar energy solutions. They are developing a very interesting model where they source good quality solar systems and then use qualified local partners to install and then maintain the systems. The uptake of solar energy in developing nations for domestic programmes has led to an increase is manufacturing of solar systems. Since 2010, the increase is manufacturing as resulted in a 60% fall in hardware costs. This means that the concept of using solar instead of a generator is more than financially viable. So what is it Kube does that is different?

The top line benefit is that the NGO will be provided with energy with no upfront costs. Kube uses a leasing model which means that the cost to set up and maintain the system is recovered through monthly payments. Over the lifetime of the system, operational costs will be less than operating a diesel generator. A well designed solar system which is sized correctly to support the load will not have a lot of downtime. Generators on the other hand need to be switched off after a few hours to rest.

What will make this model a success is the way the system will be monitored and maintained. With modern technology it’s possible to monitor and analyse power usage. Any changes in patterns can be quickly identified and actions can be taken to keep the system viable. These actions could include the removal of new and unauthorised loads from the site, or perhaps modification to the system to support a new load.

In their promotional materials, Kube has set out how much money could be saved over a 5 year period for an office which uses 65 KWH per day. This case study was based on a medium size office running 5 aircons, 25 computers, flood lights and an internet connection.

kube stats

If commissioned by an NGO to deliver a solar system, Kube will work closely with the NGO to assess the site. The Kube team will look at the best places to position solar panels, calculate the size of the system (based on load), assess access for delivery and how to secure the system. Based on the outcome of the assessment, Kube will be able to prepare a solar lease proposal.

Kube will then use the assessment data to design a system. Their energy systems range from 5KW up to 200KW. Their systems have been modelled on the designs used by the telecoms industry where reliable systems are needed to power mobile phone towers.

As soon as the lease has been agreed, Kube will deploy local partners to deliver and install the new solar system.

Conclusion
I think we are now at a turning point when it comes to solar energy. If Kube can get its leasing business model off the ground, I believe that it will be a great success as long as system are maintained and organisations are disciplined in the use of power and not add new demands without revising the overall system design. Of course the provision of solar energy system needs to complimented by other actions such as using LED lights and reducing the need for inverters and transformers through the adoption of DC equipment.

For NGOs, there is a now an opportunity to try the model. In 2016, Kube is seeking funding to kick start several pilots. Once they have sourced funding, they will reach out to NGOs for sites to run these pilots. You can learn more about Kube at www.kubeenergy.com

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Keeping up to date to stay safe.

NGOs work in some of the most unstable places on this planet. In some locations there are serious risks from potential natural disasters such as cyclones, volcanoes and earthquakes. Staff safety is also put at risk by man-made events such as war, acts of terrorism or public protest.

Organisations have a duty to keep people safe and will have policies in place to govern how aid is delivered in such a way that risks to staff are reduced.

The flow of information about events is regarded as very important for two reasons:  Firstly if the event happens in a place where the organisation operates, accurate information will enable decision makers to take the correct actions to keep staff safe. Secondly, event information is useful to organisations far away from an event. For example, an alert about a severe earthquake would give emergency response personnel a heads up that they might soon be deployed.

In this article, we will explore some warning and monitoring tools – some are free of charge, others need to be paid for. Note – I have saved the best to last!

Free alerts
There are many organisation on the web which send out alerts when significant natural events take place. The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) is supported by the UN and EU. GDACS is constantly kept up date with many events ranging from minor to major. Coverage is fully global and its free to set up an account.

gdacs

Anyone can set up an account at www.gdacs.org. As soon as the account is active, users will be able to customise settings so that they can receive alerts and updates about various types of natural disaster. For those with a specific interested in a certain geographical region or country, the account can be set to send alerts which only cover the geographical area of interest.

For major natural events such as strong earthquakes near population centres, cyclones and Tsunami alerts, GDACs will send out SMS alerts to subscribers in addition to email messages.

For those with Smartphones, GDACs can be accessed via a fee app.

Other free resources: In addition to GDACs, there are various local options around the world – especially in areas where there are frequent risks. The USGS runs an alert service for seismic events which covers the globe. Weather is a severe risk to the USA and they have set up the National Hurricane Centre (part of NOAA). Their website is a great place to track hurricanes as they form out to sea. Although NOAA is operated by the US Government, the area of coverage includes the Caribbean.

NOAA used to push email and text alerts. This stopped a few years ago as messaging was outsourced to third parties. The link to the NOAA site will take you to a list of third parties who distribute information – some do it for free.

United States Geographical Survey: https://sslearthquake.usgs.gov/ens/ United States Weather (NOAA) http://www.weather.gov/subscribe

Commercial Solutions
International SOSInternational SOS / Control Risks: In addition to natural disasters, travellers need to know about manmade events such as riots, demonstrations, war, acts of terrorism and other risks. Many NGOs use a service which is provided jointly by International SOS and Control risks. Organisations often buy in this service along with medical insurance. Staff who belong to organisations  which have subscribed to this service will be able to keep up to date about local  significant events which can present a risk to safety. The app also links users to country information useful to travellers – normally information about visas, security, travel, medical and culture information for business travellers. A button is also included so that the local number for International SOS is dialled should medical assistance be required.

Safeture – Global Warning System (GWS): Whilst free solutions such as GDACs are free, they should only be regarded as one jigsaw in the big safety and security picture. International SOS/Control Risks are two very reputable organisations who provide really reliable information from its network of global agents. Safeture GWS to me is the Gold standard as this system is much more than a means to access information or connect people to medical assistance. GWS connects staff to their safety and security teams in a very ingenious way using the technology that exists in may smart phones.

GWS an advanced safety and security management system. The control portal allows managers to sign on and view current information alerts for all countries where staff are based. Safeture has developed a system which captures information from a wide variety of sources ranging from local news services to global systems like GDACs. For events of high importance such as Tsunami alerts, the system is designed to get the alerts to staff automatically as services such as USGS and GDACs are regarded as trusted sources. Real people will monitor further news following any event and will rerelease information as soon as its been verified (This happens quickly by the way).

Important messages are delivered to users via SMS as well as the internet App.

The screen shot below shows the main overview screen. Staff locations are displayed along with a link so that managers can send messages directly to staff by SMS. In an event such as a terrorist attack,  this system gives organisations the ability to track staff, account for their safety and to send instructions  – perhaps informing them of a safe place to muster.

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GWS can be downloaded as an app onto Android, Apple, Blackberry and Microsoft smartphones.

The GWS app utilises several features on the smartphone to provide the end user with a complete safety and security service.  The app uses a combination of GPS and network triangulation to establish the users location. This enables the app to display relevant national information. Users can also display information for other countries. GPS is also used to report the users location back to the system so that managers can monitor.

The SOS button brings up a new screen which allows the user to call local emergency services such as the police. If such a call is made, notification goes back to the system to let managers know that an SOS call has been made.

Staff may not wish to be monitored all of the time if they are present in their home countries and “off duty” To protect the privacy of the user, the smart phone can be set to only report which country the user is located, but not where in that country.

In addition to news and alerts, WGS also displays country information. The content is similar to what is provided by Control Risks, but organisations can also add further information such as country office locations, contact lists, and curfew information.

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Conclusion
In highly insecure environments this is possibly the most effective security solution I have seen to date. Specialist tracking devices can attract the wrong sort of information. The ability to deliver an information and tracking system on devices which people already own is just pure ingenuity. This system will work well in most places where there is basic mobile coverage. In places where there is no internet access, staff will be able to receive important alerts via SMS and then send back their locations by SMS by pressing a button on the handset. Safeture GWS would be a great investment for any organisation who take safety and security seriously.

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