2019 New Stuff

In this issue of the Tuesday Technical, you will find a round-up of some great innovative ideas from recent trade events such as the Mobile World Congress, Aid and Trade and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster open day. We will also take a close look into a great product from the Finance Technology Sector (known as “FINTECH”) which could potential save money for the frequent travellers who work in the aid sector.

In this issue of the Tuesday Technical, you will find a round-up of some great innovative ideas from recent trade events such as the Mobile World Congress, Aid and Trade and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster open day. We will also take a close look into a great product from the Finance Technology Sector (known as “FINTECH”) which could potential save money for the frequent travellers who work in the aid sector.

Fintech: For the longest time, the banking sector has made huge sums of money from Aid workers as they move from country to country. Whether its hard cash being changed to a different currency or we use debit or credit cards, it’s the bank who always win. The new Fintech companies are starting to challenge traditional banks. MPESA is a great example where mobile money changed the way people got paid and settled bills in Kenya.

For international travellers, there is now a great solution known as the borderless account from Transferwise. This new type of account allows the account holder to keep multiple currencies linked to a single debit card (facilitated by the Mastercard network). The debit card can be used to pay for items or to draw cash from an ATM.  The debit card can be topped up online via a bank transfer in many leading currencies. Once funds have been added to the Transferwise account, they can be converted to a wide range of other currencies using the mid-market standard rate (which is the same as currencies listed on XE.com) Here is an example of what rates would look like at today’s rates using Transferwise vs other accounts:

£100 buys $125.84 via Transferise (Including a fee of £0.92), $123.23 via Barclays Bank and $124,18 via Travelex.

Another benefit with Transferwise is that with each account, you will get a local bank account for each currency. On my Transferwise account, I have a USD balance with its own USA bank account information. This is now starting to save me money as when I am paid expenses in USD, I have the choice of keeping the cash in USD for future use or switching to GBP or EUROS at competitive rates. This could be a great money saver for those who get paid in one currency but live in a location which uses another currency. In April, my bank charged me at a rate of 1.34 to change USD to GBP, where Transferwise was 1.30 ! 

For more information, please visit https://transferwise.com

Solar Cow station

Power for the communities: One of the things which really frustrate me in the energy sector is when I get some smooth sales pitch from so-called inventors who claims to have a unique idea to solve energy in the Global South. As we approach the end of the sale pitch and we approach the great reveal, the solution often turns out to be yet another solar lantern. Whilst solar lanterns are really useful, this concept is so mainstream now that innovators need to stop pushing the solar lantern as something new!

So as you can imagine, with my scepticism around this portable energy area it does take something special to grab my attention. At the London Aid and Trade show this year, Yolk, a company based in Korea  has developed the “Electric Cow”. This is an innovative way to get small amounts of energy to families in return for allowing their children to attend school. This is how it works:

The system is very simple. A solar panel is built onto a frame which is made in the shape of a cow. The udder underneath (see photo) is a docking station to charge small batteries. When a child arrives at school for the day, he/she will place the battery in the dock. Here the attendance of the children is logged and the battery will be charged during the day. Each battery has a unique code which enables the child to be identified.

At the end of the day, the child takes the battery home where it can be used to power a LED light for three hours or charge a mobile phone. It’s a simple idea, but one which can have a sustainable impact on communities as batteries can be replaced by the school as and when they wear out. See more at http://yolkstation.com/solar-cow-project/

Innovation in communication: Push To Talk (PPT) is a well-known open method used to communicate in an open setting. This is where one station transmits by pushing a button, and all other people on the same channel can hear what is being said. The PTT method has its origins in radio and has been used in mainly a safety and security context. In fleet management is a great way to reach all vehicles simultaneously with important messages to multiple vehicles. In a security related situation, a PTT call can be made to ask for assistance.

PTT has been slowly declining over the years as people move to the more private direct dial calls using mobile phones. Whilst this change is great for privacy, I still believe that PTT is still the best means of communication for fleets as its simple to use, and certainly safer for drivers who might need to pass important messages whilst driving. PTT is initiated at the push of a button, where as a privately dialled call requires some attention from a driver and if answered, the message goes to one person.

The PTT method is still as relevant now as it has always been for decades. The good news is that PTT innovation is delivering some great new solutions for the aid sector. Motorola has introduced some new technology which could have some impact at a local level. Iridium introduced its satellite PTT solution a few years ago (as reported previously in the Tuesday Technical). I have an update on new iridium technology from Icom, a well-established maker of radios.

So let’s first take a look at what Motorola is doing.  

The new TLK100 looks like a radio and works like a PTT radio, but it’s not a radio! It uses the internet to establish talk channels through either its built in WiFi or GSM SIM card. With additional infrastructure, these devices can communicate with traditional VHF radios. But if you wanted to run a small radio network locally over WiFi hotspots or a larger network over a wide area via the cell network, this solution has some advantages over radio as follows;

  • Unlike VHF radio, PTT over the internet is private.
  • Radio licenses are not required.
  • Communications cover could be better than VHF as it relies on internet connections rather than a single base radio station.

VHF has a limitation of cover; roughly 20KM max. Traditionally where PTT radio has been needed beyond the range of an urban setting, HF radio from manufacturers such as Codan and Barret would be used. HF has not been a massive success due to its complex nature. But in areas where mobile phone networks are reliable, the TLK100 could be a suitable option.

Finally, it is also possible to download an app from Motorola so that a standard mobile phone can be used to communicate with TLK100 handsets over the internet!

So let’s look at take a look at what Iridium has been doing in the PTT area recently.

Towards the end of 2018, Iridium complete its launch series and now have a completely new satellite constellation in place. A couple of years ago, Iridium launched its PTT service as part of the new satellite fleet. There are also plans to improve the Iridium data offer, but we will look at this in a future edition of the Tuesday Technical.

In 2017, I tried out Iridium PTT in the UK, Nepal, USA and South Sudan. Whilst I was impressed with the technology and coverage, the audio quality from the PTT version of the Iridium Extreme satellite telephone was far from good. The problem was down to the way Iridium was trying to use the built in earpiece (designed for low volume next to the ear!) as a loud speaker. The audio distortion was so great that it made the handset almost useless. The workaround for the PTT Handset is to plug in an external microphone/handset.

So it is good news that ICOM has entered the game with its new IC-SAT100. Icom is a traditional radio manufacturer from Japan, which means that the handset looks like a radio and will operate like a radio. But as it uses the Iridium satellite network, it will have global cover without the dead spots which HF Radio users frequently experience.  

The ICOM is yet to appear on the market, and when it does, I will test the new tech and report back!

Logistics in the clouds

Responsible deployment of drones: In some regions of the world, the word “Drone” has a lot of negative meaning. Here in the UK, the use of drones brought Gatwick, one of the UK largest airports to a standstill for almost two days. In other places, military drones owned by nation states have been used to bomb people whilst small cheap domestic drones have been used by ISIS to deliver IEDs.

So the word “Drone” has a lot of negative baggage and for the same reason, UAV is getting a bad press as well, So guess what?  Some bright person has come up with a nice new acronym; UAS which stands for Unmanned Aviation Systems!

OK, let’s look at the  positive. Drones are increasingly heading towards becoming a major tool for humanitarian work. Over the past year I have seen plenty of examples ranging from aerial photography to delivering items. At the Mobile World Congress this year, one organisation was showcasing a drone cell-phone transmitter which is able to cover a wide area following a major disaster such as an earthquake.

Drone’s, UAV,s, UAS’s or whatever we might call these devices in the future are coming our way quickly. It is important that as the aid sector that we develop our organisations strategies and polices to handle this technology properly. The World Food Programme is showing some great leadership in this area by running a training course which covers the topic very thoroughly over three modules as follows:

  1. 2 days flight experience: This is the “hands on” training where students get to fly a range of UAS technologies including long range fixed wing models.
  2. 4 days data training:  This module explores what sort of data can be collected from UAS and how it can be used to inform decision makers. There is some GIS Mapping included in this module.
  3. 4 Days Regulatory & Coordination: In any country, you cannot just show up and fly. Same applies for UAS. This technology is super sensitive in some places which means that if an unregulated drone is flown, the pilot can end up in a deep trouble.  So in the model, students will cover aviation law and other hot topics such as data protection and privacy. As part of the same session, coordination is also covered. It’s much better for perhaps a small number of organisations operate drones and share data rather than NGOs filling the skies with loads of expensive and noisy hardware.

Hopefully as organisations start to build up their institutional UAS capacity, we will see this new technology being operated legally and responsibly for the benefit of the communities we all serve.

GPS Clock Rollover – Will my Satnav work after the 6th April?

models were quite large and came at a huge cost of over $2,000. Since 1991, GPS receivers have become much smaller and now built into many everyday items including phones, tablets and satellite telephones such as those made by Iridium, Thuraya and Inmarsat. GPS is also used by some IT systems as a reference point for accurate time.

Old GPS from the 1990’s

The clock system used by the GPS system is completely different to the time format of hours, minutes and seconds we all use. On April the 6th, 2019, the clock system used by GPS will reach its highest number and will the roll over to zero and start again. This is very similar to the computer clock problem which was known as the Millennium Bug or Y2K.

Recent press reports have hyped up the GPS roll over as a big problem. One executive from Trend Micro stated at a conference recently that he will not be flying on the 6th April. So do we have a problem? Absolutely not. We have been here before as the GPS clock system last rolled over in 1999 with no major problems created. Planes did not fall out of the sky, and everybody’s sat-nav did not stop working. So in this article, I am going to explore the science between the GPS clock and explain what we will all remain safe and why GPS technology will keep running.

GPS depends upon its clock system

The GPS systems uses accurate atomic clocks for a time reference. Time is used to calculate distance based on the speed that radio waves take to travel from  the satellites to GPS receiver. A minimum of four satellites are needed to calculate a three dimension fix  (Latitude, Longitude and Altitude).

As GPS needs highly accurate time keeping, the time signals from the GPS system is also used by IT systems as a time reference. One example of this in action is the computer systems used to trade stock and shares around the world.

The GPS system is digital which means that data is managed using binary code (ones and zeros). Days, Hours, Minutes and seconds is a format which does not work in computing, so binary counters are used to measure time in a different format which is easier to use. Software on the GPS units convert the GPS binary time to the normal format we all use.

The counter used to measure weeks is known as “10 bit binary” which means that a maximum 1024 weeks are counted before the counter is goes round the clock and back to zero. The GPS clock started in 1980 and the first time the counter reached its maximum count took place in August 1999. There were no major issues back then.

Does the clock roll over present a risk?

Several newspapers in the UK has published some alarming articles predicting disaster. The SUN is one example of scaremongering which has no scientific grounding. Many responsible commentators have added comments to some of these news articles questioning the poor content written by people who do not have any idea about the technology. The truth of the roll over is this – The GPS system will continue to operate and nobody has any reason to worry! So here is the reality check:

  • SatNav and other systems using GPS technology will stop working?  Untrue!  The clock rollover occurred in 1999, GPS manufacturers have been aware of this issue for a long time and have built function into the design of systems to cope with the rollover. It is unlikely that anyone will have an issue with a GPS purchased anytime over the past 5 years or more.
  • Some leading commentators have said that there could be issues with flights and other forms of transport?  Untrue! Ships and aircraft use multiple technologies to navigate in addition to GPS. Many modern satellite communications also use the Chinese and Russian navigation systems as well as the USA GPS system.
  • Cell phones and satellite phones will stop working as they lose their time reference? Untrue!  Phones normally get their time reference from the communications network. Some modern phones also include the Russian and Chinese versions of GPS,

Conclusion:  Ignore the press hype which predicts doom and gloom. GPS will carry on working as normal. Most systems will have the capability to handle the roll over. For that extra reassurance, people can update the software (known as firmware) on older GPS receivers so they can be 100% sure that there will not be an issue.

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.  

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.  

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?

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).


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.

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

Digital aid for refugees

For many years, IT and telecoms have had a very important role to play in most humanitarian responses. The main focus has been to provide reliable communications and connectivity to aid workers who are responding to a crisis. Organisations such as the Emergency Telecoms Cluster (ETC) exist to provide the telecoms and connectivity which emergency responders rely on. In a crisis, it has been recognised that not only aid workers need access to the internet, the wider affected population also needs to access the internet as well. Organisations are starting to provide services to affected populations already. This year, the ETC have fully embraced the concept into its ETC2020 strategy and have established a new working group consisting of Save the Children, Nethope and the CDAC Network. This new workgroup is exploring how we can deliver connectivity to the affected populations.

As the ETC working group is holding meetings to discuss what the “services to affected communities” will look like, Nethope (an IT membership body run by over 25 NGOs) is already on the ground making a difference. In this article, we will explore what is being done to provide connectivity and some of the challenges we face

The Syrian crisis has led to many people being displaced in Europe. More than 11 million people have been displaced which makes this situation the largest mass movement of population since world war 2. More than 4 million people have fled the country completely. Each day, refugees by the hundreds to thousands are on the move. Until a few years ago, Syrians lived in cities which had reliable infrastructure and plenty of internet connectivity. This mobilised population of refugees are educated, and some have money. It has been reported that the three questions asked when a refugee lands are:  1) Where am I? (They are wanting confirmation that they have reached the safety of the EU), 2) How can they get access to the internet and 3) where can they buy food.

GSM mastWithin the wider humanitarian community, the concept of providing connectivity to refugees is being regarded almost with the same importance as food, water and shelter. Reliable internet access is an enabler as organisations are starting to use cash voucher systems over mobile networks to deliver aid. The monitoring and evaluation specialist use mobile technologies to get feedback from affected populations about the aid they received. GSM masts are being set up in and around some of the world’s largest refugee camps where people will be living for long periods of time. At the recent humanitarian summit in Geneva, UNHCR stated that across all camos, the average length of stay is 17 years. With such vast numbers of people staying in these camps for long periods, its easy to understand why the major network operators are keen to get coverage to the camp. It has been said that the Safricom GSM mast in the Dadaab camp has the second highest amount of financial transactions each day via its MPESA system.

Connectivity is not where it ends, it’s what we do with that connectivity which is really important. Information is power and if we can get the correct sort of information to the people who needs it, then there is an opportunity to disrupt established practices for the betterment of all. One example of this disruption is where farmers in remote villages have been linked to market prices in the cities far away. This information has enabled the farmers to negotiate better prices from the middlemen who moves the produce to market. This has had a very positive impact on some remote communities.

 So whilst there are plenty of examples of technology making a difference in places where things are more settled, there is also a need to provide connectivity to people in the time of crisis. This needs to be done from the get-go. For example following an earthquake in an urban setting, alongside medical and rescue people, the telecoms engineer is also an emergency responder. Bringing mobile networks back online is essential as it means that people who are entrapped will be able to call for help using a mobile phone. There is some solid data from Haiti to support this.

Returning to the Syrian Crisis, connectivity is needed for a mobile population. Organisations like the Nethope are responding and have plans to establish a line of internet hotspots along the migration routes in Europe. The main networks have gaps, or where there is coverage, the network is not robust enough to deal with the vast number of users trying to connect. Nethope and its members are working towards a solution which will make a difference.


The programme Nethope is running is very thoughtful as they are not just creating hotspots, they have thought through how the connectivity will be used.

Cyber security is the top priority. Alongside the physical war, a cyber war is also being waged. The population is running away from danger and may still have families inside of Syria. On this basis, networks need to be secure so that no information can leak out which could place relatives who remain in Syria in danger. There has already been reports of murders following information gained through a Skype spoofing act. Nethope are co-opting some of the best brains from Cisco to make its network secure.

  • Mobile smartphones need power, so Nethope will set up charging stations at every site where a hotspot is set up.
  • Information is needed so that refugees can find out where they can access services such as health care, shelter and so on.
  • Children are not being educated, so there is a plan to develop and roll out an education app which can be accessed at all points along the migration route.


All of this costs money and Nethope has launched an appeal. More information about this project can be found online at www.nethope.org.

It is clear that telecoms and IT have a major role to play now in humanitarian response. It is now important that during any emergency response that senior telecoms/IT people are brought into the response senior leadership teams as IT and communications is starting to touch everything we do. The techies have a lot to offer any emergency response and should not be regarded as “the geek who just fixes computers”.