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

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.


Anyone can set up an account at 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: United States Weather (NOAA)

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.


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.


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.

Innovation – The best of 2015

Each year I am bombarded with new ideas from various inventors, some inventions are wacky, but are still looking for a problem to be solved. Other ideas could be useful but needs a little more work. Occasionally I am shown technology which is cheap simple and makes the problems they are trying to solve just disappear. Towards the end of 2015, I attended Aidex and the Nethope Summit.  Here are a few solutions which caught my eye.

airdrop 1Airdrops: a 20th century  concept with a 21st century twist
Aviators have been throwing all sorts attached to parachutes out of the back of low flying aircraft for nearly 100 years, so what could be new?

Traditionally airdrops have been used to deliver leaflets or much larger items.  The key challenge with larger items is that if its food, medicines or other items, is that they may be damaged when the package lands. As most items may be in a cluster of large packages, some people may grab all of the items and then sell it on – not the desired intention.

In 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti, logistics was the main challenge as there was a massive requirement to ship “stuff” to the places it was needed, but airport access was a challenge – a key bottleneck which prevents aid getting to affected populations.  Access to airports have been a major challenge during a few emergencies since Haiti, so how can we bypass the airport and get basic items to affected populations at scale? 

Sky Life ( have developed a system which delivers essential items like food, water, first aid kits to people over a wide area. It works similar to leaflet drops but with a difference. Boxes are dropped from planes which open up whilst still airborne. Small packages which are light enough to cause injury can be delivered over a wide area in an urban setting.

airdrop 2During a crisis such as an earthquake, people need information about where they might be able to get help. Its during disasters like earthquakes where infrastructure may be damaged and prevents radio stations and mobile networks from operating. The tradition method of leaflet drops may have limited value in some communities where literacy rates are high.

Sky Life have developed a technical solution to make the task of delivering messages more efficient. For a number of years, it has been possible to buy cheap greeting cards which have some cheap electronics built in to play a song or a pre-recoded message. The Live Leaf is a card which will play a pre-recorded message about where help can be found.

The innovation does not stop at messaging. Sky Life is developing a more technical version of the live leaf which has a built in AM or FM radio receiver tuned to the correct frequency where up to date information will be broadcast.

Other developments in the pipeline include a GPS tracker and two way communications. People will be able to let emergency responders know what sort of aid is needed. Signals would be picked up by aircraft which may be in range.

Skylife have developed the technology to load new messages onto Life Leaf quickly so that up iodate messages  can be loaded on the card immediately before planes depart from adjacent countries to the disaster.

drone 1The eye in the sky
“Drones” have been in the media for some time now and mainly for the wrong reasons. Large military drones are used to gather intelligence and to launch weapons, so the use of the word “Drone” can cause a great deal of concern in some countries. Smaller lightweight drones have been used during humanitarian response, most recently in Nepal. In the aid sector, people prefer to use the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. These aerial platforms have been used to film affected areas using high definition cameras. In some emergencies, getting a birds eye view of a situation will enable humanitarian aid coordinators to map out what assistance is needed  and where.

UAVs are lightweight and can be deployed instantly. Before UAVs appeared, NGOs had to rely on film footage from light aircraft and helicopters, an expensive solution which may not always be available due to airport access and operational costs.

Dan Office IT ( is a leading supplier of UAVs to NGOs. They have deployed to a number of recent disasters and have supported the response community by providing aerial footage to NGOs.

drone 2UAVs have become very popular for leisure use in recent years. UAVs are mass produced to various qualities and many cheaper UAVs are made to poor quality. As UAVs are remote control, it is really important that good quality UAVs are purchased which has the required range. Beware of the low grade UAVs which operate over Wi-Fi as they go out of range after just over 100 metres.

Helicopter style UAVs are best suited to very local operations. Battery life is often quite short. For longer range reconnaissance, we still need to rely on traditional aviation, but Dan Office are planning to bring fixed wing UAVs to the market. The UAV in the picture has the ability to take of vertically.

So far UAVs are mainly used for filming, but as the technology advances they might be able to achieve much more. For example UAVs could be used to act as a communications relay between the Live Leaf technologies?  Larger UAVs might be able to carry out air drops.

There could be some challenges to operating UAVs as various countries are trying to regulate their use. In the USA, laws exists which forbids UAVs from being used near to public buildings. The CAA are serious considering setting up a registration system due to the high volume of UAVs being purchased for personal use. In other countries, the use of UAVs may be regulated by various state departments such as civil aviation,  military, police, data protection and perhaps communications. Data protection can be very sensitive as people may wish to assert their privacy from overhead cameras.

3d pThe small industrial revolution
I have been to plenty of events and trade shows where various organisations have demonstrated 3D printing. On each occasion these new machines have produced a perfectly formed rabbit, a model of the Eifel Tour or some other worthless piece of plastic. I am sure many other would have asked what is the point of 3D printing?  Why should we spend money on this toy?  Is this yet another solution looking for a problem to fix?

During the Aidex Expo in Brussels, one organisation managed to convince me that perhaps 3D printing could be useful to the aid sector. The key area where I can see this technology adding some value is for plumbing parts. Water and sanitation systems have many types of joints and valves and over time things wear out. Getting replacement parts can be a major challenge. It may be impractical due to lack of storage space and finance to hold a vast stock of spares, so what if we started a new industrial revolution to make our own spares on site? 

3D printers are now readily available and come in all sorts of sizes. Currently items are made from plastic. Complex 3D printers exists which can produce items made from metal, but this sort of technology is expensive and found in industries such as Space, Aviation and Defence.

Plastic is good for now. We can replace existing plastic parts with new parts we can make ourselves on site. 3D printing can be a great enabler for making items out of other materials. The method is really simple, use a 3D printer to create a mould and from that, you can create plenty of objects at high volume.

3D printers are just one part of the solution. To create objects, special software is need to be installed on a connected computer to turn a design into an actual object. In the emergency setting, if an engineer needs a new widget designed quickly, online communities now exists who will design objects for you.

As 3D technology advances, the way we procure many things may be disrupted. We are nowhere near being able to produce really complex working items such as computers using 3D printing, but I can see 3D printing having a disruptive impact on simple construction items such as plumbing. This could be a great opportunity for small business as a local shop will have the capacity to deliver a vast range of products from a 3D Printer.

Initially, the key challenges to disruptive change will not be the technology, it will be intellectual property rights. People who design and patent designs will realise a small royalty on every item made and sold. Copying existing parts will start to attract legal challenges. In due course a design license solution is likely to appear which ensures that an inventor gets a fee for each fee a 3D printer makes. No doubt the 3D Intellectual Property will suffer the same challenges as the software industry.

Satellite Communications: The good and the ugly!

Over the past 15 years, there has been a massive expansion in the availability of mobile networks in developing countries. Many NGOs have adopted mobile phones as a primary form of communication. The costs associated with running mobile are very small compared with running a satellite telephones as mobile handsets and airtime are a fraction of the costs of using satellite. Due to the low price of GSM technology, more people in NGO teams are being issued with mobile phones by their organisations. This has really improved the efficiency of an operation as GSM has made it very easy to reach individuals in a team.  

Before GSM really took off, radio and satellite communications were the only means to communicate. For those of you who go back further than the 1990’s the only option back then was radio. Satellite and radio still has a major role to play as many NGOs operate in the most challenging places in the world where security may be poor and infrastructure weak. This week, it was brought to my attention that one mobile network in South Sudan failed for a number of weeks. This meant that people operating in the area affected had to revert to radio and satellite. Most organisations will have safety and security policies in place which defines the need for back up communications. Across the globe many NGOS and UN organisations operate very large sat-phone fleets.  Save the Children operates more than 600 satellite telephones. In this article, we will explore the “good” and the “not so good” about satellite communications.


 The Good: An essential safety net

 Satellite phones do not relay on local infrastructure which makes them a great back up for emergencies or as a means for routine communication in remote places where there are gaps in coverage. Very recently the higher end models from Thuraya, Iridium and Inmarsat have included a distress button so that help can be summoned in an emergency. Iridium has partnered with GEOS ( where all active Iridium phones (Iridium Extreme and Iridium Go) can be registered for the basic monitoring service at no extra cost. Monitoring is activated by filling in an online form with details about two emergency contacts. Once set up, if the emergency button is pressed, the Iridium will send location details to the GEOS monitoring centre where duty staff will attempt to contact the people listed on its system.

For an additional fee, GEOS can be more proactive and instigate a call on behalf of the satellite phone owner to capable rescue authorities. In places where search and rescue is not provided by the government, GEOS have arrangements in place for calling in private airplanes and helicopters for search and rescue or medivac. Whilst the monthly subscription is very low, organisations should be prepared to be hit with a hefty bill should private SAR resources are mobilised. Emergency buttons on most sat phones have a cover which means that accidental alerts should not occur. If subscribing organisations do sign up to GEOS, end users should be thoroughly briefed.  

 Thuraya does not have an agreement with any external organisation, however its SOS button can be set up to call or send a message to any pre-defined contact. Inmarsat has Search and Rescue in its DNA. Inmarsat was founded initially as an NGO to provide direct voice communications and distress alerting capability for ships at sea which still exists to this very day. On land, Inmarsat’s new IsatPhone 2 includes a button where distress messages can be sent to pre-set numbers.

Whilst both Inmarsat and Thuraya do not have any formal agreement with a monitoring centre, there are organisations such as Sicuro of Dubai who can offer such services. Organisations can also make their own arrangements by setting up an emergency phone manned by a security officer 24/7 to receive calls for help.

Older sat phones will not have that emergency button, however an emergency contact number can be added to the speed dial list.


The Ugly: Satellite telephone SIM card frustration 

Satellite phones are a great resource, especially in times of emergency. However managing a fleet of over 600 devices for an NGO such as Save the Children comes with it challenges. The majority of funding comes from institutional donors and quite rightly, NGOs are directed to go to the market on a regular basis to seek out the best deal. The satellite networks do not deal direct with subscribing organisations, instead specialists organisations such as Castell Satcom Radio exists to resell services on behalf of all networks. In the NGO community we are fortunate to be served by some great resellers, but in my opinion the market is completely broken as it is not easy to migrate between providers.  

Over the years, I have launched a tender for satellite services on at least four occasions for NGOs. The tendering process is meant to get the best deal on the table for NGOs. Each time a tender is launched, various resellers will make a big effort to bid for business.  The big challenge begins if an organisation receives a better deal and wants to switch to a new provider. For Save the Children, that means 600 SIM cards would need to be sent to hundreds of destinations. People need to physically swap each SIM card, from HQ level, trying to get everyone is more of a challenge than you might think. A recent exercise to swap 150 SIM cards was launched 7 months ago following the migration of Merlin into SCI. The task is still ongoing but will soon be complete.

I have migrated SIM cards on at least three occasions in the past, and it was painful on each occasion. In a few years time when we go out to the market again, the idea of having to change 600+ SIM cards does not fill me with joy.

In a bidding contest, we ask the market to compete which they do well. Across all of the bids, there is not a massive difference in pricing. The cost of the effort to swap 600 SIM cards will far outweigh the savings made due to the cost in time to change SIM cards. So the market is really broken and all of the networks need to step in and fix it. The current arrangement is neither good for the NGOs or the resellers. The NGOs cannot drive down costs in airtime by switching providers due to the effort required. The resellers have very little prospect of winning new business from the completion, so nobody is winning here. With each reseller being within a gnats breath of each other with airtime pricing, the only incentive I would have to move to a new provider is if I was receiving very bad service from my current provider. My advice for any organisation who might be setting up satellite communications for the very first time is to ensure you get the right provider from the start. This way, pain will be avoided in the future.

The other big frustration is that each time we change a SIM card, the phone number changes as well.   

Whilst the technology is brilliant, the account management side of the operation needs to improve and it’s the big networks like Inmarsat, Iridium and Thuraya which needs to fix things. We need each network to simply set up a system where organisations can migrate from one provider to another without the need to swap SIM cards and change phone numbers. Lessons can be learnt from the cellular telecoms industry as in some countries there are systems in place for people to retain the same number if the move from one provider to the next. The system could be as simple as the old provider giving the client an authorisation code to migrate the SIM and phone number to the new provider. The activity stays on the same network so should be achievable. What I am not asking for is the ability to swap numbers between different networks as this is certainly not needed and technically unfeasible.  

The satellite communications get full marks from me for recent service and technology innovation, but I am now calling on the networks to provide a reliable account migration system so that we can turn the world of portable satellite communications into a truly competitive market place.  

Exploring GIS and data collection.

“GIS” is a term used very frequently within the humanitarian sector and stands for Geographical Information System. For many, this conjures up the image of very complicated IT systems. GIS can be a very complex science as it’s the place where maps and big data will meet. In this article, I n this article, I am going to put the potlight on GIS as a concept and explain what GIS is all about. I will also point you in the direction of resources where you can try out GIS for yourself.

GIS is not new
osMaps have been in existence for centuries and defined in some dictionaries as “A representation of the earth’s surface or part of it” Maps are more complex than this definition as they go well beyond simple aerial photographs. When drawn in graphical form such as the UK map (left), information can be added about the features. Contours show how steep the hills are, the red shade shows land which belongs to the army and dangerous to enter. Symbols are used to identify items of interest such as a public telephone. A map is therefore graphical information in its own right. Before the computer age, the Graphical Information  System would possibly have been a filing cabinet of information which would be used by map makers to make up the maps such as the ordnance survey maps used in the UK.air map

 Maps such as ordnance survey are made for mass production and often referred to as base maps. There are many specialists professions who require specific information to be added to maps .The Aviation industry is a good example where information regarding flight paths,  no-fly zones and airfield approaches are overlaid onto standard maps so that pilots can find their way around.


How technology disrupted map making
Specialist maps which contain additional information have mainly been limited to certain professions and would have been expensive to produce due to short print runs. The process of adding additional and new information would be a combination using ink to write new information onto a map, and a method to provide feedback to the original mapmaker so that new information could be included in the next edition of the map. Advances in printing technology and computerised mesriapping systems has enabled maps containing very customised information to be produced on demand.  Large format printers and GIS software has brought the art of mapmaking from the large map makers straight to places where maps will be used. One prime example of where maps are needed in a hurry is during disaster relief.

ESRI is one of the worlds leaving GIS systems and provides software either as an online system or as software loaded directly on a computer.

GIS in actionnargis map
A good GIS system will have a collection of base maps to which data can be added. Any form of data can be added to maps to be represented as graphical information. In large scale emergency responses, organisations such as MapAction will often deploy GIS volunteers from the mapping industry to create the many maps which will be required as part of the response.   

Let’s look at an example;

 In 2008, Cyclone Nargis passed through SW Myanmar and affected the population in the delta. MapAction used a combination of satellite imagery and aerial photography to produce the map of the affected areas. The map to the left shows the areas affected by flood (illustrated by red shade) and the path of the cyclone (blue line).

In any emergency the initial maps will display basic information about what damage has been done and what populations have been affected. This information is vital for emergency response organisations as they will be able to use the maps to make decisions about where relief efforts need to be focused.

As the response develops, coordination bodies such as UN OCHA, national and local government will require “WWW” information (Who is providing assistance, Where they are working and What services they provide).

Data can be a challenge
The key challenge faced by map makers is the wide range of data formats people use for different purposes. The basic data about who is doing what and where, is normally the starting point a later on, other people will begin to collect monitoring and evaluation data which can also be used to build maps.

 Whilst ESRI’s ArcGIS products have emerged almost as the industry standard tool to create maps, in the same was as Microsoft Word is the system of choice to create documents, the journey towards identifying a suite of tools for collecting data is still being made. Data collection is recognised as an issue and each year, new initiatives are launched to solve the issue. The problem is that many of these initiatives are looking at the same set of issues. I feel that it would be more fruitful if the various organisations looking at data collection could start to work together in order to define a new standard for data collection and create a suite of tools to collect it?

Does ESRI have the solution?
Amongst the many data collection initiatives ESRI launched a new smartphone application to collect data. The app is available for android and apple smartphones collectorand tablets. The new app is called “Collector for ARGIS” and can be configured with forms to collect information for ARCGIS maps. This new app was launched using lessons learnt by ESRI during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The screenshots below shows a form used to collect information about damage to properties and how families were affected by an Earth quake. If the smartphone is online, the data is immediately sent to ESRI servers for so that people can see the most up to date situation as data is collected by people on the ground. The apps also work offline and will store data until the field teams reach a place where they can connect to the internet and upload data

Try it for yourself
GIS is the place where data meets mapping. ESRI is often considered as the “Swiss Army Knife” of GIS systems has it has so many tools available.  Argis Online (, is an internet resource where it’s possible for people to create their own maps and share them with others. Anyone can sign up with a Public account which allows people to create basic maps. Public accounts have limited features but it’s possible to create maps and manually overlay text and shapes. A fully featured account includes many data tools. It’s possible to explore the advance functions by signing up for a 60 day trial. In the example below, a map has been created which shows expected radio coverage from two radio stations.

chad map

Whilst GIS is a well-established discipline with ESRI considered as the leading system, there remains some challenges around the task of collecting data. I would like to think that the new ArcGIS collector is showing some promise and as it is designed by ESRI, the prospect of a standard turnkey system which collects data and produces the same maps will make the art of GIS a lot more efficient. ESRI has a global footprint of resources which means that support is available in most places and in many languages. There is also a massive amount of online training materials to support ESRI products – much of it free of charge.

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

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”.



UN rolls out digital radio – Do NGOs need to throw away existing radios?

Short range VHF radio communications is changing for the better. For many years many UN agencies and NGOs have used analogue radio systems. Many leading manufactures like Motorola are ditching the analogue almost completely in favour of digital technologies. Towards the end of 2014,  Motorola stopped producing its popular GP and GM series radios.

Recently the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster  (ETC) in South Sudan sent out an email to agencies and NGOs to inform everyone what the new DP and DM MotoTRBO radios would become the new standard. They also provided a list of local resellers where NGOs could buy the new radios. Some NGOs started to worry that all radios would need to be replaced. In this article, I want to set minds at rest and explain why NGOs do not need to ditch the analogue radios quite yet.ETC

Before I get into the details about the new radio technology, here is a little background information about the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

The ETC was formed as part of the wider cluster system by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The original mandate was to provide telecommunications, connectivity and basic IT support when the cluster system is activated during an emergency response. This original mandate will be expanded to other areas under the new ETC2020 strategy.

Currently the ETC is providing services inclusive of VHF radio networks in South Sudan, Iraq, West Africa, Central African Republic, Yemen, Syria and Nepal. To date, the ETC have provided relay stations with supports analogue radios such as the GM360 and GP380. The ETC will begin to roll out digital networks over the next few years which will work alongside existing analogue networks. The ETC will continue to keep these analogue networks running until 2020. Please visit
for more information.

Digital VHF  – How this affects NGOs
In 2014, many UN agencies agreed to use the MotoTRBO DMR technology as the standard system. Many NGOs including Save the Children have already adopted the same standard.  This means that from now on, network providers such as WFP,ETC and UNDSS will be setting up digital networks for NGOs to use.

The adoption of the new digital standard does not mean we have to throw away all of the radios we currently use. The new MotoTRBO DM and DP models also work in analogue mode which means that the new radios will be compatible with the older GM and GP radios which are currently in use. VHF repeater stations are also digital but can also be set up so that analogue radios can be supported.

In locations where the ETC is providing VHF Relay coverage, analogue will continue to be supported alongside any new digital services until 2020. As the new radios can be set up to work with both technologies,  the new radios will be able to communicate with older models on the analogue channels. Organisations will need to develop a strategy to switch to digital completely after 2020 or set up their own repeaters.

In places where the ETC or other UN agencies do not provide a network, organisations will have complete control and should develop a switchover strategy which suits each organisation. The best approach is for organisations to work up a strategy for each country rather than to impose a global deadline. In places where NGOs plan to set up completely new networks, digital should be used from the get-go. For places where already networks are well established, over time new digital radios will be added as older analogue radios are taken out of service due to age, wear and tear. In some countries, organisations are using DR3000 repeaters in analogue mode. These repeaters are digital ready and it’s a fairly simple task to move from analogue to digital mode.  It is clear that different countries will move to digital at a different pace to others, but with the correct planning, its possible to  design hybrid networks which will utilise analogue and digital channels thus making the transition easier.

What benefits will digital deliver?
With the analogue networks, the quality of the audio will diminish the further away the  mobile station is from the base. With a digital network, the call quality remains the same out to the edge. As the signal weakens, the audio becomes poor very quickly.


Digital networks allows for many more functions. Repeaters can be joined up via the internet so that calls can be made between cities. The practical use of radios will also change on a digital system. It’s possible to make private calls between radios without disturbing all other radios on the network. Of course the useful ability to call all stations with a broadcast is still available.

Digital radio is more efficient. For each frequency an organisation is licensed to use, two voice channels can be used (Only one channel per frequency is analogue). This is achieved by using Time Division Multiple Access (or TDMA), a method which is also used in mobiles phones and satellite technologies.  Voice calls are split up into separate time slots on the frequency, which does result in a very slight voice delay.


In digital modes, as the radio is only transmitting for ½
the time of analogue, battery life is extended by up to 40 %.

There are many other benefits to the digital system soch as
remote management tools, the ability to give each radio an ID, emergency calls,
and the ability to send text messages between radios

Digital VHF radio is definitely the future. The ETC has
taken a sensible approach by continuing to provide analogue support right out to
2020. NGOs should note the changes and start to develop plans to move to digital
over the next 5 years.

How what3words will change the way we use addresses globally

Before starting out in the ICT profession in 1999, I spent many years at sea on various ships, yachts and a submarine. The art of navigation was a major part of my work as I plotted a safe course from port to port. Many years later, in the NGO sector, I am still very much involved in navigation, but from a technology viewpoint. In past articles, I have covered various navigational topics which have explored GPS solutions. In this article I want to share with you a great concept which resolves a long standing issue of providing an easy to remember or to communicate addressing system. The solution is so simple and brilliant, when I learned about it this week, it just blew my socks off !!!!!!

Postcode Chaos
In the UK, we have a postcode system which can be used to locate places. The format use consists of 6 characters for much of the UK or if you live in London, its 7. The postal code for Save the Children Office is WC2H 7HH. If were to put this code into Google Maps, you would get a very accurate location of centre.

The UK post code system in the UK is very good for businesses as the code not only defines the actual building location, but also which floor the business is on. However for domestic residents, it’s a different story. Every time I send my postcode to a taxi firm, the driver uses my postcode to find my house using a satnav. This causes a problem as the UK postcode system sends the driver to the other end of the street. The driver sometimes gets lost and needs to call me to find my location 

Where postal or Zip codes do not exists
As imperfect the UK postal code system might be, it’s better than having no postcode at all. In Monrovia, Liberia, there are street names, but no postal codes or numbers. The address of the office which was used by one NGO was “Between 15th Street and 16th Street, Russell Avenue, Sinkor, Monrovia.

As there are a number of premises between  15th & 16th streets, this is an excuse for DHL to loose parcels!

How do we deal with remote places where there are no street names?  How can we accurately locate individual families in a refugee camp?  Latitude and Longitude is a long established method to locate things very accurately. In colonial times, Longitude was problematic as many nations centred “Zero Degrees” Longitude on their capital cities. This meant that if longitude provided in in the French format were to be plotted on a British map, the difference in formats would result in an error which would be more than 100KM.

These days we use a global format for Latitude and Longitude, but there are still issues. Latitude and longitude can be presented in a number of formats. With the emergence of internet technologies Latitude and Longitude is represented in a digital format. Traditionally position was expressed as Latitude followed by Longitude, but some technologies such as Google maps will express position in the opposite order e.g. -1.682017, 29.231105.

Whilst Lat/Long can be highly accurate, there is a great potential for error. Errors can also result when people try to communicate location in this format. Get one digit wrong in this format, and people will simply show up at the wrong place.

World class addressing system
Let’s be clear, the use of latitude and longitude is going to continue to be the primary means which technology will use for navigation, but it’s not user-friendly, What we need is a new global system where people can express to others any location on the planet in a very simple and easy to use way. In London, UK, a new start-up organization has found the answer. It’s called what3words. They have a very simple concept that every location on the planet can be expressed with just three words. It’s pure genius and as an old navigator, this idea simply floats my boat. In my line of work I see a lot of innovation, but this ideal is dynamite. The grid resolution of this addressing system is so fine that each unique address covers a box of 3 meters square. By using this system, not only does an office have an address, it is possible direct people to the correct entrance !

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