StarSight – Solar powered street lamps with wireless access points

solar lamppost
This project seems like it could be a good fit for developing but urban settings where there is fairly high population density, a budget for deploying infrastructure, and enough community support to limit problems with vandalism or theft of the equipment.

Starsight (Starsightproject.com) is a project designed to supercharge street lighting and power in developing counties. Essentially it is a network of pylons, each with a solar panel, linked not by cables but by antennae which use wireless internet protocol.

The Starsight idea came out of the involvement of London-based sustainable development specialist the Kolam Partnership in an urban street lighting initiative in Cameroon.

Reliable street lighting can help a country to develop – a study by the Kenyan government recently found that street lighting reduced crime by 65 per cent. The benefits are even more widespread – aid workers and foreign businesses are more likely to stay on in a country if they feel secure.

One of the project partners is a Next-G, a Singapore-based wireless manufacturer which is building the pylons. If the project scales up, perhaps they can find a way to set up in-country fabrication of the poles, rather than importing them.

As an aside, solar panels are commonly seen at road intersections in Bangalore. If you look carefully at the top right of this photo, you’ll see one on the street sign pylon behind the tree branches.
IMG_1539
Links:

Free computers for rural (but connected) communities


Asiatotal.net, a Hong Kong-based company, is planning to distribute “iT”:

iT is a compact, ultra-simple, portable desk top computer complete with everything necessary to connect to the Internet, home entertainment devices, printer, USB card reader for reading the memory cards of digital cameras and many other USB peripherals.

It has been developed, designed and manufactured to be distributed free in order to enhance the lives of the millions of people in the world who – for economic reasons – are not connected to the Internet. A way to move them out of the digital underclass.

The device is based on Windows CE, and comes preloaded with IE6.

From the Business Standard:

This device has a conventional keyboard with 14 additional keys, 10 of which will be sponsored by firms that want to tap rural markets, like a firm selling seeds or crop insurance. By pressing the relevant “hot key”, farmers can directly access firms’ websites where product information will guide them to making the right purchase.

A major near term challenge will be the absence of an internet connection in many of the target communities. Asiatotal is explicitly not providing the networking service. This might work in places such as Kuppam, where there is already wireless broadband service, but many other places would have on-demand service only, dial up or perhaps cellular data service, which is rapidly becoming available in many rural markets.

I’m not sure about targeting seed vendors or crop insurance though. Based on my recollection of the Kuppam web traffic logs, they could probably do better with horoscopes, cricket scores, and matrimonial services…

The firm says it intends to distribute 3 million iTs across developing countries like India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and those in eastern Europe. It will be shortly rolling out these devices in Brazil.

I hope they make some progress with this. If they’re able to make the business economics and user adoption work with this device, using the 100 dollar computer instead of a Windows CE device should be a piece of cake.

(via ContentSutra and Business Standard)

Low cost, portable ultrasound probe for notebook computers

This ultrasound imaging system is designed as a peripheral to a standard notebook computer. The prototype unit has been developed by a group at the Japan National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, working with the Hiroshima Institute of Technology.

The unit can be used in health care or beauty facilities, or even in the home, to visualize the key components of the body (muscles, bones, subcutaneous fat) and give fat and muscle measurements. It is hoped that this technology will help to prevent elderly people from being confined to their beds.

Users connect Ubiquitous Echo to their personal computers and use the included software to collect detailed information about specific parts of the body. The ultrasonic echography equipment traditionally used in medical examinations is prohibitively expensive and too large to be used by health care and beauty facilities or in the home. This new machine is small, lightweight, and inexpensive and can even be put into a bag along with a laptop computer and carried around.

No pricing estimates are stated, but it is likely to be much less expensive than standalone ultrasound systems, in addition to being much more portable.

This might be a good addition to a mobile health unit or a field health center.

A newly created business called Global Health will work to bring it to market.

Links:

via Medgadget

Notes on the 100 dollar computer for rural education


Ethan Zuckerman had an opportunity to visit Nicholas Negroponte and got a good look at the mockup of the proposed $100 notebook computer for use in rural and developing education projects. This is a work in progress, but seems to have some substance to it as well.

While the actual prototype is being actively banged on (in preparation for a live, but tethered, demo at WSIS on November 16th), Negroponte keeps a cardboard mockup of the machine on the conference table in his office. It’s a clever little thing – I had a hard time putting it down after picking it up.

There often tends to be a focus on the technology aspects of these low-cost “IT-for-the-people” projects, partly because it’s hard, but also because it’s a lot easier to address than the broader social, economic, and policy issues that go with their intended use. I was glad to see some questions about how they thought the overall program was actually going to work in the field:

Scale is clearly a major part of what will make the laptop succeed or fail – the laptop won’t be produced unless at least five countries sign up at a million laptops each. With an initial production run of 5 to 10 million laptops, the price is likely to be between $130 and $150 per unit, not including any distribution costs, marketing, or any digital content that comes pre-installed on the box. As the project scales up, the $100 per box target comes into sight.

The laptop is not “for sale” – it’s going to be available for students only, and will be distributed through the same channels that school books and uniforms are. The laptops will be the property of children, not of the school. Colin Maclay, a Berkman colleague who’d joined me for the visit, pointed out that in many countries, school books and uniforms are sold by (highly profitable) local businesses, and that losing a book contract might be a major blow for local employers.

While Negroponte has some general solutions to the interesting problems around distribution and usage, I got the sense that there hasn’t been as much detailed thinking about the on-the-ground challenges as there has been about the physical and software design of the machine.

It looks like they’ll end up with some interesting hardware and software before too long, but it’s going to take longer to figure out how to put the concept into practice. Ethan comes away with a generally positive impression about the project, and is looking into collecting comments and suggestions from existing rural development programs as input to Negroponte’s team:

On the third and fourth fronts of the project – the marketing, distribution and maintenance of these devices and their connection to the Internet, and their use in the classroom – I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions and I think the global community of folks interested in IT in education, especially in IT in the developing world, could assist Negroponte and team with their thinking.

Specifically, I think it would be great for the OLPC team to have a set of requirements and suggestions for nations participating in the program on how to distribute, link, support and teach with the laptops. It sounds like Negroponte would like to make it a requirement that every student in a classroom has a laptop. Should it be a requirement that schools implementing laptops have internet connectivity? Can this connectivity be used the way it is in the SchoolNet Namibia project, to let schools become ISPs, using revenue to subsidize the net connection and, perhaps, the laptops? Will businesses repair the laptops? Or will students do it informally, or start their own businesses?

Colin and I are talking about soliciting suggestions on the distribution and use questions surrounding the One Laptop Per Child project and compiling them into an advisory paper for Negroponte and crew. (If you’ve got questions or suggestions, posting them on this blog is a great way to start a discussion…)

It will be interesting to see whether this gets useful enough to get beyond the concept demo stage. Although I love the vision, it may be possible to do just as much good within a few years with whatever cell phones turn into by then. It’s hard to make a low volume product inexpensive, and high volume production makes ridiculously complicated technology dirt cheap.

Link: One Laptop Per Child – a preview, and a request for help
See also: Six Low Cost Computers for Rural ICT, discussion at Slashdot

Six Low Cost Computers for Rural ICT


CNET has put together a photo roundup of several low cost computing projects from the past few years:

  • The Popular PC initiative from Brazil in 2001 was intended to cost around $250, but ended up around $600.
  • The Mobilis Wireless laptop from Indian technology firm Encore Software features a 7.4-inch LCD screen and six-hour battery life. It costs about 15,000 rupees, or about $277.
  • The Mobilis desktop is powered by Intel’s XScale PXA255 200/400MHz processor and has 128MB of SDRAM. It comes with a carrying case that hides a full-size, roll-up keyboard and opens up as a desktop stand. Its price tag is 10,000 rupees, or $230.
  • MIT Media Lab have a plan for getting $100 laptops in the hands of millions of people around the world. One notable feature of their prototype is a hand crank for providing power in places where electricity is undependable or unavailable.
  • The Personal Internet Communicator from Advanced Micro Devices features Microsoft software, including Internet Explorer, the Windows Media Player and a version of Windows. The device is sold through Internet service providers, which will set the local price; it was listed at $185 without a monitor when it debuted.
  • The Amida Simputer is a product of the Indian companies Bharat Electronics and PicoPeta Simputers. It runs Linux, uses a stylus, and has a 206MHz processor, 64MB of RAM and two USB ports.

Voltage Stabilizers and Hidden Costs of Rural ICT

Came across a couple of posts which prompted me to dig up some of my backlog of material from the Kuppam program.
Voltage Stabilizers at Kuppam i-Community Office
Voltage stabilizers are uncommon and almost unknown in the US, but in India, voltage stabilizers are household equipment. Although the electrical service is nominally 240 VAC, in many rural areas the grid is underpowered, with priority given to agricultural users. This leads to scheduled power outages and wildly varying line voltages. While it is possible to run computers and other IT equipment directly from the AC line, this commonly leads to rapid equipment failure due to repeated undervoltage and overvoltage conditions.

Solar Panel Array at Kuppam i-Community Office

The Kuppam i-Community program office is equipped with rooftop solar panels, diesel generator backup, and a voltage stablizer system. This site houses a computer training center, network servers, wired and wireless network routers, and various desktop computers for staff use. There are classes and activities there throughout the day, and the servers support network traffic from the entire region, so there is a premium on keeping the facility running as much as possible.

Diesel Generator at Kuppam i-Community Office

Although the cost of the IT equipment continues to decline rapidly, the cost of power systems has remained fairly constant. Fortunately, the general trend is for lower power consumption devices in the developed markes, which leads to trickle-down availability for the developing markets.

While most rural IT installations will not be as elaborate as this one, the indirect cost of providing power is an important consideration in building and sustaining information utilities for rural developing areas.

A sarcastic look at stabilizers sales boosting India’s GDP

But think some more: why do we need stabilizers in the first place? Because the voltage of the electricity that’s supplied to us fluctuates wildly. That happens because of inefficiencies in the generation and transmission of electricity. In India, we are so used to these fluctuations that we don’t even think they are abnormal: we simply buy stabilizers and use them like any other consumer product. Hell, they are just another consumer product.

We likely also don’t think, as we buy stabilizers, that we are pumping up the GDP of the country, which we are. But if we did think of that, we might find a small perversity here. Since we tolerate inefficiency in one part of our economy — the generation of electricity — we need devices whose production and purchase shore up another part of our economy.

One person’s recollection of life with stabilizers When Stabilizers Don’t Suffice

Around 1988, what we had was farm that needed lots of power, a tube-well that needed lots of power, and a house that needed a little power. We also had an authorized three-phase line, which used to supply some electricity everyday. It was another matter that for the few hours a day that we had it, we needed an ammeter to figure out whether we had power or not. When the rest of the city was moaning about power cuts, we felt blessed to have any power. We also had local generators, that could run for nine or ten hours, producing electricity at four times the cost, and consuming precious diesel, before requiring a mechanic, but those were needed to run the farm. Get us our daily bread, butter and cup of water.

See also: Ethan Zuckerman’s post from PopTech on Negroponte and the $100 Laptop

United Villages proposes Rural Wireless Broadband in India

Now that the 2.4GHz spectrum is approved for unlicensed outdoor use in India, a number of projects based on WiFi, 802.11, and related commodity wireless data networking technologies are emerging.

The Kuppam i-Community program in Andhra Pradesh, which I was involved with, also has a network based on 2.4GHz wireless radios. At the time we had to get experimental licenses, after many meetings and much paperwork, because the 2.4GHz band wasn’t approved for outdoor use in 2002 when the project was started.

From Times Of India (via ContentSutra):

Rural India has now some serious chances to go Wi-Fi, and that can be for as cheap as Rs 50 per person a year. United Villages Inc (UV), a US-based low-cost internet service provider, has asked the government for permission (foreign direct investment or FDI) to set up base in India. It will provide rural WiFi broadband, which has the potential to reach out to about 30 crore people living in the villages.

UV has developed a communication technology that provides internet access using mobile vehicles that connect to already set up hubs. As the vehicles drive through rural areas, wireless communication equipment within them automatically exchange data with access devices in each village. This unique low-cost communication concept for the developing countries is often called “internet-on-wheels”.

Using UV’s mobile internet technology, acronymed VAN (Village Area Network), people in the rural area can send and receive email and voicemail, and can also browse through cached information from the web and local intranets, the company said in its FIPB application.

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is one of the investors in United Villages.

See also: Cantennas deployed in Kuppam