Information and stories about technology news.

Project LoonInnovative 21st-century technologies have motivated NGOs and tech companies around the world to develop apps and other online ways for people in developing areas to stay connected. Information provided on the internet or transmitted through SMS assists people worldwide with acquiring resources and employing techniques to advance education, healthcare and agriculture. Unfortunately, some areas remain untouched by the benefits of staying connected because their remoteness prevents internet availability — at least until now. Google’s sister company, Loon, is rising to the challenge of providing internet to remote populations in Africa and recovering populations affected by natural disasters using solar-powered 4G balloons with Project Loon.

Project Loon

Project Loon, which became one of Google’s “moonshot projects” in 2011, began launching balloons by 2013 and partnered with Telkom Kenya in 2018. Following this deal, the solar-powered balloons were tested on 35,000 customers covering over 50,000 square kilometers. The goal was to provide adequate connectivity to underserved and disadvantaged communities, beginning with Kenya. Loon executives stress that providing creative, low-cost solutions is the greatest way to help people, particularly those in rural areas where connectivity could be life-changing. Their passion stems from an intense desire to “challenge the status quo” by “[relying] on knowledge and empathy to make wise decisions.” Initial findings suggest that Loon balloons cover up to 100 times more area than typical cell towers and deliver wifi strong enough for video callings, surfing the web, watching YouTube videos, downloading apps and messaging other users.

How it Works

Loon 4G balloons are essentially flying cell phone towers but they are much lighter and more durable. They have the ability to withstand temperatures below -90°C and to remain steady amid violent winds. After being launched in the United States and traveling through wind currents across the world, the balloons begin their 100-day stays in Kenyan airspace, providing internet download speeds up to 18.9 megabits per second in partnership with AT&T.

Although the balloons heavily depend on wind currents as guides, they also have specially designed, state of the art Flight Systems that consist of three main parts: the balloon envelope, bus and payload. The envelope, made of polyethylene plastic, forms what people typically recognize as a balloon. The bus holds solar panels where the battery is charged, the altitude control system that navigates winds using GPS and the safety gear (parachute) for landing. The payload is the internet provider that houses the LTE antenna and the gimbals which liaise between the balloon and the ground. The balloons also depend on lift gas to loft them 20 kilometers into the air and to assist during the descent alongside local air traffic controllers. Loon specifically designates predetermined landing zones where the balloons are either recycled or prepared for reuse by on-site recovery teams.

After the balloons are collected, they are closely analyzed for holes and tears, allowing examiners to alter their designs and make the balloons stronger if necessary.

Disaster Preparedness

Resilient balloons can go a long way in addressing disaster preparedness and this also presents a significant opportunity for Project Loon to make a difference. Natural disasters often wipe out infrastructure, leaving populations disconnected when communication is more vital than ever. Because Loon balloons fly at such high altitudes and do not require activation within close proximity, there is greater potential for connectivity.

For example, Loon’s balloons were deployed during an earthquake in Peru where they covered nearly 40,000 square miles and were used following a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico. The company’s role in connecting families in the wake of disaster “is a lifeline” for those affected and can have a life-changing global impact.

Loon Chief Executive Alastair Westgarth has expressed concern about the effects of COVID-19 on disconnected populations. Because the virus has obstructed normalcy, connectivity could be the only way to continue education in developing nations. There are numerous agriculture, healthcare and education resources that, with internet connection, can preserve progression, one of Loon’s immediate goals.

Future Flights

To date, Loon has launched 1,750 4G balloons that have spent more than 1 million hours in the stratosphere and connected over 35,000 users, with the most successful balloon remaining aloft for 300 days and counting. The ultimate goal is to maintain a permanent 35-member fleet over eastern Africa in the hope of connecting and empowering developing nations.

– Natalie Clark
Photo: Flickr

Innovations in Poverty Eradication in Brazil
Brazil is the largest country in South America and is home to more than 210 million people. As of 2020, almost 7 million people in Brazil are living in poverty, approximately 3% of the total population. While this is already a significant decrease from previous years, recent innovations have helped lower poverty rates even further. Here are the most notable innovations in poverty eradication in Brazil.

Going Low Carbon

It is no secret that greenhouse gases have a significant environmental impact. Brazil has taken responsibility by rethinking its economy and discussing some potential solutions, including going low carbon. This change targets big infrastructure by encouraging green investments in industrial buildings, cutting down deforestation rates, as well as promoting the growth of agriculture.

Economically, by eliminating carbon emissions, more than $500 billion will go towards Brazil’s gross domestic product. These new funds will create around two million new jobs for the unemployed population. Because Brazil is an underdeveloped country, it relies heavily on foreign aid to boost its economy; attaining foreign investments from private companies has allowed for the creation of new environment-friendly markets. Through promotion of low carbon emissions, Brazil’s economy increased its GDP, indicating an improved economy.

Educating Brazil’s Future

In Brazil, 70% of children attend public schools. An average school day is around four and a half hours, but dilatory activities such as passing papers out or attendance often decrease the valuable time that could be dedicated to education. Only around 2% of impoverished Brazilian students will obtain enough education to improve their opportunities and livelihoods.

In 2017, the Connected Education Innovation Programme was started in order to provide technological resources for students. These resources include screens and reliable internet to help children achieve better quality education. In 2018, over seven million students profited from the Connected Education Innovation Programme. As the world progresses technologically, including these innovations helps improve a child’s likeliness to willingly participate in learning. Expanding these resources would go a long way in fostering a fun and safe learning environment.

Conditional Cash Transfers

In Brazil, the main conditional cash transfer program is called Bolsa Familia, or BFP. Conditional cash transfer programs are used in developing countries to provide welfare services for impoverished communities. BFP has helped Brazil’s impoverished population by improving the electronic monitoring of social services and the eligibility of low-income families.

BFP reduced Brazil’s extreme poverty rates by almost 60% and poverty by 30% between 2004 and 2014. By 2018, the program had reached more than 45 million people and created more than 20 social programs. By improving cash transfers, low-income individuals are able to gain access to services that benefit them financially.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence in Brazil is a recent addition to the country’s innovations. By the year 2030, Brazil predicts that around $15 trillion will be contributed to the world’s economy by the use of artificial intelligence technologies. Public transportation is a big factor where artificial intelligence comes into play in Brazil, as well as disease control.

In 2035, Brazil hopes to increase its gross value to more than $430 billion. Manufacturing makes up 12% of Brazil’s economy, which is another category in Brazil that is experimenting with new artificial intelligence machinery to benefit the economy. Through the usage of artificial intelligence in Brazil, higher levels of productivity are seen which helps increase the flow of Brazil’s economy.

 

These four innovations in poverty eradication in Brazil will help the nation further reduce its poverty rate. Increasing jobs, providing high quality education, offering cash options and bolstering the economy are all essential to this goal. Moving forward, it is essential that the Brazilian government and humanitarian organizations continue to prioritize poverty reduction.

– Karina Wong
Photo: Flickr

helping refugees find answers
In 2015, social entrepreneur Cornelia Röper saw a need for a platform that would help newly settled refugees with questions about employment opportunities, health, education and asylum. Röper’s experience working with a collaborative workshop for refugees in Germany made it clear to her that more work remained to help them. This was how the concept for Wefugees, an online platform helping refugees find answers to their questions, came into being.

Global Displacement Is High

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, global displacement is higher than ever before. By December 2018, around 70.8 million people had been displaced from their homes. Violence, human rights violations and wars can all cause people to migrate. Though the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe has decreased since 2015, 141,472 people arrived in Europe in 2018 alone. The death rate for those trying to reach Europe on the Mediterranean has increased to more than 1,000 people in 2019. Almost 33% of worldwide refugees come from Syria. Another 33% of the global refugee population hails from Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.

Children Seeking Asylum

Children and young people younger than age 18 make up 50% of the worldwide refugee population. Of these children, some 110,000 are separated from their families. In 2018, 27,600 children sought asylum in countries all over the world. As a result of this trend, 3.7 million children are currently not attending school, due to displacement.

Integrating Refugees into Society

The Wefugees platform addresses these issues by helping refugees in Röper’s native Germany become visible and successful at integrating into their new society. The interactive platform offers a safe place where displaced persons can ask specific questions, and volunteers can provide the answers.

Röper has been working full-time on these issues since February 2016. She was then joined by Wefugees co-founder Henriette Schmidt. Röper and Schmidt feel that refugees will be able to integrate into a new, unfamiliar society more effectively if they can solve their problems independently. By helping refugees find answers, Wefugees works to pass along information so that displaced persons can help themselves (with the aid of volunteers). The goal is for refugees to start their new lives on their own. Consequently, this online platform helping refugees relieves the pressure on conventional aid programs as well.

From Visas to Scholarships

The Wefugees platform addresses questions about problems such as obtaining asylum, traveling between countries, establishing residency in various countries and applying for citizenship. Also, this online platform is helping refugees with concerns about visa issues, relocation and the deportation process. Additionally, Wefugees helps refugees find answers to queries about power of attorney, international drivers’ licenses, housing markets, cultural activities and scholarships for students. The information exchange assists in the goal of helping refugees find answers to persistent problems. For instance — finding work, legal advice, healthcare, education and housing.

Changing the Future for Refugees

Word about Wefugees is growing. In 2018, Röper was included in Forbes’ list of “30 under 30 Europe: Social Entrepreneurs.” She has also received the Gates Foundation Changemaker Award. The online platform that Röper started is the world’s largest for refugee topics, with more than 8,000 users per month. More than 20,000 people have used the site, which continues the important work of helping refugees find the answers to improve their lives.

– Sarah Betuel
Photo: Flickr

Domestic Abuse in South AfricaThis fall, Microsoft and other NGOs will host a hackathon aiming to create solutions for women and children facing domestic abuse in South Africa. The announcement came out during Women’s Month, with the hope to spread awareness about issues surrounding women in South Africa. South Africa has always had an alarming presence of domestic violence, and the coronavirus quarantine has increased abuse reports. Microsoft’s hackathon, however, might produce an app that has the capability to save countless women and children in South Africa from violent households.

Statistics about Domestic Abuse in South Africa

South Africa has the “highest statistics of gender-based violence in the world, including rape and domestic violence.” Domestic violence incidents were scarcely reported before the last three decades because it was considered a private affair to be sorted out among households. However, available data affirms the severity of domestic abuse in South Africa. A 1998 study by the South African Medical Council revealed that 50% out of almost 1,400 men “physically abused their female partners at their homes.”

The World Health Organization found that “60,000 women and children were victims of domestic abuse in South Africa” in 2012. On average, women in South Africa who face abuse are usually unemployed and have an almost non-existent educational background. Moreover, the same study found that the women who were victims of violent relationships were usually from rural areas. The latter piece of information is important because most help-centers or other valuable resources for abuse victims in South Africa are located in urban areas. With Microsoft’s new app, the goal is to disseminate the necessary resources and information regarding abuse to those victims who live outside of South African cities.

Domestic Abuse: The Second Pandemic

As the coronavirus runs rampant across the globe, South Africa faces a second pandemic: a massive increase in domestic violence. Following the country’s lockdown procedure in March, South Africa’s national helpline for victims doubled its usual volume, putting the number of calls from afflicted women and children over 120,000. With fewer places to seek refuge during the lockdown, women and children facing domestic violence are trapped at home. The Jones Safe House is a non-profit shelter group for abuse victims in South Africa. It has been overwhelmed by the increase in abuse cases. Every day they try to make room for another victim who managed to escape from his or her violent residence.

Microsoft’s Hackathon Against Domestic Violence

Microsoft’s [email protected] hackathon will run from September 22 to October 19. The objective is to create apps that help those who are in abusive relationships or face any form of gender-based violence. The organization will account for South Africa’s gender-based digital divide, which leaves many women with less access to certain technologies. Namely, the hackathon has a list of considerations that developers need to keep in mind:

  • “Many of those facing gender-based violence are using 3rd or 4th generation phones that are obsolete
  • Users may not have access to applications like Whatsapp or other one-touch SOS tools or applications
  • Data is expensive and not always readily available – especially in emergency situations
  • Regular load shedding means that cell towers are not always operational
  • Many women in South Africa have limited or no airtime to make calls or send SMSs
  • Many women and children do not have access to transport to find a place of safety”

Also, Microsoft has outlined some possible directions app developers can take, which include assistance, empowerment and recovery. At the end of the hackathon, the top three teams of developers will win monetary prizes. Additionally, Microsoft will grant the first-place team a contract in order to collaborate for the app’s further development.

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the plight of South African abuse victims, but people have not given up hope. Those facing domestic abuse in South Africa have allies who will be working tirelessly toward virtual solutions. And by the end of the year, one might find an app online that can save thousands of lives. Microsoft’s initiative to develop an app-based solution to domestic violence is a step in the right direction, and their actions will hopefully spur other corporations to get involved.

Maxwell Karibian
Photo: Flickr

world hunger aid app
Chronic hunger is still an issue that plagues many countries and communities around the world. Many solutions proposed to solve world hunger have been ongoing for decades, yet the problem persists. In the technology-focused 21st century, these attempts at solutions have become increasingly digital. One such digital solution is a world hunger aid application from the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

The World Food Programme

The World Food Programme is the U.N.’s top organization in charge of managing and solving world hunger crises. It is focused on emergency food aid as well as helping communities maintain high nutrition standards. The WFP’s efforts are responsible for the allocation and distribution of billions of rations, worldwide to food-insecure communities each year.

Most of these food aid efforts happen on the ground, in the affected areas. However, a new initiative from the WFP can involve far more people in the crusade against world hunger. The solution is the world hunger aid application, “ShareTheMeal.”

ShareTheMeal: How Does it Work?

Launched in 2015, ShareTheMeal is a one-of-a-kind world hunger aid application. Its sole purpose is to allow users worldwide, to donate meals to adults and children around the world via their smartphones or tablets. To participate, users simply tap a button to send an $0.80 donation to the WFP, which covers the cost of one meal.

ShareTheMeal also allows users to assist with its mission in several other ways. Within the user interface, the hunger aid application splits donation tiers into higher amounts, such as “Feed a Child for a Week” or “Feed a Child for a Year,” which correspond to a donation value, to fund that goal. The application also has a feature called “The Table,” where a monthly donation matches the user with the family they are supporting. This allows users to receive updates on how their donations helped a specific family.

In addition to its general donation tiers, ShareTheMeal has real-time, cause-specific donation sections. These include assisting with the famine crisis in Yemen and supporting Syrian refugees in Iraq. The application’s “Teams” option also allows users to form teams with friends, coworkers or family members to meet a donation goal.

ShareTheMeal’s Impact

To date, ShareTheMeal has donated more than 78 million meals to people in need via its 2+ million users on iOS alone. It has received thousands of five-star reviews for its efforts and was named the Google Play Store’s Best Social Impact app. ShareTheMeal has also been featured by several major global news outlets, from CNN, Forbes and Al Jazeera to Spiegel Online.

The application has directly contributed to the WFP’s efforts to continue providing aid to communities affected by global hunger. ShareTheMeal combines peoples’ desire to support a cause with the technology that permeates their everyday lives — in a masterfully simple idea that offers tangible results. In doing so, the application brings the world of charity to a new generation of contributors via its smartphone presence.

Outlook — Positive

As hunger persists around the globe, ShareTheMeal continues to grow and evolve today. The world hunger aid application announced that during the next five years, it aims to donate 800 million meals to the world’s poor. ShareTheMeal’s goal is massive, but with its millions of users, exceptional usability and the emotional connections it creates between users and those they assist (with their donations) — this clever piece of technology seems to be on track to succeed in its quest to end global starvation.

– Domenic Scalora
Photo: Flickr

Digital Health Apps in AfricaDigital Health Apps are becoming an increasingly popular part of the “mHealth” or “mobile health” industry around the world. The widespread use of digital health apps in Africa is linked to a rapid increase in cell phone access over the past 20 years. For example, only 8% of Ghanaians owned a cell phone in 2002. By 2015, that number grew tenfold to 83%. In 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa had 778 cellular and 300 mobile internet subscriptions per 1000 people.

A Pew Research Center survey of 7,052 people across Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda found that an average of two-thirds of respondents own cell phones. Across Africa, people use smartphones less widely than regular mobile phones. For example, 34% of respondents in South Africa own smartphones. Regardless, rising cell phone access offers the potential to improve access to health care for many across the continent.

Healthcare in Africa

Less than 50% of people across Africa can access modern health facilities, and 80% rely on public health facilities. However, public health facilities often experience chronic drug shortages, causing many patients to die from otherwise curable diseases. In 2015 alone, approximately 1.6 million people in Africa died of tuberculosis, malaria or HIV-related illnesses. Proper medication or vaccines can prevent, treat or even cure these diseases.

Many African countries spend less than 10% of their gross domestic product on healthcare. The lack of funding for health care limits the accessibility to adequate health care. There is also a lack of skilled medical personnel throughout the continent, as many trained doctors are drawn to the European and American job markets.

mHealth Benefits and Innovations

Technology is now transforming healthcare in Africa by helping improve healthcare access and quality in remote areas. These digital platforms also simplify the process for doctors and policymakers to access data. In turn, doctors and policymakers can use that data to make better-informed individual and system-wide healthcare decisions.

According to a report by the World Health Organization, digital health apps also have the ability to decrease the financial and physical burden associated with transportation to healthcare facilities, “overcome communication delays” through reliable and real-time data and “increase health workers’ adherence to clinical guidelines.” The four digital health apps below are among the many innovations helping to make healthcare more attainable throughout Africa.

  1. Hello Doctor: The South African app Hello Doctor enables people to talk to qualified doctors via their mobile phones. Doctors are available 24 hours a day and respond to call requests within one hour. The app aims to serve an easy point of access for patients and provide health education based on doctors’ advice.
  2. FD-Detector: This app detects fake medications by coding and determining their authenticity. Nigeria has long faced drug counterfeit issues. In June 2018, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration destroyed an estimated $10 million worth of counterfeit drugs. Part of the problem is that less than 2% of medications prescribed in Africa are actually produced in the continent, which both limits access to local drugs and forces patients to pay the increased prices of imported drugs. FD-Detector uses a medication’s bar code to authenticate it and verify its expiration date. The app was created by five teenage girls from Nigeria, whose innovation won the 2018 Tehnovation Challenge—an international competition in which girls from around the world learn how to become technology leaders and entrepreneurs.
  3. mTrac: mTrac is a mobile health app that allows health workers in Uganda to submit weekly health surveillance data via SMS. As data is collected, an “SMS alert is sent to every member of the district health management team for immediate response when any preset threshold is reached”. For example, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. “20 cases of typhoid or a single case of viral hemorrhagic fever” would trigger an alert to local health officials. By the end of 2020, mTrac hopes to expand its current database of 62,000 registered health workers to 300,000 registered users.
  4. Market Garden: The Institute for Social Transformation, a Ugandan nonprofit, developed this app designed to connect its primarily female vendors with local Ugandan grocers and consumers looking for fresh products. This direct link reduces crowds, allowing vendors to sell produce in adherence to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. As a result, vendors can continue to safely earn an income during the lockdown. The Market Garden app allows vendors to receive direct mobile payments. This feature reduces the risk of virus transmission through cash exchanges.

Challenges for mHealth

The cost of cell phones and unreliable cell phone service serve as barriers to digital health in Africa. For these reasons, mHealth is biased toward wealthier groups. In Uganda, for instance, 93% of individuals with secondary education or higher own a mobile phone. Compare this number to the 61% of individuals with lower levels of education and the accessibility gap becomes clear. Gender also plays a role: six of the seven countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, men are more likely to own a mobile phone than women.

For mHealth to continue expanding and thriving throughout the continent, the Brookings Institution states, “Governments will need to play an active role…through regulation, legal frameworks, and technical training in the health sector.” When access to technology becomes widely available, digital health apps in Africa have the power to make healthcare widely accessible.

– Zoe Engels

Photo: Wikimedia

cobots in developing countriesAutomation has often been discussed as the enemy of progress, taking jobs and resources away from low-skilled workers. However, recent reports suggest that cobots offer a compromise for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly in the developing world. Though the effects of widespread use remain to be seen, the use of cobots in developing countries has already had positive effects, according to leading Danish robotics company Universal Robotics (UR).

What Are Cobots?

The first cobot (collaborative robot) was invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, both professors at Northwestern University. At the time, the invention was called a “programmable constraint machine.” Since then, human beings in companies across the world have been working alongside cobots, using the machines’ superior strength and accuracy to enhance processes from surgery to crop harvesting. Cobots differ from robots mainly in that they are not dangerous; they are much smaller and lighter and can work in close proximity to people. They are also not pre-programmed, and they can be trained to complete a process repetitively and even refine their abilities, improving as they go.

Cobots represent a growing industry worldwide, having generated $580.8 million in 2018. This growing industry, UR says, is expected to be worth over $9 billion by 2024. The industry is also relevant in developing nations such as Malaysia, where experts expect the use of cobots to increase.

Challenges to Manufacturing in Developing Nations

Emergent economies often struggle to match already-developed areas of the world in terms of productivity. Human labor alone cannot exceed the work done by human-cobot teams because of the advantages in strength and accuracy that cobots offer. Many poorer nations are not prepared to front the ever-increasing cost of feedstock, while also using devalued currencies to invest in technological solutions. On the other hand, they cannot afford to keep doing things the same way, says UR. Cobots offer crucial innovation that doesn’t empty the coffers.

From “Dull, Dirty, Dangerous and Dear” to Dynamic Careers

Popular culture often presents robots as adversaries; movies and books narrate universal fears of robots taking over human life and livelihood. But many of the jobs lost to automation, such as jobs in mining and sewage, fall into categories that are sometimes referred to using the four D’s: dirty, dangerous, dull (demeaning) and dear (expensive).”

Cobots can help reduce workplace injuries involving heavy and repetitive lifting, for example. And since cobots specifically require a human partner in order to be effective, using cobots does not necessarily result in the loss of a job. In fact, it could mean just the opposite: training people to operate cobots frees them from mundane tasks, making them more qualified, a phenomenon known as “upskilling.” This results in a more knowledgeable workforce whose lives are enriched by more fulfilling careers. In this way, cobots in developing countries can be part of the solution, not the problem.

Darrell Adams, the director of UR in Southeast Asia and Oceania, said of cobots: “Tomorrow’s workplaces will be run by highly skilled workers assisted by intelligent devices. Cobots help to automate and streamline repetitive and potentially unsafe processes, thus ensuring a safe work environment while increasing productivity and efficiency.”

The Successes of Cobots in Developing Countries

Cobots in developing countries have already had a degree of success. For example, in India, one automobile parts manufacturer, Craft and Technik Industries (CATI), saw the urgent need for more precision in its operations. A workforce deficit meant that manual work often resulted in errors and waste. However, after the addition of a UR cobot used to perform quality control, the company stopped experiencing these errors. At the same time, production jumped by 15-20%.

UR believes that cobots could offer up to a 30% boost in manufacturing output of SMEs in developing countries such as Malaysia. According to UR, as of 2020, most Malaysian companies automate less than half of their operations. This could be because industrial robots are simply too expensive for SMEs to afford.

Smaller, more practical cobots in developing countries make better financial and logistical sense because they are easy to put to immediate use, without causing invasive stoppages in production for installation. “With the assistance of cobots, local manufacturers can achieve higher levels of efficiency and rapid productivity gains,” said Adams.

According to UR, companies that have opted to automate their processes using cobots can slash production errors while boosting productivity by as much as 300%. For SMEs in the developing world, though, the most compelling evidence is in return on investment (ROI). Companies who have recently signed on to cobot technology can achieve ROI in about a year.

Automation and Policymaking

It is clear that developing nations will have to confront how to “upskill” workers in a way that accounts for socioeconomic differences and the gaps in access those differences can cause. In some countries such as Thailand, policymakers have already convened to form organizations dedicated to developing automation industries while equipping workers with the skills needed to keep up with those advances. But some economists are skeptical that this would be the norm in most countries, and propose a government-provided basic income for those who have lost employment. Whatever the case, with robots already here to stay, it seems clear that cobots in developing countries offer the happy medium that these countries need to compete in an increasingly automated world.

Andrea Kruger
Photo: Flickr

Tech Access PartnershipScience, technology and innovation are critical factors that contribute to socio-economic development. They are the engines of economic mobility in advanced countries and allow these regions to respond to dynamic challenges, with greater ease. However, a global, digital divide exists between developed and developing countries. This divide is caused by differences in access to technology and the infrastructure that supports it. Moreover, the digital divide has far-reaching implications beyond just a particular society’s relationship with communication technology and internet coverage. A lack of digital access also hinders access to medical technology, industrial and operational technology and production capability. Below is more information about an exciting initiative called the Tech Access Partnership which aims to address the core of the issue.

A Need Emerges

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and advanced medical devices increased, sharply. Yet, countries with limited production capability were unable to distribute the necessary resources, due to limited technical knowledge, shortage of manufacturing facilities and insufficient compliance with state regulations. These local deficiencies highlighted the urgent need to fill the gap in the production capabilities of underdeveloped regions. Through addressing these local deficiencies, these regions would enable themselves to respond effectively to the crisis and meet their citizens’ needs.

Thinking Long-Term

The Tech Access Partnership (TAP) is the United Nations Technology Bank’s latest collaboration involving the U.N. Development Program, U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the World Health Organization. The program launched in May of 2020 to increase the production of essential, life-saving medical technology through technical expertise and market integration. By providing training and resources to developing countries, TAP hopes to create sustainable operations as opposed to temporary solutions, to bolster long-term production.

The Tech Access Partnership

The Tech Access Partnership has three main functions. First, it provides emerging manufacturers with design specifications, product information and technical knowledge to increase production capabilities. Second, the partnership also offers guidance regarding market information and production regulations. Furthermore, the scope of the project continues with providing technical support to tackle issues that arise during manufacturing processes, itself. Third, the organization acts in a partnership development capacity  by forging partnerships with private sector companies and global organizations alike. This aim is to provide expertise, optimize production and accelerate distribution.

Technology Access in a COVID-19 Era

In the past, inequalities in the field of technology have had an impact on educational attainment and opportunities for youth. Today, they pose an increased challenge — technology is a crucial component of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without access to life-saving medical technology and protective equipment, developing countries are unequipped for responding to the devastating impacts of the virus. By providing these countries with the resources and expertise to produce these items themselves, TAP promotes self-sufficiency that can speed up the path to recovery. TAP’s mission of creating equity in the field of medical technology is crucial to the pandemic response. By expanding the skills and capacity of local manufacturers, the initiative will accelerate technical innovation in the long term. This, in turn, may open the doors to improved public health and steady economic growth, in the long-term.

– Sylvie Antal
Photo: Flickr

Low-income pakistanis
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a major healthcare crisis in Pakistan and reversed years of efforts to eliminate poverty. The pandemic has also disproportionately affected low-income Pakistanis. The poverty rate in Pakistan declined from 64% to 24% in 2015 — after 20 years of progress. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the poverty rate will increase to 40%, reversing years of progress.

Who is Most Vulnerable?

The IMF also expects Pakistan’s GDP growth slow by 3% as a result of the pandemic. Agriculture accounts for 20% of Pakistan’s GDP and 43% of its labor force. The continuation of lockdowns with no end in sight is negatively affecting transportation, labor and the consumer market — which in turn, affects the millions of people working in the agriculture industry.

Children and youth amounting to 17 million are missing important vaccinations for diseases such as polio. Moreover, the pandemic has increased the number of people that suffer from food insecurity by several million, bringing up the total to 43 million. Those most at risk are the people that already exist below the poverty line including women, children, senior citizens, the disabled and minorities.

As more and more of these people fall below the poverty line, Pakistan is coming up with different digital solutions that can cater to the millions of people experiencing multidimensional poverty. Here are three digital solutions helping low-income Pakistanis.

3 Digital Tools Helping Low-income Pakistanis

  1.  The Ehsaas Program is a Pakistani government-launched scheme in 2019, to fight the nation’s prevailing poverty levels. With the coronavirus and lockdowns stifling the income of millions of daily wagers — the program quickly implemented a new project known as the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program. Under this program, low-income Pakistanis can gain access to financial assistance through text messaging. As of right now, the program is helping 12 million families throughout the country — providing stipends of 12,000 PKR each, which families are using to buy food rations.
  2. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is a federal scheme launched in 2008. Its purpose was to provide unconditional cash support to help alleviate struggling families living in poverty, in Pakistan. It remains the largest support program in Pakistan — distributing approximately 90 billion PKR to 5 million low-income Pakistanis. The program uses tools such as its BISP debit cards to make cash transfers convenient. The program notably helps women and low-income Pakistanis from minority groups gain access to financial assistance.
  3. The Kamyab Jawan Program is the first of its kind in Pakistan. Launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government, it is a program to provide assistance and resources to youth, on a national level. This platform provides opportunities to the country’s youth, ages 15–29. Some of the schemes that are under the Kamyab Jawan Program include youth empowerment programs, loans for youth entrepreneurs and startups, youth legislations as well as youth councils. Through this program, Pakistani youth are finally experiencing integration into civil institutions and capturing opportunities designed to lift them out of poverty.

A Need for Non-Digital Solutions

Collectively, these digital solutions, as well as other solutions implemented by NGOs and separate companies, help many low-income Pakistanis gain access to the necessary resources and assistance they require. This assistance enables low-income Pakistanis to help themselves, specifically during this time of need. However, Pakistan cannot solely rely on digital solutions to combat their poverty crisis. Many of its population do not have access to the necessary digital devices to access these solutions. People who lack internet access, as well as computers and smartphones, are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to accessing these digital resources. Therefore, Pakistan must also look toward digital-alternative solutions for people who are not able to access these digital ones.

Abbas Raza
Photo: Flickr

ice stupasIn the mountain desert of Ladakh, a region located in Northern India, water has long been a valued and scarce resource. Ladakh is located in the Himalayas with a base elevation of roughly 8,000 feet and peaks reaching over 25,000 feet. Ladakhis rely almost entirely on glacial and permafrost melt for water. However, in recent years, due to rapidly receding glaciers, water shortages in Ladakh have become more severe. In years to come, experts expect this problem to worsen. Despite this issue, Ladakhis continue to innovate and adapt to the harsh and changing climate. Ice stupas are one example of this innovation.

Melting Glaciers Causing Spring Water Shortages

Water shortages in Ladakh are worst in the springtime, when farmers, who make up roughly 80% of the Ladakhi population, need to sow their fields. During the spring, glacial streams have not begun to flow yet since most glaciers are located higher in the mountains where temperatures are lower. As glaciers continue to recede, streams start flowing later and the water shortages of spring become longer and more damaging. The later farmers have to wait to start sowing their fields, the lower their yields and profits become.

Ladakhis have highly organized water management systems that have been developed over thousands of years. They primarily rely on mud canals and dams to distribute and store water as well as strict water usage rules to ensure water is used efficiently. These systems have been successful in Ladakh for generations but have proven to be insufficient in handling the changing climate.

Storing Winter Water in Ice Reservoirs

Observing the intensifying water shortages in Ladakh, Chewang Norphel, a local civil engineer, set out to design a method of storing water during the winter so that it could be used in the spring. There are many stories of Ladakhis creating man-made ice structures to store water, but many were inefficient, and there were no scientific methods to the practice. Norphel created his first artificial glacier in 1986 by creating a series of embankments along a stream that slow the water and create shallow pools just a few inches deep to ensure the water freezes. Built in October, these ice reservoirs collect and store water that would otherwise be wasted throughout the winter months. In the spring, they begin to melt, providing water for farmers that need it for irrigation.

Since creating his first artificial glacier in 1986, Norphel has created 16 more artificial glaciers. Sonam Wangchuk, inspired by Norphel’s artificial glaciers, put together a team in the fall of 2013 to create an improved ice reservoir. Wangchuk and his team developed a prototype for the ice stupa, a large cone of ice that can store more water and melts slower than Norphel’s design. When the small-scale prototype provided water well into May, Wangchuk knew they had discovered an important solution.

Ice stupas, named after the Buddhist structures that are built to house sacred relics, can be complex projects to build but work based on simple concepts. Water runs through an underground pipe from higher elevation down to the site of the ice stupa where, due to natural water pressure, it rises up through a vertical pipe without any pump. The water sprays out of a sprinkler at the top of the pipe and freezes as it falls onto a conical shape of branches. The conical shape gives the ice stupas a large advantage over Norphel’s artificial glaciers, as direct sunlight hits less surface area, meaning that the stupas melt slower and provide water for longer. Throughout the winter, this water freezes into huge cones of ice that can reach 30 to 50 meters high.

Each of these ice stupas can store millions of liters of water, enough to support farmers through the crucial spring months until the summer when glacial streams start flowing. Many of the ice stupa projects to date have been designed to support poplar and willow tree fields, which are two of the most profitable crops to grow in the area and require large amounts of water.

A More Comprehensive Solution

As the glaciers continue to recede, the need for ice stupas and other innovative water management solutions will only keep increasing. Darren Clark, a member of the ice stupa project from 2014 to 2019, says the ice stupas have benefited communities and are important symbols that alert Ladakhis of the changing climate and increased water shortages. Many Ladakhis were skeptical of the ice stupa projects initially, but, as spring water shortages in Ladakh continue to worsen, ice stupas are becoming more essential each year.

Clark sees ice stupas as just part of the solution for the future of water management in Ladakh. He would like to see improved water infrastructure and plumbing systems that can collect more meltwater throughout the year and distribute it more efficiently. One system could create ice stupas in the winter months and act as regular water distribution throughout the spring, summer and fall. Clark views such a system as an essential adaptation for Ladakhis in future years as snowpacks continue to diminish and glaciers recede.

Issues of water shortages in high mountain deserts are a growing problem in mountain communities everywhere. Clark has helped design and build similar ice stupa systems in Peru and Switzerland and is currently in the process of writing a book on how improved water management systems could benefit high mountain desert communities around the world. With millions of people living in mountain deserts relying primarily on glacial melt for water, improved water management systems — including ice stupas — will be an essential part of combating climate change in years to come.

– William Dormer
Photo: Flickr