Information and stories about technology news.

disease response in the DRC
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “has the third-largest population of [impoverished people] globally.” The coronavirus has hit the DRC’s economy hard, further reducing the country’s capacity to fight disease. One advancement in disease response in the DRC is the government’s use of mobile phone data for population mapping, which helps create public health policies for COVID-19 and could do the same for other prevalent diseases in the country in the future.

Ties Between Disease, War, Poverty and COVID-19 in the DRC

The DRC has historically faced challenges in combatting cholera, malaria, HIV, measles, Ebola and Rift Valley fever. Factors contributing to the challenges in combatting disease include a weak health care system, low laboratory capacity, a lack of plans regarding border lockdowns for disease containment and a lack of information about vaccination and disease prevention for the public.

Additionally, the DRC endured a civil war from 1997 to 2003. The civil war ravaged the country’s infrastructure and the ongoing political instability in the country currently poses obstacles for aid workers to safely enter the country. The effects of the civil war also reduce the government’s ability to fight prevalent diseases in the DRC.

Furthermore, in 2019, the DRC’s economic growth stood at 4.4%. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the DRC’s economic growth shrank to 0.8% in 2020. The slowdown in economic growth has made it even more difficult for improved disease response in the DRC.

Using Mobile Phones to Combat COVID-19

Low-income countries, including the DRC, struggle with data collection. However, data collection is vital in order to provide government officials with information to make sound public health decisions. The good news is that the DRC is starting to utilize mobile phone data for population mapping to combat COVID-19, which could greatly improve the DRC’s response to other diseases as well.

Orange DRC, a telecommunications company, provides anonymized mobile phone data to a marketing company called Kinshasa Digital. Using the phone data, Kinshasa Digital is constructing a dashboard for the DRC so that health officials can follow population movement after implementing various public health policies. The dashboard is useful because it allows the government to follow the spread of COVID-19 and use this data to create policies that will be most beneficial for the public’s health.

Data-Informed Responses

In addition, Vodacom DRC, a mobile carrier, and Flowminder, a company that analyzes mobile data, have created a report utilizing call detail records that analyzes how population movement patterns in Kinshasa’s Gombe district have changed in response to the DRC’s COVID-19 confinement policies. The report indicates “a drop of 70% in the total flow of subscribers traveling to Gombe after the confinement,” which shows that many people are complying with the government’s policies.

The creators shared the report with government officials. Reports like these can help the government measure how effective its public health policies are. As the technology and analytics industries develop, these reports can further improve the government’s response to COVID-19 and possibly other diseases too.

The DRC faces challenges in disease response, but the current innovation with mobile phone data to create more effective COVID-19 policies shows a promising development. As mobile phone companies, analytics companies and the government continue to work together, disease response in the DRC as a whole could greatly improve.

– Anna Ryu
Photo: Unsplash

Energy Security in Armenia
Energy security in Armenia is a serious problem; the country experienced harshly cold and dark years in the early 1990s. It was a time when the newly independent Republic of Armenia experienced an incredibly severe energy shortage. The population only had access to electricity two hours a day, and even hospitals went without heat. The lack of internal energy sources, regional conflict in the Caucuses and the collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the crisis. Though the country recovered, it has never forgotten the importance of energy security in Armenia.

Post-Energy Crisis Armenia

Today, Armenia depends on the external energy sources it imports from other nations. Having no known internal oil or natural gas sources of its own, these imports satisfy 75% of the country’s energy demand. In 2019, Armenia had a total natural gas energy supply of 89,423 terajoules, a nuclear energy supply of 26,967 TJ and a hydroelectric supply of 8,535 TJ.

Armenia sources its oil from Iran, Georgia, Europe and Russia. The natural gas largely comes from Russia via Georgia. The company Gazprom Armenia holds a monopoly on the imports and distribution of natural gas in Armenia. Gazprom Armenia is a subsidiary of the state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom, the largest natural gas company in the world.

Because of its heavy dependence on imports and Gazprom Armenia’s monopoly, Armenia experiences price shocks that drive up the cost of energy for its population of nearly 3 million people. This dependence also puts Armenia in a weak position during price negotiations with Gazprom. When the government and the company cannot come to an agreement, it is the people who go without heat and power. The government-owned Metsamor nuclear power plant generates electricity within Armenia. However, Russia is also the country’s main supplier of nuclear fuel, so Armenia is still dependent on Russia.

Lighting the Way to Energy Security

Armenia is focusing on building and improving renewable energy infrastructure to achieve greater energy efficiency and energy security in Armenia. In January 2021, the government implemented the 20-year Energy Sector Development Program intended to boost energy efficiency and diversify the fossil-fuel-dominated power grid.

Additionally, in 2022, the government plans to implement amendments associated with the 2017 Law on Energy. This should liberalize the energy market, which in turn will increase competition between electrical suppliers. Ideally, it will break the monopoly held by Electric Networks of Armenia. The company currently has full control over the nation’s electrical distribution driving up prices for consumers.

With a solar energy flow of 1,720 kilowatt-hours per square meter, Armenia has a higher solar energy potential than most countries. To optimize this, the Armenian government wants to focus on the construction of new solar plants. By 2030, the goal is for solar power generation to have a minimum 15% share of the country’s capacity, at 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours. To achieve its desired level of energy security in Armenia, however, the government also recognizes the need to improve its use of geothermal energy. The country has a 150-megawatt potential regarding geothermal energy, only a fraction of which it is tapping into.

Other Players

The government is not the only one taking action to strengthen energy security in Armenia. In 2017, Shen NGO and the Geghamasar cooperative constructed a greenhouse and a biogas facility. These have been producing food and heat respectively for the community of Geghamasar during each winter since. They manufacture the biogas from manure, and when they are not heating the greenhouse, the biogas facility generates electricity. Both it and the greenhouse created jobs in Geghamasar in addition to inspiring other communities to build similar installations.

Power to the People

As of 2019, 12.3% of Armenians lived on less than $5.50 a day. Many cannot afford the current cost of energy, much less the rises in prices imposed by monopolies. Those who cannot pay go without heat and power because there is no alternative source of energy they can rely on. Energy security in Armenia is a necessity to consistently meet the needs of the people. However, thankfully, the country is working on becoming less dependent on external energy resources and diversifying its energy grid.

– Nate Ritchie
Photo: Flickr

Smart Meter Systems in Kenya
In September 2021, Kenya’s largest telecommunications business, Safaricom, proposed a deal to Kenya Power to install “a $300 million smart meter system” at Kenya Power’s site. Furthermore, Safaricom will bear the cost of installing “330,000 consumer, transformer and feeder smart meters” in communities experiencing high power leakages or electricity theft. These leaks put an added economic burden on individuals and Kenya Power. Safaricom and Kenya Power’s partnership to install smart meter systems in Kenya will also lead to more job opportunities for Kenyans.

Power Leakages and Electricity Theft

Power leakages can occur when a current is not entirely insulated or the electrical equipment is not fully grounded, meaning there may be no safe way to discharge electricity in case of a malfunction. The energy needs somewhere to go and grounding sends electricity outside the building and into the ground through the insulated wiring. This lost energy costs Kenya Power revenue that often exceeds what the company earns. Safaricom anticipates that the new smart meter system will save Kenya Power more than $89 million of losses due to power leakages.

Kenya Power is the primary company in Kenya responsible for producing and distributing electricity to Kenyans across the country. Kenya Power holds the responsibility of delivering electricity to almost 70% of Kenyans with electricity access, however, this figure means more than 16 million Kenyans still lack electricity access.

Electricity theft is a common occurrence in Kenya. It happens when a person attempts to bypass the standard electrical meter on a power line in order to obtain electricity without payment. Thieves then bypass any electrical data tracking and effectively steal power from the company and the homes in the area. Annually, Kenya Power loses about $163 million due to electricity theft alone. Safaricom’s smart meter systems in Kenya will help prevent both leakages and electricity theft.

Smart Meter Systems Save Money

Smart meters involve real-time information of voltage usage and fault reports and detect theft and potential meter tampering. In the event of power theft, the meter sends alerts to the main computer in its system, and then, the company will have the option of shutting down the power line and sending the police to apprehend the thief.

The smart meters constantly monitor two wires, the neutral wire and the live wire and the current going through the wires. Smart meters continuously compare the two wires’ energy outputs. If the output of the live wire seems excessively high while the neutral is lower, then, there may be possible tampering or leakage.

The smart meter systems in Kenya will cost approximately $300 million to install. Safaricom and Kenya Power will split the revenue earned in the first eight years with the smart meters in place.

Creating Job Opportunities

Smart meters in Kenya seem to be a small addition to everyday lives, but their financial impact is significant. Kenya Power is a relatively small enterprise in the nation. The expected revenue to come in with the installation of the smart meters in Kenya is 71.7 billion KES ($651.23 million). This has the potential to increase earnings company-wide across all salary levels. Furthermore, the project will create job opportunities for Kenyans.

How Will the Initiative Help Kenyans?

In Kenya, the cost of electricity increased in September 2021. Those with access to electricity began paying 26.57 KES (0.25 USD) per electricity unit. The last monthly pricing was 2 KES less, making this spike in cost “the highest in five years.” This price hiking has continued as Kenya Power grapples with issues of power leakages and electricity theft.

The average annual salary after taxes in Kenya based on the average job is about 2,026,995 KES ($18,536). However, the more typical salary is 765,481 KES ($7,000). Furthermore, 26.3% of workers in Kenya survive on less than $2 of income per day. If the electricity prices continue increasing, many Kenyans will lose their ability to afford electricity and first-time users will struggle to gain access to electricity.

The introduction of smart meter systems will prevent severe revenue losses for Kenya Power. The smart meters in Kenya will benefit Kenya Power, Safaricom, workers and ordinary citizens. Preventing energy theft offers economic benefits for energy companies and workers, but it can also benefit energy consumers. Large-scale changes in security and energy efficiency could strengthen Kenya’s energy sector and infrastructure.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Flickr

Trimble MX7
Natural disasters are detrimental to impoverished regions, and countries like Colombia, where approximately 36% of its population subsists in poverty are no exception. Recent efforts from the World Bank’s Global Program for Resilient Housing have led to the genesis of a Trimble MX7 vehicle-mounted mobile-mapping system that can improve responses to natural disasters in Colombia.

Poverty-Natural Disaster Nexus in Colombia

Colombia has experienced six major earthquakes, four volcanic eruptions, annual major landslides and recurrent extensive flooding in the past 30 years, stunting sustainable development efforts. According to historical records, inadequate land use management and insufficient housing standards account for 80% and 20% of damage and loss, respectively. Impoverished communities lack choice mobility and circumstances force them to settle in areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather. Farming and agriculture, common occupations among working-class people, also lie bare in the face of natural disaster, and above all, such people receive less government and community support for poverty than their wealthier counterparts.

Trimble MX7

The World Bank’s Global Program for Resilient Housing (GPRH) has employed a potential game-changer for natural disaster confrontation and poverty reduction in Bogota, potentially aiding the 27.5% of Colombia’s population that live in monetary poverty. Machine learning algorithms are useful for scanning images that a Trimble MX7 vehicle-mounted mobile-mapping system captures aerially and terrestrially of infrastructure and urban areas that would suffer the most in the event of a natural disaster. The GRPH conceived the idea to capture imagery to detect infrastructure weaknesses and vulnerabilities due to concerns about “soft story” buildings — structures with windows, wide doors and other openings that cannot withstand earthquakes. The “soft story” risk played out on September 19, 2017, when a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico, taking 40 buildings from their foundations, one of which was the Enrique Rebsamen school where seven adults died along with 19 children.

The Role of Policy

Policy gets to structure the usage of innovation such as Trimble MX7 to preclude preventable damage from natural disasters. Fortunately, Colombia’s government has recognized this in its National Development Plan and the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit’s (MHCP) Strategic plan, where the latter must develop strategies to reduce liabilities and regulate fiscal risk. The MHCP has identified three policy goals to solidify fiscal risk and give rise to and support a better economy: identification and understanding of financial risk due to disasters, financial management of natural disaster risk and catastrophe risk insurance for public assets.

Conclusion

Natural disasters are a serious concern in Colombia, with the country’s impoverished communities suffering the most from the aftermath. The Trimble MX7 is a promising new technology that will save lives and prevent people from falling into extreme poverty in the wake of natural disasters.

– Mohamed Makalou
Photo: Flickr

DataKind
People often say that this is the era of data; after all, data mining and extraction often prove essential for widescale business operations and more. Still, even as the demand for data analysts and data scientists rises every year, projects focusing on social change do not get the same advantages in this field as large private enterprises. Expansive tech corporations still hold most of the resources and information when using data analysis as a tool for operative efficiency.

However, many organizations seek to change this. One of them is DataKind, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to putting data in the service of others. The organization works on short and long-term projects addressing topics from poverty and access to services in developing countries to health care and education.

Why DataKind?

DataKind works with nonprofit organizations that have access to large quantities of gathered information and delivers high-quality analyses. These analyses help effectively streamline resources, creating new goals for NGOs and nonprofits so that more people can receive aid. In this way, DataKind has shifted the trends of big data and data analysis toward humanitarian projects.

CEO Jake Porway stated, “In 2010, we had the big-data boom, but the things that people would do with it seemed so frivolous — they would build apps to help them park their car or find a local bar. I just thought, ‘This is crazy, we need to do something more.’ ” After realizing that data analysis has a place in the nonprofit realm, Porway founded DataKind in 2010. Based in New York City, it originally had part-time data scientist volunteers working on short-term projects, but now the organization collaborates with more than a dozen international bodies such as the U.N.’s Global Pulse and the World Bank.

GiveDirect

GiveDirect is an organization that focuses on transferring money to the poorest communities in Kenya and Uganda. These funds can go into communities, helping individuals pursue their own goals. To identify which villages will benefit from this, DataKind stepped in to analyze data from satellite images. It identified which households and villages were the poorest in each region. A programmed algorithm detected the materials of individual homes; thatched or metal roofs can be an indicator of a community’s needs. This proved to be more efficient and less costly than a traditional census in these remote areas.

VotoMobile

This organization has a dedication to amplifying the voices of marginalized groups in West Africa by using mobile surveys in local languages. It targets remote communities’ main necessities, gathering insight on groups typically not represented in common censuses. DataKind enhanced data repositories and built interactive data models for VotoMobile to use for future data collection. With DataKind’s help, VotoMobile is now focussing on standardizing its surveys so they are easier to analyze and compare. When this stage is complete, VotoMobile will be able to take many more voices into account, prioritizing specific types of aid for rural villages in Uganda and Senegal.

The World Bank: Anti-Corruption Solutions

To effectively tackle poverty, it is necessary to root out corruption in development projects. In one of its most ambitious projects, DataKind collaborated with The World Bank, working with collected data from across the globe to identify possible corruption cases and create innovative solutions. It closely studied food prices, inflation rates, vis-a-vis surveys and phone data. Participants in this project have carefully mapped what variables are missing in the data. These strategies are not limited exclusively to future frameworks in data collection. They can also contribute to ingenious solutions for rampant corruption around the globe.

In the future, DataKind hopes to keep delivering new data-based solutions for international organizations and institutions, bringing new volunteers into the era of philanthropic data analysis.

– Araí Yegros
Photo: Flickr

Drinking Water From Thin Air
Aquaer is providing water to thousands of people in need. Clean water is a necessity but people in desert countries often consider it a luxury. In fact, according to the most recent data on access to clean water that the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF published in 2019, in 2017, more than 884 million people worldwide lacked access to safe drinking water. Luckily, an organization called Aquaer is working to create drinking water from thin air.

About Aquaer

The Spanish company Aquaer has developed a system to extract clean drinking water from thin air. Engineer Enrique Veiga and his father developed this revolutionary technology during a drought in Spain in the 1990s. Aquaer’s generators use electricity to cool air until it condenses into water — a condensation process often used in air conditioning units by utilizing heat exchangers. On the market since 2004, these machines can produce up to 5,000 liters of water a day.

What makes Aquaer’s machines revolutionary and distinguishes them from other water generators is their ability to operate in high temperatures. Aquaer’s machines can operate in temperatures as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity levels between 10% and 15%. Other water generators that use a similar technology can generally only run in low temperatures and high humidity areas.

Extreme Situations

Aquaer’s ability to function in a desert-like climate has allowed Veiga to provide water to villages that would otherwise not have access to potable water. The generators do not have negative environmental impacts and intend to work in extreme environments such as those of countries largely made up of deserts. Aquaer’s machines have filters to make sure the water is clean and drinkable. Filters can undergo cleaning several times until the filter needs a replacement.

Thanks to its research and development efforts, the Sevilla-based company can now reach more nations with water generators. The company now has desalination and purification plants, which eventually could undergo installation in dry places to improve the service speed and magnitude. In Aquaer’s attempt to minimize electricity costs, it is seeking to install solar panels everywhere it can.

Veiga’s water generators have been delivering clean water to refugees in Namibia and Lebanon during the last five years by working alongside Switzerland-based Vietnamese refugee, Nhat Vuong. A 500-liter Aquaer generator has undergone installation in a refugee camp near Tripoli in Lebanon since 2017.

Water as a Right

Access to water is a basic human right, and as people are experiencing extreme weather conditions throughout the world, water shortages impact many nations. According to the United Nations, “Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, healthy ecosystems and for human survival itself.” Water is also essential “for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, welfare and productivity of populations.”

Acknowledging the greater impact of water, Aquaer has an objective to not only deliver a simple device that meets its technical purpose but also design a device that is useful for those who have to walk many miles to search for water. The creation of drinking water from thin air should allow even the driest locations access to clean drinking water.

– Carolina Cadena
Photo: Flickr

End Global Poverty by 2030In 2015, the United Nations (UN) created the Sustainable Development Goals, a group of 17 goals that aimed to create an equal and prosperous society. Many of the goals are centered around ending discrimination, providing quality education to all, and other measures to improve equality. However, the most important goal out of the 17 developed is to end global poverty by 2030, which would significantly impact the lives of billions around the world. With America having the strongest economy in the world, even during the pandemic, the U.S. has many ways to reach this goal and finally end global poverty.

Provide Natural Resources

Currently, the U.S. holds the greatest amount of natural resources in the world, especially oil and natural gas. These resources are extremely important to help those in other countries. For instance, in countries without access to electricity, life expectancies are 20 years shorter. Electricity is necessary to provide better education, improve food supplies, upgrade healthcare and so much more. Thus, by improving electricity, America can provide the resources necessary for families to survive and potentially end global poverty by 2030.

Similarly, while electricity is essential to uplift people in developing countries, it also provides profits to America itself. The most important of these benefits is that when the U.S. exports more energy, allied countries have to rely less on authoritarian countries such as Russia and China. This helps reduce prices for these countries to purchase energy and improves confidence in the energy supply. For America, it means that trade will boost the economy and will invest in American citizens.

Improve COVID Aid

In countries across the globe, COVID has been surging due to a lack of vaccines. In fact, in Africa, the number of cases rose by 39% in June 2021. Similarly, at least 20 countries in Africa have experienced a third wave of infections. Nevertheless, wealthier nations have only promised to deliver vaccines to Africa by 2023, prolonging the spread of COVID throughout the continent.

While the U.S. has tried to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Africa, they failed in 2020 to meet the requirements for a sustainable recovery. For example, out of the $9.5 billion that the U.S. was required to contribute as part of a 2020 COVID global response, they only contributed $3.8 billion. In fact, in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines, the U.S. only contributed 27.2% of the necessary funds.

However, in 2021, America has made many improvements to its foreign policy to aid countries in fighting COVID. The most significant of these is the $11 billion of foreign aid issued as part of the American Rescue Plan in March 2021. Furthermore, the U.S. has provided over $2 billion to COVAX, an organization that provides COVID vaccines to 92 low-income countries. With the vaccines helping potentially millions of people, the U.S. is aiding these countries to exit the current pandemic-induced recession. Although this effort likely won’t be able to end global poverty, America is providing a strong foundation for families in low-income countries.

Help Children in Poverty

Even though billions of adults live in poverty, children are twice as likely to live in poverty. Over 1 billion children worldwide are multidimensionally poor, meaning that they have no access to education, nutrition, housing, water, and more. Children who experience multidimensional poverty die at twice the rate of their peers from wealthier families.

To address this, the United States needs to recognize the flaws currently in place with regards to aiding children. For instance, only 2.6% of humanitarian funds go to education, stifling 128 million children from going to school and having the necessary abilities to succeed in the future. Financial contributions by the U.S. could help millions achieve a quality education. With better education, these students will have the resources to economically support themselves and ultimately lift themselves out of poverty.

While economic problems continue to persist, especially during the pandemic, the U.S. can help millions of families. If the U.S. uses its economic might, it could finally remove burdens for families and end global poverty.

– Calvin Franke
Photo: Pixabay

military robotsResearchers have recently discovered that military-designed robots have the ability to save lives. Humanitarian assistance through robots can help tackle poverty and provide support to those in need on land, air and sea. These robots are especially important in impoverished, war-ridden areas. Overall, robotic resources can help tackle crises that would otherwise be dangerous, deadly or impossible for humans to enter.

Terrestrial Robots

Terrestrial military robots, also called throwable robots, serve as life-saving engines on land. The robots work by entering confined spaces, searching through debris and disposing of bombs and hazardous waste. Throwable robots are light, easily transportable objects that are shock-resistant and often remote-controlled. The robots are designed to enter tight spaces and transmit live audio and video to users. Footage from throwable robots can help rescue teams locate people who are trapped in confined spaces and monitor their wellbeing until the civilians reach safety. Currently, more than 550 U.S. law enforcement agencies and military units use throwable robots to assist in their missions and help preserve human life.

Bomb squads also use military robots to locate, defuse, detonate and dispose of bombs. Occasionally, bomb squads deploy throwable robots before bomb disposal robots to inspect the scene and search for potential bombs. Amid war and natural disasters, terrestrial military robots can offer ample humanitarian assistance. The military robots can douse fires, enter small spaces and search through rubble without experiencing the harm of smoke, dust or extreme heat. The future of terrestrial robots is promising as recent innovations of better sensors and robust agility will elevate the technology to the next level.

Aerial Robots

Aerial military robots impact people’s quality of life in areas hit badly by natural disasters. One example illustrates drones transporting humanitarian aid and collecting data to assist in natural disaster recovery. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) started using aerial robots in 2012 to measure the extent of displacement and physical damage from natural disasters in Haiti. Furthermore, the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières have used aerial robots to deliver medical supplies to Papua New Guinea and Bhutan.

Aerial robots can also assist in search and rescue efforts in a similar way to terrestrial robots. In war and disaster zones, aerial robots can quickly locate people in need of medical assistance. Drones are often faster and more affordable than other modes of transportation. In many circumstances, drones can capture higher quality data better than humans, for instance, detailed aerial view photographs of flood zones and refugee camps. Aerial robots can also protect humans from entering dangerous situations. Alongside terrestrial robots and bomb disposal robots, drones can scope out potential explosives and identify the best strategy for removing the explosives.

Maritime Robots

Nicknamed “robotic lifeguards,” maritime military robots can save lives at sea. In 2016, a fast-swimming maritime robot named Emily saved more than 240 refugees from drowning on the coast of Greece. Maritime robots have the potential to endure extreme temperatures and are not vulnerable to exhaustion, allowing these robots the capability to become highly effective lifeguards in the future. Additionally, maritime robots are significantly faster than human swimmers. With this ability, robots can use heat sensors to quickly locate people underwater. In shipwrecks or other sea accidents, maritime robots can carry several people to shore. Maritime robots are still relatively rare, but as they become more popular, the robots can be especially effective in places like the Mediterranean Sea where refugees are frequently at risk of drowning.

Overall, robotics technology has the potential to transform disaster and crises relief efforts. Able to withstand vulnerabilities that humans cannot, these robots illustrate the increasingly important role of technology in rescue, relief and aid endeavors.

Cleo Hudson
Photo: Flickr

Cell ServiceWhen a hurricane rips through a Caribbean island, news sites often report the destruction of buildings, damaged roads and lost lives. However, one of the most important things that people lose in a natural disaster is often invisible to a spectator’s eye: cellular connectivity. Cell service is crucial to life in the Caribbean islands, just as it is around the world. When Caribbean countries lose cell service, rescue operations, the economy and society itself grind to a halt. That is why many people have been developing creative ways to ensure cellular access during natural disasters.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed 75% of Puerto Rico’s cell towers, which deprived 91% of Puerto Ricans of their cell service. The most immediate effect of losing service was the inability of rescue teams to find or assist survivors. For weeks after the disaster, large parts of the island remained unable to communicate with the rest of the world to tell people about the island’s condition.

Rebuilding After Hurricane Maria

The lack of internet and cellular service proved a chronic problem for Puerto Rico as it attempted to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. Businesses were unable to advertise or sell their goods, and people could not coordinate rebuilding projects.

Even a year after Hurricane Maria, 10% of small businesses had not reopened and 40% of the population had lost their jobs or were earning less than they had before the hurricane. Estimates of the total financial cost of the hurricane range from $43 billion to $159 billion.

Cell Service and Subscriptions

In Puerto Rico, the internet is so important that the poorest 40% of the population pay about one-fifth of their income for broadband service. The rest of the Caribbean is equally dependent on connectivity. In most Caribbean countries, there are more cell subscriptions than people. The island nation of Dominica, for example, had 152 cell subscriptions for every 100 people in 2014. While other Caribbean countries have been lucky enough to avoid destruction on the scale of Puerto Rico, cellular and internet access after hurricanes is a region-wide problem.

Organizations Helping

Various organizations have proposed many innovations that could provide access to cell service and the internet in the aftermath of a disaster. One potential solution is internet balloons. These are huge balloons that float more than 12 miles in the air and grant internet access to huge swathes of land. Such balloons can undergo quick deployment in the wake of catastrophe and remain in the sky for as long as necessary. Unfortunately, Google’s Loon, the largest maker of these balloons, has shut down. As a result, the future of the idea is in doubt.

Other solutions also exist. Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) is a special way of sending radio signals in disaster situations. TETRA is a decentralized system, so it can broadcast from boats, storm shelters, planes and countless other mediums.

TETRA is also a two-way system, allowing people to communicate with each other in addition to a central broadcaster. Several Caribbean nations, such as the Dominican Republic, already use TETRA systems to provide both warning and relief to the public.

Natural disasters are inevitable, and so much depends on a country’s ability to respond to and recover from them. Perhaps no factor is as important for recovery as good cellular and internet service. New technology will hopefully ensure that connectivity continues when people most need it.

– Thomas Brodey
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Engineering Good On April 7, 2020, Singapore commenced its Circuit Breaker — a series of measures designed to restrict social interaction — in an effort to safeguard the country from COVID-19. The government eased the restrictions after June 1, 2020, but the economic consequences reverberated long after, including a spike in unemployment and an estimated GDP contraction of 2.2%. As in other countries, low-income families in Singapore were more adversely affected by the pandemic and the disruptions that came with it. Impoverished Singaporeans felt a disproportionate impact, particularly in education, as students transitioned to home-based learning in compliance with Circuit Breaker measures. Parents and children from low-income households felt the proverbial rug pulled from under their feet as they scrambled to access laptops and reliable Wi-Fi routers and struggled to create an environment conducive to learning. Fortunately, Engineering Good stepped in to help with its Computers Against COVID campaign.

Engineering Good

Engineering Good, a Singapore-based charity established in 2014, supports low-income families and people with disabilities by improving their digital literacy and access to technology. Responding to the urgent need for laptops that arose due to home-based learning, Engineering Good refurbished secondhand laptops for low-income families in Singapore. The project became its flagship campaign, Computers Against COVID.

Computers Against COVID

The Computers Against COVID campaign began when the South Central Community Family Center reached out to Engineering Good requesting 24 laptops for low-income families in Singapore to support households’ home-based learning efforts. Leveraging the power of social media, the charity made requests to the public to donate their old laptops and computer accessories.

The response to Engineering Good’s social media campaign was overwhelming. Within two weeks, the charity had recruited more than 100 volunteers and received more than 600 laptops as donations. In an interview with The Peak Magazine, the executive director of Engineering Good, Johann Annuar, attributed the campaign’s success to Singaporean people’s desires to give back to society. The goodwill of donors and volunteers has enabled what was meant to be a one-weekend project of fixing a few laptops to transform into a more than year-long community endeavor.

As of May 2021, Engineering Good has refurbished and donated more than 4,000 laptops for low-income families in Singapore. The charity continues to receive requests of up to 200 laptops each month and works with around 200 social service organizations that help identify those most in need.

Continuing to Fight Digital Inequality

Given the Computers Against COVID campaign’s success, Engineering Good is now looking to transform the project into a long-term, sustainable initiative. The charity hopes to continue providing laptops and technical expertise to anyone in need, whether it be for home-based learning or other purposes, such as remote work. Invigorated by a sense of purpose, the organization’s volunteers are eager to continue making a difference, especially after realizing, as one volunteer described it, that “an extremely tiny sacrifice’’ of one’s time to fix a computer could potentially transform a family’s life for years.

While the issue of digital inequality has long loomed large in Singapore, COVID-19’s subversion of work and student life has accentuated the urgency with which both the public and nonprofit sectors must address the digital divide. As Engineering Good supports low-income families through laptop repair and other services, public demand for further government action is growing. As Singapore’s digital divide closes, impoverished families are able to participate in endeavors that educate and empower them, allowing disadvantaged Singaporeans to rise out of poverty.

Vyas Nageswaran
Photo: Flickr