i initiative

Space and Development…Increasing Access to Space in Africa

Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

The Use of Technology for Elections and Civil Empowerment

Posted by Simon Adebola on March 6, 2011

There was much anxiety and anger in Nigeria recently concerning the announcement by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that it was not going to be using the Direct Data Capture (DDC) machines, that it invested about 35 billion Naira in purchasing, for the upcoming April 2011 elections. The anger stems from the fact that it is believed that the use of electronic registration and voting could help minimize the risk of a fraudulent conduct of the upcoming elections. In addition, so much had been invested in these machines that it struck many as simply horrendous that the last voters registration exercise (with its faults) was the last that was going to be seen of these machines, or at least so it seemed. Well without seeking to speak in defence of the INEC, it is true that unless there is a firm legal basis for the use of these machines in the elections, it would be preposterous to assume that their use would be appropriate. Moreso, recent international experience has shown that e-voting is not without its challenges. Legal actions have been known to push for the overturning of extensive civil investments if there is a fault in their conduct or execution that suggests that they were not legal or constitutional in the first place. No institution would go ahead and use these machines to conduct elections and then be told that the voting should be annuled because it is not legal. About the continued use of the machines, there is no assurance that the current INEC leadership would be in power beyond this round of elections, so it is appropriate for them to comment about the upcoming elections and not any of the further potential uses of the machines. I believe they have not ruled out any of these potential future uses, but have only spoken on that which is immediate and pertinent to the country at this time.

This short piece is however aimed at picking on a few ideas to which the machines could be used. Some have suggested that they should be used for the voting process. They could also come in useful in the next national census exercise. There are also elections that would keep holding in different states and local governments, these machines would definitely be of use. In about 4 years, a new generation of voters would be eligible to exercise this civic responsibility and having such machines available would make their assimilation easy. Then what about the National ID card or was it not this same types of machines that were used the last time the ID registration took place in Nigeria? Then there is also the need to have accurate civil registration, vital statistics, and a comprehensive national demographic database. The lack of good quality data on demographic indices is a curse, I repeat, a curse. This condoned level of ignorance is sin. Okay, I rant so please bear with me.

First and foremost Nigerian engineers are capable of networking these machines and compiling a single secure database with all the data from these machines. Access to this database can be properly regulated and every action on the data fully recorded and logged for tracking purposes. This would ensure that they are not easily tampered with. Physical security of the machines and the data they are used in generating can be ensured through the building in of geotracking capability, backing up of the data, and other necessary physical measures to prevent their theft or misuse. When there is a single database for the collected data, it can be made accessible to the machines anywhere in the country for correlation and confirmation during voting. The kind of telecommunications infrastructure needed to do that may not exist all over Nigeria now, but it is hoped that by the next round of voter registration and elections such infrastructure would exist to permit the remote linking of these machines to a central database. Any government that cannot make broadband (be it fibre or wireless), 4G, or at least 3G available all over the country in four years should not have been voted-in in the first place. These uses would require a mix of hardware and software modifications, but it is clear that all it would take, having invested so much, is to take apart one of these machines, tinker with it, add the needed hardware, reprogram it with software as necessary, re-assemble the thing, and make it work to serve whatever purpose for which it is then intended for. This can then be duplicated for the other units. I hope that is legal. Whichever way, having invested 35 billon naira this time, the nation’s engineers should rise up to the challenge and build its own DDC machines.

Value needs to be placed on information as a source of empowerment, and as a social and civil vanguard. The use of technologies has become the cornerstone of the information age. Right before our eyes, the ability to generate, transmit, and share information is actively shaping social discourse. It is also giving room for a new social order and political determinism particularly among the younger generation, even where it was previously least expected. Information and access to it has bred a generation that can no longer be underestimated. What once amazed their parents was their versatility with fancy gadgets, but that has now steadily being transformed to raw power in calling for change, demanding for their rights, and reverting the socio-political order. The role of science and technology in shaping this rise of knowledge and power, is an indication for African engineers to take up the challenge to design and develop better software and hardware to enable the rapid uptake of technologies and information in this age. This is their unique role and charge. Educational systems have a major part to play in this needed technological revolution. All hands must be on deck!

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Africa, Solar Power and Space Technologies 2

Posted by Simon Adebola on February 11, 2010

In the quest for renewable energy solutions that could serve to meet the world’s energy needs in a cost-effective way, there are many options that are being proposed. Some of these options are quite interesting, a number are ingenious and laughable, and yet some border on the fringe of the bizarre, and on being outright outrageous.

One particular example of alternative energy solutions that holds huge potential for the many parts of Africa with many sunny days in a year is the PS 10 in Sanlucar le Mayor, 25km west of Seville, Spain. It is the world’s first commercial tower technology solar thermoelectric power plant. See the video below.

The search for appropriate locations to derive maiximum yield from solar energy has led some to consider the possibility of moving beyond the earth’s surface, above it’s immdiate atmosphere, and into the vastness of space to tap this abundant resource. The case for Space-Based Solar Power(SPSP) or Space Solar Power (SSP), as it is called, is made by those who seek to overcome the huge loss of solar energy that occurs as radiation from the sun loses it’s value as it passes through the earth’s atmosphere to reach its surface where most solar panels exist. Moreso, unlike solar panels on earth which are subject to meteorological and day/night changes, a satellite in space bearing a solar panel can have uninterrupted reception of solar energy for conversion to electricity and onward transmission to the Earth’s surface. This idea has been a subject of intensive research by a number of developed nations who predict drastic energy shortages and seek to augment current energy supply means with power gathered from space. This energy can then be beamed back to earth solving the power generation and transmission questions by systematically splitting transmission into sending (from space) and receiving (on ground) components. They can then use existing distribution networks.

Does this approach hold any special benefit for Africa? Are there equally efficient options on the continent? Are current and potential energy shortages faced by the continent due to a dearth of energy sources or lack of utilization of existing energy sources? Does Africa have the potential of supplying power to other continents? Whose responsibility is it to make Africa energy self-sufficient and even commercially capable in supplying other states?

If in spite of the abundance of solar energy sources in Africa, people prefer to invest in going all the way to space, a technology solution that is probably 5 decades away from being deployable on a commercially feasible scale, then that should point to the fact that Africa in many ways has the primary responsibility to invest in and develop its own viable energy sources. This may be their solution to generating in Africa and transmitting to Europe, Asia or America. The problem with this option is that the risk of failure is high compared to the incurred investment especially since the technologies have been untested on the scale that it would take to make economic sense. However their efforts in conceptualising and developing new technologies to adapt to future change is commendable, and that should be emulated across Africa. Africa needs a breed of forward-looking engineers, entrepreneurs and social policy makers to help it cope with the needs of the present and the challenges of its future. The lesson there is probably not that some are willing to try something crazy rather than come to invest in Africa, but that we had better get the message that the rest of the world will not wait for Africa to solve its own problems.

Posted in Africa, Development, Education, Innovation, Satellites, Science, Southern Africa, Space, Space science and technology, Technology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Africa, Solar Power and Space Technologies 1

Posted by Simon Adebola on February 11, 2010

The provision of alternative energy sources to drive the machines of development in Africa, and indeed globally, is a major issue. This is further heightened by the scientific and economic possibilities that surround the commercial deployment of new technologies that use renewable energy sources as alternatives to coal and petroleum. Governments, research institutions, and private entities alike have all embarked on quests to discover, develop, and deploy efficient and renewable energy solutions.

Darling Wind Farm, South Africa. (Source: BBC News Africa)

The growth of carbon-efficient technologies has helped to fuse considerations such as cost-effectiveness and environmental impact into the primary concern of technical feasibility. Some of the options being explored include wind, hydroelectric energy, biomass, and solar energy.

In spite of its having a rich abundance of each of these energy sources, Africa still reels under the lack of energy to drive development and economic growth. This is largely because technological and organisational know-how is needed to exploit these options and most parts of the continent still fall behind in this aspect.

Africa stands at a particular advantage with respect to solar energy. The development and commercial exploitation of this resource should have long been a priority of many African governments. The space programme has long relied on solar energy to drive its exploratory missions.

SMART-1, ESA’s technology demonstration satellite to the moon, used highly efficient solar power solutions to accomplish new technological feats. See a video of SMART-1.

There are many lessons to be learned here by countries seeking to profit from the utilisation of solar energy. The hardening of spacecraft components to help them cope with the harsh extremes of the space environment can be adapted to improve the effiency of solar energy hardware deployed in desert-like conditions. Deserts are notorious for their very hot days and extremely cold nights. Hardening helps technologies deployed in harsh environments to stay efficient and deliver for much longer. If man can successfully deploy structures like the International Space Station’s solar array wings to provide consistent power supply for man’s presence in space, then nothing stops Africans from repeating something that does not come near that as a technological feat.

International Space Station showing solar arrays (Source: NASA)

Profitable exploitation of solar power is possible and needed in Africa. The technologies are available, what is needed is the political will and economic sense to drive its successful implementation. Some people are already making efforts in this direction.

A graduate of the International Space University, Ayodele Faiyetole, believes in the potential and impact of solar power. He is overcoming the resistance of his environment to deliver voltage and light to communities hitherto enshrouded in darkness and ignorance of the possibilities that the sunlight around them can bring. He recently received the Todd B. Hawley Space Visionary Award for his achievements. Read more about him here

Solar panels and solar energy options have advanced in the last few decades and the field is still growing. This is a key area where Africa can make its mark and pull its people out of darkness to light.

Posted in Africa, Development, Innovation, NASA, Satellites, Science, Southern Africa, Space, Space science and technology, Technology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Young South African Scientist Unraveling the Environment

Posted by Simon Adebola on December 19, 2009

Have you ever wondered how to accurately predict when it would rain and how much rain to expect? Have you ever thought that mathematics and engineering were exclusively male domains? Have you ever wondered if Africa could solve its own problems and if the upcoming generation of Africans could take the continent into the promised land? There is a ray of hope shining from the far South.

Born into a humble background, this whiz kid has risen beyond the temporal challenges of her immediate environment and through hard work and commitment has demonstrated a wide spectrum of talent and excellence. Her name is Sibusisiwe Audrey Khuluse. She is a scientist working on statistical modelling of rainfall events in the Western Cape of South Africa. She also conducts research into environmental risk assessment for extreme events. She uses statistical modelling relying on in-situ environmental data to project and assess the potential likelihood and severity of environmental events. This involves a lot of data from different sources but through computing and statistical techniques the modelling can serve to help solve questions in engineering, business, economics, health and other aspects of society. Space-based data gotten from remote environmental monitoring satellites are equally reliable sources of data for geo-statistical modelling.

Recognition for her work has come from different quarters. Sibu, as she is better known, graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2007 with a honours degree in Mathematical Statistics. She is studying for a Masters in Mathematical Statistics at the University of Witwatersrand where her research work is on extreme value modelling. She is also a research statistician at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)– Built Environment, where she works with the Statistical Modelling and Analysis Research Group. She is a recipient of a Tata Africa Scholarship to complete her Masters. This award is given to women working in areas of study that are not typically considered female domains. She has also been awarded the prestigious Mandela Rhodes Havard South Africa Fellowship. She will spend a year at Harvard from the second half of 2010. She intends to use that period to further her academic and research pursuits, while strengthening research collaborations. It will also help her to choose a suitable topic for her future PhD studies. A highly motivated and service-minded individual, Sibu represents the blend of intelligence, resourcefulness and commitment to pursuing innovative ideas, that is gradually renewing the ethos of the continent. This change is the hope for a responsible, progressive and productive future for Africa.

Her example as a high flyer, should be encouraged by governments and financially endowed individuals. The continent is laden with potential and its future, especially in the fields of science and technology, would be enhanced by greater efforts in supporting the educational pursuits of young African women and men. Research-minded individuals should be encouraged to take up opportunities across the globe. This would also help to grow research networks while building local capacity. Without a doubt, Africa’s environment is rich in resources and potential, yet it is also not immune to hazards and extreme events. It is necessary to harness the potential of technologies across the spectrum of innovation to develop our resources and empower Africans to mitigate and be prepared against disasters.

Investment in education, research and capacity building efforts all determine the seriousness, and the potential for progress and development for any system. This crucial aspect of organisational growth and socio-economic development is the bedrock for any knowledge-driven and resource efficient society. The key to development is not more money or greater funding but the optimum and efficient use of existing resources. Knowledge must thus be valued and given its rightful place as the pivot around which all other development efforts are driven. This guides the efficient use of resources; establishes authenticity, merit and genuine need as drivers of resource distribution and uptake; and sidelines corrupt, selfish and retrogressive models of governance, civil responsibility and societal development.

You can learn more about Sibu here and here.

Posted in Africa, Development, Disaster management, Earth observation, Education, Humanitarian emergencies, Innovation, Southern Africa, Space science and technology, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Polio Eradication and Space Technologies

Posted by Simon Adebola on May 8, 2009

At the last University of Michigan graduation ceremony Larry Page gave the commencement address.

He had this to say about Polio

“In late March 1996, soon after I had moved to Stanford for grad school, my Dad had difficultly breathing and drove to the hospital. Two months later, he died. And that was it. I was completely devastated. Many years later, after a startup, after falling in love, and after so many of life’s adventures, I found myself thinking about my Dad. Lucy and I were far away in a steaming hot village walking through narrow streets. There were wonderful friendly people everywhere, but it was a desperately poor place — people used the bathroom inside and it flowed out into the open gutter and straight into the river. We touched a boy with a limp leg, the result of paralysis from polio. Lucy and I were in rural India — one of the few places where Polio still exists. Polio is transmitted fecal to oral, usually through filthy water. Well, my Dad had Polio. He went on a trip to Tennessee in the first grade and caught it. He was hospitalized for two months and had to be transported by military DC-3 back home — his first flight. My Dad wrote, “Then, I had to stay in bed for over a year, before I started back to school”. That is actually a quote from his fifth grade autobiography. My Dad had difficulty breathing his whole life, and the complications of Polio are what took him from us too soon. He would have been very upset that Polio still persists even though we have a vaccine. He would have been equally upset that back in India we had polio virus on our shoes from walking through the contaminated gutters that spread the disease. We were spreading the virus with every footstep, right under beautiful kids playing everywhere. The world is on the verge of eliminating polio, with 328 people infected so far this year. Let’s get it done soon. Perhaps one of you will do that.”

This is a worthy challenge and one worth pursuing. The latest monthly situation report from the Polio Eradication Initiative showed that apart from Nigeria which is one of the four remaining endemic countries (the others are Afghanistan, India and Pakistan), there are 13 reinfected African countries. Nigeria has been responsible for exporting the virus to most of these countries and also accounts for the majority of the number of polio cases recorded worldwide this year. The eradication of polio even though a worldwide challenge is thus pre-eminently an African imperative.

The use of space technologies in solving this challenge is very important. The curbing of the spread of polio relies largely on immunization campaigns to prevent its transmission. There are routine, supplementary and mop-up immunization campaigns. The planning of these immunization activities requires a lot of scientific and logistic input to make them effective and successful. For example in the event where there is focal transmission as evidenced by Wild Polio Virus transmission followed by Acute Flaccid Paralysis, immediate action is required. This would require continuing active surveillance and also conducting mop-up immunization campaigns in the area, based on the suspicion that many others in the area potentially carry the virus and are capable of transmitting it. This suspected carrier ‘buffer zone’ can be defined with the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation devices and a high resolution satellite image of where the immunization campaign is to be organized can then be downloaded off the internet from various online mapping services. Connecting to the internet is possible, anywhere in the world, with the aid of mobile satellite terminals. Details of the campaign, including the extent of the buffer zone around the reported cases to be focused on, can then be mapped using a Geographic Information System (GIS). The use of GPS, web mapping, GIS, and mobile satellite terminals are some of the space-related technologies that have found use in the logistics of emergency or critical operations all over the world.

This whole process can be accomplished with much ease following adequate planning. Hand-drawn maps can be fraught with various faults that do not befit an activity with this level of high priority to global aims.

John Snow Hand Drawn Map of Soho, London Cholera Outbreak in 1854 (Source: Wikipedia)

John Snow Hand Drawn Map of Soho, London Cholera Outbreak in 1854 (Source: Wikipedia)

An example of a better map designed using freely available satellite imagery is shown below. This map gives a more accurate relationship between areas. It also affords immunisation volunteers to be easily mobilized for deployment into an area by empowering them with better tools to navigate hitherto unknown territory.

Map obtained using Google Maps and enhanced to show routes (Source: Ana Gago Da Silva)

Map obtained using Google Maps and enhanced to show routes (Source: Ana Gago Da Silva)

Posted in Africa, Development, Earth observation, Education, Healthcare, Innovation, Space, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

African Missions to the Moon and Mars

Posted by Simon Adebola on May 4, 2009

Following up on the glad events of the last African Conference on the Mission to Mars, we are bringing today from a standpoint closer to home, views on how to get involved in efforts to bring an African payload to the moon. The 21st century race to the moon has already begun and the last is yet to be heard of who is going to the moon next. Strengthening this expanded view of lunar exploration is the rise in interest from private and commercial space participants. At the forefront of this is the XPrize Foundation which have, in collaboration with Google launched the Google Lunar Xprize (GLXP) which is a 30million dollar prize for the first privately funded team to make it to the moon with a robot which would then travel 500 meters and send video, images and data back to the earth. There are also additional prizes for the team whose payload can accomplish certain defined tasks. It is clear that Africans can complete equally in this. We have some of the best scientific and technological minds in the world. It is not a season to watch and wait.

There is no telling what this is doing to the science of space and lunar exploration. Kids, students, scientists, techies and geeks from all over the world are all combining forces to accomplish these goals. It is amazing how much interest and innovation has been plowed into these efforts and how much more is still underway. In this interview with William Pomerantz, the Senior Director of Space Projects at the X Prize Foundation and who also runs the GLXP, he answers questions on how Africans can get involved in this great opportunity to showcase the uniqueness and brightness of African technological potential. He also talks about the opportunities from the newly launched Healthcare X Prize.

Q: How many African countries have registered teams?

A: We do not yet have any registered teams that are headquartered in Africa. However, we do have members of registered teams who live and work in Egypt and in South Africa.

Q: How many are following up on their registrations?
A: We have not yet had any teams headquartered in Africa file a “Letter of Intent to Compete” or a registration package for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. However, we have heard from a total of about 50 potential teams based in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. We certainly hope to hear more from Africa in the future, and would be thrilled to get our first ever African X PRIZE team!

Q: What are your thoughts on how you think African engineers can take part in these?

A: One of the nicest things about incentive prizes, including the Google Lunar X PRIZE, is that they attract intelligent solutions from the widest possible range of potential inventors and problems solvers. A prize does not care what your nationality is, what field you have your degree in, or what your CV or university transcript says—the prize only cares about the results. To date, the talent pool of very bright African engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs has been mostly untapped by the traditional aerospace community. We certainly hope that this prize will help change that, and will allow these individuals to demonstrate their capabilities on the global stage.

Similarly, we hope that educators and parents across all of Africa will be able use this prize and the stories of the competing teams as a tool to get young students excited about the possibility of entering careers in aerospace related fields or, more broadly, in careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths. Increasing the numbers of young Africans who chose to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of such careers will have an enormously beneficial impact on Africa—and on the industries that benefit from such an influx of talent.

Finally, we hope that regardless of the nationality of the eventual winners of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a variety of African countries and companies will be able to take advantage of the new, radically cheaper lunar exploration opportunities provided by the teams competing for the prize. Whereas the cost of lunar exploration to date has made it simply too expensive for most countries in the world (much less most private companies or universities), in the near future, prices will have come down dramatically, putting them on par with a wide range of other scientific companies. We look forward to the day when we all watch the first African-designed payload land on the lunar surface, probably carried by a private vessel designed by a Google Lunar X PRIZE team.

Q: I would also like to know if the Healthcare XPrize is open to international participation?

A: Yes, it is planned that the forthcoming Healthcare X PRIZE will be open to international participation.

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