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Renewable tech brings power swarming through the world’s poorest villages

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The power cubes are charged with electricity using solar arrays. UNDP

Swarm grids, an innovative technology designed to work with renewable energy sources, are bringing reliable electricity to some of the world’s poorest and remote regions for the first time, providing a major boost to the livelihoods of those who live there.

Around 789 million people worldwide still have no access to electricity, seriously hampering their opportunities for development. But the installation, with the support of the UN development Programme (UNDP), of so-called “swarm grids” in vulnerable communities, from Laos to Mozambique to Vanuatu, is demonstrating that low-cost renewable energy solutions can be an effective alternative to more expensive large-scale grid connections.

The first step to a great future

“This is the first step into a great future”, says Reuben Natamatewia, the Paramount Chief on Lelepa Island, part of the archipelago of 83 islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Mr. Natamatewia is excited by the potential of a swarm grid that has been installed on the island, which, like the vast majority of the nation’s islands, has never been connected to the national grid. Until now, the inhabitants of these islands have had to make do with polluting diesel generators or individual solar home systems, which have a limited capacity, barely providing enough power to charge a mobile phone. The installation promises to be a game-changer for Lelepa.

“Once our village is fully electrified, we will be able to refrigerate our daily fish catch. An electric water pump will provide drinking water to villagers. At the school, teachers and students will be able to use the copy machine and printer. Thanks to sewing machines, women producers will be able to increase their handicrafts production.”

The pioneering swarm grid project, which is supported by UNDP, with financing from Germany, consists of sturdy power cubes, which look like large car batteries, and are charged by a solar array. The power stored in the cubes is fed to individual households, or community buildings such as health centres, via cables buried underground. Because the cubes are inter-connected, power outages are far less likely: if one cube fails, power can be supplied from the other cubes. And, as the energy needs of the community grow, more cubes can be added.

The Lelepa swarm grid is a pilot project, but the Vanuatu government has plans to extend it to many more of the country’s off-grid islands, and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy.

As UNDP technical adviser Alexandra Soezer explains, the swarm grid is a far more cost-effective solution than the options previously available on Vanuatu’s islands. “In Malekula island, UNDP built a traditional minigrid, where each household connection cost around $6,000.00. In contrast, the connection per household on Lelepa island works out at around $1,200”.

Light is life

“Light is not only light. It is life, and a better life for us here,” says Teung, the chief of Thai Phai Bai village which, along with nearby Ko Bong, is now benefiting from clean energy delivered by a swarm grid installed with UNDP support.

Ko Bong and Thai Phai Bai are too remote to be part of the national grid and, like the inhabitants of Lelepa Island, anticipate that the arrival of cheap, reliable electricity will have a transformative effect on their lives, with benefits including improved health care, education and commercial opportunities.

However, for the UNDP-backed projects to be sustainable, it is essential that members of vulnerable, poor communities can afford to pay for the electricity generated. In Lelepa, where the priority is the electrification of community buildings and infrastructure, a pay-as-you-go model is being put in place for households connections, whilst in Ko Bong and Thai Phai Bai, a community group is managing the swarm grid, and is establishing an electricity fee that is deemed reasonable for the villager

Bringing electricity to millions

The success of these projects highlights the huge difference that electricity has on some of the world’s poorest people, and the relatively low level of investment needed to make it happen. The potential for bringing electrical power to millions more people is extremely high, says Ms. Soezer.

 “According to 2018 figures, there are still 789 million people without access to electricity. By scaling up low-cost swarm grid programmes, we could bring electrification to around 80 per cent of these people, at a cost of around $400 to $500 per connection. Each household could end up paying less than $2.00 per month”.

To be able to scale up, and achieve these results, governments, with support from bodies such as the UN-backed Climate Investment Platform, will still need to secure the necessary loans and grants, but the swarm grids projects show that, given the political will, the ultimate goal of universal access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy, is both technically feasible, and realistic.

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Moscow electronic school — the future of education

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The Moscow Electronic School (“MES”) project is a cloud-based Internet platform launched in 2016 that unites all educational institutions in Moscow into a single high-tech environment. After successful testing, since September 1, 2017, the MES has been implemented in all educational organizations (schools, kindergartens, colleges) in Moscow and is available online for any user from anywhere in the world, from any device 24/7/365. Today MES unites about 3 million participants in the educational process of the capital, including teachers, students and their parents.

The Moscow Electronic School project is aimed at the most effective use of the school’s IT capabilities to improve the quality of student education by forming a connection between the organizational and content aspects of the educational process (interactive equipment, as well as personal devices of users connected to the Internet, are linked with the educational materials of the platform).

The “MES” platform provides automation of most of the organizational, methodological and pedagogical tasks solved in a modern large educational organization, makes the content of education more accessible, allows in practice to implement modern pedagogical technologies and approaches, for example, blended learning, distance and electronic education.

Today “MES” has become a real digital assistant for the modern teacher. Thanks to special digital constructors, Moscow teachers in the “MES” Library create lesson scripts, “folk” textbooks, self-study guides, tests that students use in class, when preparing design work at school, in the course of independent work. Thus, the service allows not only to use the posted educational materials, but also to supplement the cloud educational platform with its developments and content, as well as to share them with colleagues. Electronic versions of textbooks, teaching aids, interactive applications and other modern digital content allow the teacher to diversify the content of the assignments and make the learning process fun for children and more effective.

“MES” services

The key elements of the digital educational platform are an electronic journal, an electronic diary, a library of electronic materials, the “Moskvenok” service (Pass and Power system), as well as infrastructure solutions: Wi-Fi access points with high-speed Internet, school servers, touch-controlled interactive panels with a built-in computer, teachers’ tablets and laptops, a video surveillance system and turnstiles at the entrance.

“MES Library” is a unique repository of educational electronic materials and tools. The service is implemented in the web version and as a mobile application “MES Library”. Library materials are available online at no cost to any user from anywhere in the world.

The “Moskvenok” service helps parents place an order for their child’s hot meals (if the school is connected to the hot meal ordering service from the menu), check his arrival or departure from school, college or kindergarten, control his meals in the school cafeteria and the costs of the cafeteria. Children can use the “Moskvenok” carrier (bracelet, keychain or card) as a pass to an educational organization and museums in Moscow, as well as for non-cash payments for purchases at school.

The electronic diary contains complete information on training: curriculum for the year ahead, schedule and attendance of classes, progress, analytics. The service makes it possible to find out about current events and activities. It is available both in the web version and in the form of the “MES Diary” mobile application.

In the new academic year, “MES” will be replenished with a wide range of diverse partner educational content, which has already proven itself well among teachers and schoolchildren. Thanks to this, an additional 45 thousand units of new tools and materials will appear in the library: interactive presentations for lessons, design and research tasks, virtual laboratories and tests. Most of the tasks will be self-checking, that is, after completing the work, the teacher, student and parent can immediately familiarize themselves with the results.

Virtual laboratories

Another important area in the Moscow Electronic School is virtual laboratories – interactive online simulators of experiences and experiments for children and adults, which allow improving knowledge and skills in the subjects of the school curriculum. At the beginning of the academic year, new virtual laboratories for drawing, inorganic chemistry, computer science, mathematics, biology and physics will appear at the “MES”.

This year, in the library of the Moscow Electronic School, the collection of virtual laboratories has been replenished with 10 new laboratories in the section of biology “Cytology” for schoolchildren in grades 5-11. It has an interactive virtual microscope that allows you to view individual cells. And the children can consolidate the knowledge gained by “collecting” cells in a game format, solving an interactive problem or passing a thematic quiz.

It is now possible to design and conduct experiments on electrostatics, magnetostatics and electromagnetism in the virtual laboratory “Electromagnetic field. Faraday”, which became the fifth in the line of physics laboratories. The new laboratory will help schoolchildren to master the main sections of electrodynamics: electrostatics, magnetic field and electromagnetic phenomena.

Another novelty is the virtual laboratory “MES Informatics” for students in grades 7-11. Children will be able to test their knowledge using 290 ready-made tests, practice using more than 9 thousand tasks, and also take 254 programming courses.

Student’s portfolio

An important innovation of the “MES” is the new “Student portfolio” service. It will accumulate the results and achievements of schoolchildren not only in the educational part, but also in olympiads, competitions, sports competitions. Also, students and their parents will be able to independently enter information into the new service, edit data and share their portfolio with friends, teachers, organizations.

Thematic materials about Russian writers

At the end of July, the project “Moscow Electronic School” made available thematic materials about the life and work of one of the greatest poets of the golden age of Russian literature – Mikhail Lermontov.

Also, the project “Moscow Electronic School” presented a thematic selection of materials about the life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer. Schoolchildren are offered to go on a virtual trip to St. Petersburg of the XIX century and get acquainted with the peculiarities of the worldview of the classic.

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First-of-Its-Kind Blueprint for Data Policy Adopted by City of Helsinki

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The World Economic Forum today released Empowered Data Societies: A Human-centric Approach to Data Relationships. The framework put forth in the white paper ensures that data is used in responsible and innovative ways to create progress while respecting, valuing and empowering people and communities.

As part of a year-long partnership with the City of Helsinki, the World Economic Forum convened a global community of technologists, anthropologists and policy and data experts to develop a new way to create data policy oriented around the values, needs and expectations of people.

By leading with the interests of those generating data or most impacted by resulting insights, this approach mitigates the trade-offs between innovation and privacy.

The Forum worked with a dedicated team of data practitioners and policy-makers with the City of Helsinki to apply this new methodology to develop a dedicated anonymization pipeline for complex personal data that will allow for maximal data utilisation anchored in respect for individuals and their privacy. New pathways, processes and tools were also created to document a best practice blueprint for human-centric proactive services, which Helsinki will open-source for future expanded use and improvement.

“Throughout this year-long partnership we were motivated by the principle that human-centricity is neither a ‘nice to have’ nor a ‘deluxe’ approach to data. Human-centricity can and should be the foundation upon which to build empowered data societies. With the release of this paper, we aim to share frameworks, insights and best practices so policy-makers around the world can adopt and build systems that use data in responsible and innovative ways to create progress that legitimately serves people and communities,” said Sheila Warren, Deputy Head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, World Economic Forum.

The City of Helsinki created several tools to enable efficient utilization of extremely sensitive data. The main principle behind the blueprint is that the storage, anonymization and processing of data are separated and that different individuals perform each task.

Forging a way to create entirely new data analytics capabilities for Helsinki has resulted in a new technical environment for treating sensitive personal data with the highest ethical, data protection and cybersecurity standards. This environment will be used as the city continues accelerating its use of data to provide more personalized and timely services for its residents and visitors.

“Helsinki’s commitment to serving its citizens requires going beyond traditional service provision and tapping into the full potential of data to deliver the best quality services in the most efficient way possible. Using data responsibly requires the development and implementation of new practices that are human-centric – those that assure citizens’ interests are respected and prioritized at all times, empower citizens to improve their own lives through data, and increase participation in the overall ecosystem by building trustworthy data relationships,” said Jan Vapaavuori, Urban Activist and Mayor of Helsinki (2017-2021).

Much of the data needed to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges is siloed in public and private sources. Even for social good, the various regulatory, commercial and social risks prevent data sharing. The Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Data Policy Platform works with partners from all sectors, regions and industries to develop agile and innovative approaches to accelerate the responsible use of data and empower stakeholders across the entire data ecosystem.

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Digital billboards bring real-time air pollution data to Nairobi

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Image source: UN Environment

Digital billboards around the Kenyan capital today started to live stream Nairobi’s real-time air pollution in an effort to increase air quality awareness among the city’s 4.7 million inhabitants.

The initiative – by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, Safaricom, a telecommunications provider in Kenya, Alpha and Jam Ltd and Metropolitan Star Lite Ltd,  Out Of Home (OOH) media – provides real-time air quality information for some of the most harmful type of air pollution, fine airborne particles, known as PM2.5. The pilot aims to engage the public by streaming real-time air pollution information to digital billboards at 4 critical locations in the city: Moi Avenue, University Way, Mbagathi Way and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

PM2.5causes serious health issues, including asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease. Exposure to PM2.5has also been associated with low birth weight, increased acute respiratory infections, and stroke.

“Real time air quality monitoring will help us with the issuance of health advisories as well as for formulation of smart traffic controls that minimize congestion,” said Lawrence Mwangi, Assistant Director of Environment in charge of pollution control at the Nairobi County Government. “Dynamic advisories demonstrated through this collaboration will help people limit their exposure to harmful pollutants.”

Around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal. More than 50% of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under 5 are caused by the particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.  Outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 with 88% of those premature deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of urban outdoor air pollution.  Most residents of the city do not have access to real-time air quality data and consequently, are often unaware of the harmful levels of air they breathe.

“Action on air pollution, which is responsible for millions of premature deaths a year, is critical – efforts should focus on high-risk communities, such as people living in informal urban settlements,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Innovations to reach and engage the local community and decision-makers alike, can only elevate the understanding of the impacts of air quality and help create an enabling environment improve human and ecosystem health.”

“We recognize that some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by poor air quality,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes.  “Through our partnership with UNEP, we are able to leverage real-time air quality monitoring data, machine learning and data visualization to help identify those that are most affected by global air pollution. The real-time visibility of the impact of air pollution on mankind, combined with the outreach and support that the UNEP offers, can help governments and communities around the world take actions that lead to cleaner, healthier air.”

The Nairobi air quality awareness demonstration project is the result of a unique collaboration between the UN, the private sector, academia, non-governmental and local governmental organizations and is expected to accelerate efforts to change how transport, waste management and other services are managed in cities so that air pollution from these activities is significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

“This partnership lies very much at the heart of our sustainability agenda that seeks to address environmental issues such as air pollution which remains a major challenge especially in urban centres. We intend to use our digital platforms and expansive network infrastructure to support the air quality monitoring project to expand across more urban areas in Kenya. We will also foster partnerships with other stakeholders including regulators, relevant ministries and private organizations to help build a compressive and sustainable air quality monitoring system in the long run”, said Peter Ndegwa, CEO, Safaricom.

The demonstration project comes as the world celebrates the 2nd International Day for Clean Air and blue skies on 7 September, this year held under the theme, Healthy Air, Healthy Planet. The Day calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.

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