Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Climate Change and Development Panel

Greetings from the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University in Canberra. For a free panel on "Crises in human development: Climate Change: What does Copenhagen mean for the world’s poor?" The event did not start well, with a representative of ActionAid making an attack on western neo-liberalism. I didn't think would help with climate change or development.

Guest panellists:

  • Dr Lorraine Elliott, Senior Fellow in International Relations, The Australian National University: Dr Elliott asked what forum should be used for climate change negotiation. She said the G20 was not suitable as it is not a formal legal international forum, concentrates on financial issues. The UN FCCC process is flawed but is deliberative and inclusive, or superior.
  • Annemarie Watt, Negotiator, Department of Climate Change: Ms. Watt suggested we need to fundamentally change the way we are looking at the problem and come up with new solutions. She pointed out how complex and demanding the negotiation process is, with multiple streams and limited skilled negotiators. She noed that a the Copenhagen meeting the cohesiveness of the developing nations block broke down. She has an extensive background in environmental issues in government, but curiously I could find no mention of her on the Climate Change Department web site.
  • Mr Phan Van Ngoc, Country Director ActionAid Vietnam: Mr. Van Ngoc argues that the Copenhagen agreement was for and by the rich. This may be true, but is not a useful observation. Obviously rich and powerful nations will act in their own interests. The question is how the interests of others can also be promoted. A more useful observation was that most of the negotiations were closed and by a small group of countries. His view, which I share, is that the negotiations had no useful outcome and were a waste of resources and effort. He pointed out the effect climate change will have on Vietnam and that the country has strategies to address this. This was useful for pointed out that this is not just an abstract political problem and that nations are taking action.
At question time I proposed that ANU help the Australian Government provide an online forum to assist future climate change negotiations. The panel pointed out that some developing nations had only limited Internet access and that face to face meetings were needed, particularly where high level political leaders are involved. But there seemed to be some support for the idea. Ms. Watt pointed out that Department for Climate Change makes extensive use of video conference, but are concerned by the limitations of the technology particularly for large groups and with technical glitches.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Negotiate Post Copenhagen Climate Change Online

Greetings from the Australian National University, in Canberra where "Post Copenhagen: Where Do We Go Now?" was just held. The event is also streamed live online.

Professor Will Steffen, Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute hosted. More than 50 ANU staff and students attended the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. They provided insights on what happened.

Some insights:
  • One Russian spokesperson make commitments one day and a different one explained these were not going to be commitments the next day,
  • Developing nations argued for financial help to mitigate climate change. There were allegations that this was being used to gloss over the lack of progress. There were also issues as to if any funding would be new and would actually be paid.
The Australian Government's Climate Change Ambassador will be speaking
at ANU tomorrow
. My suggestion is that ANU should host online forums on behalf of the Australian Government to provide a low emission high efficiency place to negotiate the Copenhagen Climate Change global agreement. This could include training in how to negotiate efficiently as well as how to use online technology to do it.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Climate Change and Development

Ms Louise Hand, Australian Ambassador for Climate ChangeMs Louise Hand, Australian Ambassador for Climate Change will be part of a free panel on "Crises in human development: Climate Change: What does Copenhagen mean for the world’s poor?" at the Australian National University in Canberra, 24 February 2010.

Guest panellists:

  • Dr Lorraine Elliott, Senior Fellow in International Relations, The Australian National University
  • Ms Louise Hand, Australia ’s Ambassador for Climate Change
  • Mr Phan Van Ngoc, Country Director ActionAid Vietnam

Speaker/Host: Actionaid and Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy
Venue: APCD Lecture Theatre, Hedley Bull Centre ANU
Date: Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Time: 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Enquiries: Frederique Blanc on 02 9565 9119, Andrea Haese on 02 6125 7983

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Humanitarian Technology Challenge

The IEEE, in association with the UN Foundation has launched a Humanitarian Technology Challenge. with three projects for developing nations: Reliable Electricity, Data Connectivity for Health Facilities and Individual ID for patient medical records. Interested professionals are invited to submit ideas and join an online collaboration platform. A Solution Development Workshop will be held in Washington, DC (USA), October 26 - 28, 2009.

There are detailed documents on each project. For data connectivity there is "Data Connectivity of Rural District Health Offices". This is a very good overview document, but unfortunately it has been formatted as a 29 page 267 kByte PDF file. This is at odds with the aims of the project which emphasises the use of mobile devices and efficient use of communications. The project might want to reformat its documents in mobile friendly web pages, will reduce the bandwidth requirements by about 10 to 100 times.

Another problem with the project is the use of a red cross on a white background in the home page. The red cross symbol is reserved under international law for use by specific medical and other humanitarian operations. The usual symbol for first aid, is a white cross on a green background.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Low cost water filters for developing nations

Stuart Forsyth talked about Abundant Water at the Engineers Without Borders Canberra meeting in Canberra on Thursday. is a non-profit organisation developing a system using low cost clay pot water filters for developing nations.

The water filters are made from local clay mixed with organic material to make pots using traditional local craft techniques. When fired, the organic material burns away leaving fine pores in the clay which filer out bacteria.

The filters are claimed to have been developed by materials scientist Mr Tony Flynn of the Australian National University. There is a step-by-step guide (PDF 169k) to making the filters.

However, while Mr. Flynn may have researched how to make an effective filter, it is too much to claim to have invented the clay pot filter. Potters have known since the discovery of fired clay, that if you mix some organic material with the clay you end up with a porous pot.

The key to the Abundant Water project seems to be to transfer the technology to the local communities. The local existing potting techniques can be used and local staff employed.

While Abundant Water appears to be a worthwhile project by sincere people the way the project is promoted could be improved. In this case the presenter told a stories about family planning and corruption, which was inappropriate and insulting to people in developing nations.

One part of the talk claimed that Abundant Water used a tertiary model of technology transfer, with a partnership between the first world educator and the third world learner. However, it was still assumed that the people of the first world are needed to teach and the people in the developing nation are doing the learning.

The talk also diverted into a factually incorrect analogy to open source. The claim was made that Open started out as a European open source project. This is not correct: started as a closed source product: StarOffice. This product was purchased by Sun Microsystems and only then became an open source project.

The Abundant Water approach to development seems to be for trained engineers and other professionals from developed nations to go to developing nations to tell them what to do. This is a slow and expensive process. In the Internet age it would seem more efficient and effective to put the information and education online, so that those already in these nations could apply the technology. This could be done by providing a mobile phone compatible training course. Engineers and other professionals can be educated in place in developing nations in place. As an example of this, staff at the ANU and CSIRO work online with students in Indonesia.

Another problem with Abundant Water seems to be its charity business model. It is assumed that all the funding for the work will come from donations from the first world and be directed to projects in the third world. This may well perpetuate the poverty such projects are supposed to be working against. Abundant Water should look at business models which will make the project self supporting and allow the project to expand without donations.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Earthquake resistant straw bale buildings

Darcey Donovan founded the Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (PAKSBAB) in 2006. They adapt straw bale and other sustainable methods for low cost earthquake and storm resistant buildings in developing nations.

The buildings are typically one story high with walls made of straw bales covered with earth render and a wood framed corrugated steel roof. The straw provides a low cost building material which insulates and will also flex rather than break during an earthquake. The earth render makes the building fire resistant.

In countries such as Australia, straw bale construction is sometimes used, but usually with wooden supporting frame and the straw just used for infill.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Solving the global sanitation crisis

The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis by Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett  (Book Cover)"The Last Taboo" (Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, Earthscan, 2008) tackles the little mentioned, but important problem of sanitation in the developing world. The authors point out that this problem was largely solved in western countries more than a hundred years ago with the flushing toilet, but that system is not economically or environmentally feasable for most of the world. They also point out that most attention and resources about water-related diseases go to providing clean water, when it is the failure to correctly dispose of human excrement which causes the problem.

The authors detail and critique several designs of low cost and water saving toilets (pour flush pit toilet, double vault composting toilet,VIP Toilet, sanplat) and the programs developed to supply them. They are critical of projects which do not plan for maintenance of the systems and do not involve local people. They also advocate looking first to low cost solutions, based on behavior, not technology. As an example in rural areas they advocate an approach where people are educated to use a designated piece of land away from housing and simply bury their waste (in a "cat scratch").

I have one quibble with the book. At one point they discuss the benefits of separating urine from feces. They point out that urine contains much of the nutrients of the waste, while being almost free of pathogens and suggest its separate collection for use on crops. But they then point out that toilets designed to collect the urine separately are difficult to make, especially for females.

The Scandals of Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier (Book Cover)However, they don't suggest an obvious and simple solution: provide a urinal for males. Urinals are simple to make and maintain.They need not be complex waterless urinals which have been designed to look like a flush unit (some also require to be refilled with Sealing Liquid).

A urinal cab be as simple as a designated patch of ground, or a funnel and pipe. Males in many cultures are happy to use them, as satirized in the novel "Clochemerle". A urinal would divert about half the urine at minimal cost. In a communal facility it could also greatly increase capacity.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Open Source System Needed for Global Distribution of Curriculum Materials

The New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID) have issued a Request for Tender for a National Policy on Procurement, Storage and Distribution of Curriculum Materials for the Solomon Islands. The detailed Request for Tender (RFT) document has a good overview of the issues that a small Pacific country faces with educational materials. However, perhaps an alternative solution to new warehouses and book stock control systems should be considered.

The paper based education system could be replaced with a computer based one, using devices like the OLPC and the ASUS EEE PC. This would remove the need for tonnes of books to have to be looked after. The same equipment could be used for primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as civil administration functions. This would be initially more complex and more expensive to install, but would have long term benefits. Modular buildings, with the computer equipment pre-installed, already facilities could be used to speed the process.
The New Zealand Agency for International Development, NZAID, is inviting the submission of tenders from consultants interested in undertaking the role of providing Technical Assistance to the Solomon Islands Education Resource Unit for the development of the National Policy on Procurement, Storage and Distribution of Curriculum Materials.

Tenders must demonstrate understanding and experience of the following:

• school curriculum materials distribution, procurement and storage policy and management;
• policy development and practical implementation of policy in the education sector;
• facilitating capacity development, skills transfer and mentoring of staff;
• and experience working cross culturally and in developing country contexts, preferably in the Pacific.

Relates to the following TenderWatch Categories
865 Management consulting services
866 Services related to management consulting
929 Other education services
914 Policy advice and guidance for Government

From: National Policy on Procurement, Storage and Distribution of Curriculum Materials for the Solomon Islands, Request for Tender, New Zealand Agency for International Development, 2008

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Doing Business in India

Cover of Doing Business in India For DummiesCame across the book with the wonderful title of "Doing Business in India For Dummies" by Ranjini Manian. This combines business and cultural advice which would be useful for those doing business with, as well as in, India. Some of the advice on language, laws and customs will be familiar to those in the UK and Australia, but it is still worthwhile.

One aspect that I had not realized is that India adopted for its Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996, the model of the UN Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration (UNCITRAL). The result of this is that, as the book suggests, you can write arbitration into your contracts and more than likely avoid a long and expensive court case in the event of a business dispute.

For my own report on India, see: "Living in an Indian Village in Goa for Three Weeks".

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Monday, October 01, 2007

InkMedia mobile computer

InkMedia mobile computer The US$300 InkMedia mobile computer seems to be similar to other low cost laptops proposed for education in developing nations, such as the One Laptop Per Child and the ASUS EeePC. These have no hard disks, to reduce power use and hard disk failures; and use the Linux operating system.

The InkMedia web site makes some questionable claims, such as "cannot get a virus, a worm or ad-ware of any kind" and "never slows down, as it doesn't have a hard disk to de-fragment". These claims are overstated: solid state memory, when used to emulate a disk can have malicious software installed and needs to be defragemented occasionally.

Also the InkMedia's removable keyboard design would appear to make the unit more vulnerable to damage, than the more traditional clamshell design of the ASUS EeePC
. The One Laptop Per Child has a swivel and fold mechanism which also may prove to be a point of failure.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Portable learning centre

The technology of the flexible learning centre looks usable in Australia and could be built into a transportable classroom. But could this be taken a step further and be made portable? That would allow the equipment to be carried into a room in a number of travel cases and set up in a few minutes. As well as being used for education, this could provide a temporary office.

Carry Cases

Carry On Watertight Hard CaseOne useful definition for what is portable is the size of an airline carry on bag:
Cabin baggage should have maximum length of 22 in (56 cm), width of 18 in (45 cm) and depth of 10 in (25 cm). The sum of these three dimensions should not exceed the 45 in (115 cm). These dimensions include wheels, handles, side pockets, etc.

From: Luggage, Wikipedia, 22:05, 26 July 2007.
A typical Carry On Watertight Hard Case is the Pelican 1510, which is
19.75" x 11.00" x 7.60" (50.1 x 27.9 x 19.3 cm) inside.


Display Screen

A flat panel screen such as an LCD or plasma display will not fit in a travel case. Also the large plastic or glass surface of the screen is subject to damage in transit. An alternative is a projector, DLP Projectors currently offering good brightness at a reasonable price.

Student Screens

ASUS Eee PCLaptop computers are more easily packed than LCD screens. In this case high power computers are not required. An alternative is the
ASUS Eee PC which has no hard disk and a 7" or 10" screen.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Flexible Learning Modules for Indigenous Education

TempoHousing two bedroom two container homeEducation was an area identified by the Australian Government for more support for remote indegnious communities was. However, more school buildings will be required if more aboriginal children attend school. Also it will be difficult to obtain sufficient trained teachers willing to work in remote areas, nor provide educators in advanced subjects or for adult education. Part of the answer would be to provide networked computer enhanced flexible learning centers in pre-built modules.

Advanced computer based learning systems can be used for elementary education in remote areas and by people with limited literacy. Examples are the
Simputer Indian PDAXO-1,$100 Laptop, OLPC or Children's Machine Simputer, which was designed for Indian villages and the
zoom” interface of the OLPC $100 Children's Machine for education in developing nations. Wireless terrestrial (WiMax/3G) and satellite networks can be used to provide connectivity and accessible web design can enhance the usability.

Prefabricated modules could be mass produced for upgrading the education services in remote indigenous communities. The modules could be built in regional centres using local labor and then transported to the communities and used to upgrade existing schools and community centers.

One of the problems to be addressed by the Australian Government's emergency response to the Protection of Aboriginal Children Report is education. Even if sufficient funding was available to provide teachers for remote indigenous communities, qualified persons would not be available for all the education required. Nor would there be sufficient tradespeople to build schools rapidly enough.

It is therefore suggested that modular classrooms could be built in factories for
modular and prefabricated housing. The modules would be equipped with wireless broadband and computer facilities for education, as well as power, water and lighting. The equipment would be ruggidized to survive transportation to the site and use. The same technology on a smaller scale would be used for housing.

The modules would be the size of a ISO shipping container. Rather than build the components into the smallest possible space, where they would need to then be connected by qualified trades people, it is proposed to install them in a building module, providing the rooms where the services are delivered (classroom, kitchen and bathrooms). In this way the services can be pre-connected to the delivery point. The empty space in the module would be used to transport components which need to be installed outside the building, such as
solar panels or wind generators.

The modules could use one of the many available modular building technologies to construct a unit the size of a standard ISO container for ease of transport. The modules would be fitted out with classrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, with fixtures and fittings included. The fit-out would be customized for different regions. Where reliable reticulated water and power are available, the building would equipped for connection.

For remote areas, solar and/or wind power generation and battery storage would be installed. Water would be provided by in-built pumps and a modular water tank transported in the module. At toilet would be installed for sewage/septic, or in dry areas a waterless composting toilet would be used. A wireless terrestrial (WiMax/3G) or satellite would be fitted.

Rendering of the TEAL classroom at MITThe classrooms would be fitted out as flexible learning centres, complete with wall and desk mounted computer screens. The screens would be built into the building with rugged dust proof and reinforced enclosures to protect them during transport and when in use. The equipment would provide access to global educational resources, from pre-school, trough K-12 to vocational, university and adult classes.

The classrooms would be smaller versions of the MIT TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) technology. This provides a combination of mini lectures and lab sessions in the one nightclub style room.

Photograph of students at work in the MIT TEAL classroomThe MIT TEAL leaning rooms accommodates groups of students at tables sharing a computer. The walls are equipped with conventional white and blackboards as well as
video projection screens.

University of Melbourne uses similar technology in its
Collaborative Learning Spaces. MIT research shows the TEAL approach produces better results than traditional classes. The environment is particularly good for helping the poorer performing students and for retaining groups who may have been disadvantaged by traditional teaching methods, including females and those from indigenous communities.

The classrooms could be used for university level students as well as primary and secondary school. The Australian Computer Society provides online education modules for IT professionals, using the Australian Moodle system, which would be able to be used via such a system.

The system could also be used for training local government staff in how to administer their local community. I used my own installation of the Moodle system for a one day commercial industry course on writing for the web with 24 students from local government.

Tenix-Navantia Landing Helicopter Dock Ship Cross Section DiagramDesign with Australian Research and Defence Help

Australian Defence Force personnel are being used to assist with logistics for aiding indigenous communities. This includes the building of some facilities. The ADF could aid in the design and deployment of modular computerized classrooms.

More advanced versions of the same modules could be used as deployable headquarters facilities for the ADF. Use of such containerized facilities is envisaged
in 2012 on the new amphibious ships HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide.

Australian universities, including the ANU are investigating smaller and lower cost versions of the MIT technology. LCD screens with
VESA Mounts can be used in place of projection screens. WiFi communications to wireless, battery powered devices could be used. Thin client workstations, can be used in place of PCs. Low cost devices, such as the ASUS "Eee PC" and MIT $100One Laptop Per Child.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Web2Pad Educational Computer

Web2Pad Educational ComputerPreviously I proposed a $50 PC as an alternative to the Children's Machine and the Intel Classmate PC for Education. Here are a few more technical details on how an educational computer for developing nations might be built. After a discussion with my brother, Dr John Worthington (who is an Educational Consultant and Psychologist) also some thoughts on educational use.

The name Web Two Pad Educational Computer (Web2Pad), is intended to indicate the unit will use Web 2 applications and is in a similar physical layout to the Personal Access Display Devices (PADD) from the Star Trek TV show.

Web2Pad Specification

Type"candy bar" (landscape) format table "pad" computer
CPUXScale or similar embedded processor
Size148 mm wide x 210 mm high (A5 size) x 40 mm thick
ConnectivityWireless USB, 2 USB ports
Operating SystemLinux based
Media512 MB to 64 GB Flash Drive
InputRubber Keyboard, Touch Screen, Microphone
PowerNiMH battery pack
Display142 mm (5.6 Inch) diagonal TFT LCD Optimized for documents: 640 x 480 monochrome (320 x 240 color)
The Web2Pad, is proposed as a low cost, open source, tablet computer intended for literacy education of children in developing nations. The design is proposed as an open source project, allowing either non-profit or for-profit manufacture, and distribution of the personal computers. The Web2Pad differs from the Children's Machine (the new name for the MIT "$100 Laptop" of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project) and the Intel Classmate PC in using lower cost hardware, less compatibility with existing PC hardware and more emphasis on educational content.

The computers will be low power, with no disk drive and using the Linux operating system. Low cost wireless networking will allow Internet access from a node, such as at a school.

The computers will be sold directly to the public and also available as a bulk order by organisations. They may be shared by groups, where one per child is not affordable. Pricing is would be US$50 per unit when ordered in volume.

The case would consist of a back plate holding the batteries and motherboard, covered with one piece of molded rubber incorporating the keyboard. The would be no screws, with the motherboard holding all electronics and the screen, clipped into the back plate and the rubber cover fitted over. The front cover of the unit would be replaceable and customized with different keyboard layouts and languages for different countries. Commercial units for office and vehicle use would use different custom keyboard overlays.

The unit would be wedge shaped with the case 40mm at the back, sloping down to 10 mm at the front. This is to allow a comfortable tying angle for the keyboard and screen display. The unit would be approximately half the size and cost of the Children's Machine. This size of unit has been proven by the millions of pocket size "electronic dictionaries" (see below) in use by students.

The LCD screen would be optimized for black and white static document display, with limited color and motion display. The effective screen resolution would be approximately 640 x 480 pixels (VGA) for monochrome documents and 320 x 240 pixels (QVGA) for color. An LCD back light would be provided for low light conditions. The screen would have a similar per inch pixel resolution to the unit in the Children's Machine but be half the cost, due to the smaller size and more conventional technology (derived from LCD screens used for car dashboards and fish finders). The screen would be able to display the equivalent of half a page from a paperback book.

There would be a loudspeaker and microphone but no camera (to save cost). There would be an MP3 player (software), microphone and earphone sockets. Two USB ports and one USB "flash dock" would be provided as well as Wireless USB.

Flash Dock

To reduce cost there would be no SD card socket (as used on the Children's Machine). Instead one of the USB ports would be positioned in a recess in the back of the unit, large enough to accommodate USB Flash Drives which are commonly available. This would provide removable memory capacity equivalent to an SD card but without the need for additional hardware or software. Similarly Wireless USB (WUSB) would be used in preference to WiFi or Bluetooth. Power would be from low cost off the shelf NiMH batteries mounted in a molded holder in the case.

Ajax and Web 2

The PC would use an embedded version of Linux and a low cost processor designed for mobile phones. An example of such technology is the Australian developed PLEB2 Single Board Computer from an UNSW/NICTA.

There would be no attempt to provide PC compatibility. The emphasis would be on Ajax based Web 2 applications. The unit would be able to display simple animations, video games and limited slow frame video, but not designed for high quality video display.

While most interest is in the hardware for such projects, it is the educational content and support which is more important. The Web2Pad would be intended primarily for basic literacy. The touch screen could be used with a stylus to teach writing in cursive scripts as well emulating a brush for pictographic languages.

Accessible Educational Content

In addition to a spelling dictionary, the unit would have basic grammar for selected languages. Basic readers would be provided in the local language to encourage the child to read (using the Wikibooks format or other electronic book format). Web based educational packages using Moodle (or similar) would assist teachers and educators to develop further learning materials.

An emphasis would be placed on accessible design of the material, using the W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines. This would allow the use of material on the small screens of the $50 PCs, as well as use of the material by the disabled and for those with limited literacy. The materials would be designed to be upward compatible with ordinary PCs and web browsers. On a larger screen the format of the documents would automatically adjust to fit.

The Web2Pad could be used standalone, with data transferred by USB flash drive. In the classroom the units could communicate via a wireless network and to an Internet gateway. An ad-hoc village mesh network could be used to extend the range of the wireless system without the need for extra hardware. The computers would cooperate to relay data from the school node, with sufficient bandwidth for web browsing and audio. With the built in microphone and speaker (or a low cost headset), the unit could be used as a VoIP phone. An SMS client would also be provided.

A mounting point on the back of the unit would allow it to be securely attached to a wall or desk. With a suction cup, the same mounting point would allow the computer to be attached to the windscreen of a vehicle. Higher priced commercial units may have extra features, such as an A6 clam shell design and more memory, but could use the same educational content.

The computers would be available as a commercial product for anyone to purchase. Use of the units for commercial, business and government activities would not be restricted. It would be expected, for example, that the children would show their parents how to use the computers for the family business. In areas where one laptop per child was not affordable, a unit could be shared by several children or a whole village. The unit might be rented out, much as mobile phones are in some areas.

Cooperation not Individualism the Key

The Children's' Machine and Classroom PC projects assume that widespread provision of computers to children in developing nations will help with their education. The Children's Machine in particular, emphasizes the idea of each child having a unit for themselves for personal use at home and school, rather than share units. However, one laptop per child may not be affordable, nor educationally desirable. An emphasis on cooperation, rather than individualism, both for the students and teachers would be useful.

These educational computers are essentially low cost laptop computers, made cheaper and more rugged by leaving out non-essential components. The question this is what and how much can be left out. The Web2Pad leaves out more hardware and adds more educational content.

But what is needed in an educational computer and how large does it need to be? Should an educational computer be like a regular computer at all? Already I have discussed if the educational computer should be more like a PDA or a smart phone. Apart from mobile phones, are there any examples of widespread popular electronic gadgets used by children?

Electronic Pocket Dictionary as the Model for the Educational PC

Hundreds of models of pocket size
electronic dictionaries are sold in the millions every year. These devices have an LCD screen and a QWERTY keyboard. Most are a clam shell design, like a miniature laptop computer (about A6 paper size: 148 x 105 mm and 25 mm thick when closed). These devices are popular, sold on a large commercial scale and are of a similar size. They may therefore be the most common form of educational computer in use in the world.

Less sophisticated units are sold for crossword enthusiasts. They also have use for children with learning difficulties. Some units provide speech output. Different models built in the same case may be designed for native language dictionaries, multiple language dictionaries and for use by the disabled. Some high range units have card slots to add extra dictionaries or learning software.

At the high end there are devices such as the Besta CD-628 English/Chinese dictionary. This has a 4.1" LCD touch screen, 2 SD/MMC card slots, MP3 player and a USB interface.

SHARP produce versions of their Zaurus Linux handheld computer running language translation software. The Zaurus computer has a swivel screen which can be folded over the keyboard to make a tablet computer, the same format as the Children's Machine (but in a smaller size with lower solution screen).

The electronic dictionaries are a similar "pocket" size, which suggests this size might be a good one for a more general purpose educational computer. In contrast the Children's Machine and the Intel Classmate PC are larger sub notebook PCs. Rather than build a cut down sub notebook educational computer, it might be better to start with the pocket size electronic dictionary and increase its functionality.

Small Computers for Small Hands

Why the electronic dictionaries are the size they are? Is it an accident of marketing, due to some standard, so they can fit in a pocket, the largest size which is still affordable, the smallest screen which is usable, the smallest keyboard usable? Laptop computers are sized to fit a qwerty keyboard, which is in turn sized to fit the hand of an adult typist. The electronic dictionary may be similarly designed to fit a child's hands.

The Cornell University Ergonomics Web uses the "Little Fingers" child's keyboard. The Assistive Technology Training Online Project of the University at Buffalo List the "Little Fingers" and similar keyboards with 15mm pitch keys. These are designed for kindergarten to year six (K-6) students. The QWERTY part of the keyboard is 182 mm wide. These are not much smaller than a standard QWERTY keyboard of 19 mm. There are other children's keyboards 2/3 standard size.

It appears there is surprisingly little research on the size a keyboard needs to be:
Reduction of key and keyboard size is another way to minimize digit travel. Public demand in recent years has encouraged the major manufacturers of electronic equipment to produce smaller and lighter credit card calculators, electronic agendas, and notebook computers. This interest in miniaturization has been motivated primarily by a growing appreciation of the convenience and efficiency of portable units. Regrettably, such factors have had a much greater impact on the design and construction of these devices than have considerations of user accuracy, speed, and productivity. In view of the very large differences between the physical dimensions of standard (approximately 190 mm2) and miniature (approximately 30 mm2) keys, it is highly likely that significant differences in performance do occur. However, user performance on miniature keyboards has not been extensively examined. The only avail- able systematic study examining the effect of key size on ten-key push button telephone sets was published more than 30 years ago (24). ...

From: "A human factors approach to adapted access device prescription and customization", S August, PL Weiss, Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, 1992.
Also there is a US patent issued for a child's keyboard, 60-86% of a full size one:

Input apparatus scaled for non-adult humans and adult humans having small hands. The input apparatus are especially well suited for use as computer keyboards for use by schoolchildren. Also disclosed is a computing system including the input apparatus. ... Fixed key input apparatus of claim 1 having individual key widths within the range of 7.2 mm to 13 mm.

From: Input apparatus scaled for non-adults and adults having small hands, Dennis W. Nusser, Patent number: 5531529, Issue date: Jul 2, 1996
One study found Portuguese students 5 and 14 years had hands 80.85 mm wide. The male adult hand is approximately 96.2 mm wide, with a school age child's 84% this size. The A6 format for an educational computer therefore looks reasonable.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Working Star Trek PADD for $50?

Star Trek PADDsIn "The $50 PC Project" I suggested an inexpensive single board portable computer could be made for education in developing nations. I just realized the $50 PC looks a bit like a Personal Access Display Device (PADD) from the Star Trek TV show. I predicted in 1996 that we would all be using them now.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The $50 PC Project

$50 PCPreviously I looked at the Intel's "Classmate PC" and the OLPC's $100 educational computers for students in developing nations. These lower the cost of computers by cutting the specifications and using mass distribution. This could be taken a step further by producing a $50 PC computer for developing nations using mobile phone smartphone, technology. According to the Wikipdeia, an Australian $50 note is called a "pineapple", so this is might be called the Pineapple $50 PC Project. ;-)

Intel and OLPC lower the cost and increase reliability of their computers by eliminating the hard disk and a using smaller screen. But they still build the units essentially the same way as conventional laptop computers: with components mounted in a clam shell case and connected by wires. The many parts and wires increase the cost and lower the reliability.

$50 PCInstead, imagine opening a laptop with screen folded right back to be flat on the desk and then removing the hinge. This would result in a design in one fixed case, with the screen above the keyboard. This design was used by the Cambridge Z88, a number of other 1980s portable computers, most mobile phones and pocket calculators.

The mobile phone industry has the wholesale cost of phones to below US$30. and calculators are available for under $5. This can be done because the phones and calculators are made of a few components all mounted on one printed circuit board. This eliminates most of the wires, plugs, sockets and screws, reducing the cost and increasing reliability.

A workable design for the $50 PC might be the size of an A4 portrait page: 297 mm high by 210 mm wide. From the side it would be a wedge: 10mm high at the front, rising to 64 mm at the back. The wedge shape would provide about the same angle as a PC keyboard for comfortable typing and allow enough room under the back for the batteries. This would look a little like the Kyotronic KC-85/NEC PC-8201a/Tandy 100 of the 1980s.

The single printed circuit board would hold all electronic components, as well as the screen and keyboard. The individual electrical contacts for the keyboard keys would be printed directly on the circuit board, as would be the antenna for wireless communication. The rubber keyboard would be molded to cover the whole front of the unit, including around the touch pad, up and round the screen, down the sides and around plugs and sockets. This would form a dust and water resistant gasket as well as hold the case together without the need for any screws.

The back of the unit would be made of one molded piece of plastic. The unit would have no conventional laptop chassis, with the printed circuit board simply sandwiched between the front and back of the case. The batteries would be mounted directly in a molded indentation in the case, with no separate battery compartment and no screws.

Such a unit could prototyped, with the case made using Solid freeform fabrication, an off-the-shelf single board computer (SBC), LCD screen, and keyboard. Test units could be made in low volumes by hand. The production unit would suit mass production, or small scale manufacture.

The unit's relatively large case would allow the use of lower cost components than the Classmate PC and $100 laptop. The case could be designed to take different sized LCD screens, depending on availability. There would be room for low cost "sub-C" size rechargeable batteries as commonly used in portable drills. The back of the case could be molded around the battery pack to provide a carrying handle.

But such products are unlikely to succeed through good design alone. They also need a publicity grabbing gimmicks. The original design for the $100 laptop had a hand powered crank. This is obviously impractical and has not been included on later units, but was a useful promotional feature. Some ideas for the $50 laptop could be:
  • LIGHT UP KEYBOARD: If the keyboard is made from translucent material, there should be enough stray light from the back light of the LCD screen to illuminate the keys. This would look very impressive in promotional demonstrations, photos and videos, with whole case of the unit glowing.
  • VEHICLE MOUNTING: If the unit was made smaller (180 x 200 mm), it could be mounted in the standard "DIN" slot of a car dashboard. This would be the width of a standard car radio and four times the height (quad-DIN). As an example the Indian designed Reva NXG show car has a Linux tablet computer mounted in the dashboard. It could be used for entertainment, navigation, business (taxis and buses). Such a mounting could also be used for low cost Internet kiosks and public access computers in libraries, with the PC securely mounted into a wall or desktop.
Educational laptops resemble the email, web and Internet appliances which the computer and mobile phone industries have struggled to make popular. A recent attempt is the Pepper Pad and there other such devices for sale. These units have not proved popular as a mainstream product. Perhaps if the industry was to collaborate on designing a low cost, open source unit for developing nations, this would spark interest from first world consumers in such products.

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Intel Classmate PC for Education

Intel Classmate PCIntel's "Classmate PC" (previously the "Eduwise") is a project for an educational computer for developing nations. It has similar specifications to the OLPC $100 Laptop. Intel's design has a Celeron M processor, 7" 800×480 LCD display and no hard disk, with data and software in flash memory. Unlike the OLPC which uses Linux, the Classmate PC will use an embedded version of Windows XP, with Linux as an option.
Classmate PC is a small, mobile learning-assistant educational solution that Intel specially developed for students in emerging markets. The rugged learning device, designed to provide affordable, collaborative learning environments for students in grades 5-10 and their teachers, will feature built-in wireless and digital pen attachments and run either Microsoft Windows* or the Linux* operating system.

System Configuration of Classmate PC
Chassis Customized Mini Chassis 245 x 196 x 44
Processor Intel® Mobile Processor ULV 900 MHz, Zero L2 cache, 400 MHz FSB
Chipset Intel 915GMS + ICH6-M
Memory DDR-II 256M SO-DIMM
LCD 7" 800 x 480, LVDS Interface, LED B/L
Storage Device 1GB NAND Flash
Audio Stereo 2 Channel Audio, Built-in Speakers and Microphone, Jack for External Output and Microphone Input
LAN/WLAN 10/100M Ethernet + WLAN 802.11 b/g w/ Antenna
Keyboard Integrated Keyboard with Hot Keys
Touch Pad Cycle Touch Pad with Left and Right Buttons
Note Taker (optional) Customized Note Taker with Wireless Pen
Power Solution Battery with Adapter – 6 Cells, approximately 4 hours Usage
OS Win XPE / Linux

From: Classmate PC features and benefits, Intel, 2006

V.Smile Touch TabletInterestingly, Intel have commercial looking sales brochures for the Classmate PC, with contacts listed in Brazil, Mexico, and India (Bangalore). From the photos, the Classmate PC seems to be a bigger unit than the OLPC, more like a notebook PC with an undersized screen. The OLPC looks better proportioned, but the customers may prefer the larger unit (8% larger area on the front) as it will look like they are getting more. However, the average customer may have difficulty telling the difference between a photo of these units and the low power children's computers made to look like laptops.

Classmate PCOLPC
Width (mm)245229
Depth (mm)196193
Height (mm)4464

As the Classmate PC is more like a regular laptop, it raises the question: why build a special unit at all? Why not just take an existing laptop design and leave out the expensive components? The objective seems to be more about the needs of computer designers to produce innovative products, than the needs of education in developing nations.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Sell me a $100 Laptop

B1 Model $100 LaptopLast November I criticized the project to build a low cost educational computer for developing nations. But the first production units are out, and from the photographs and specifications they don't look too bad. I would like to buy one, but can't and that is the major problem with the project.

One Laptop per Child is a non-profit association, with MIT Media Lab providing design and Nicholas Negroponte the PR skills. The idea is to build a low cost robust computer which could be distributed widely for education, to schools under government supervision.

Lot to like about the Plamtop
Zeos Palmtop PCHaving criticized the $100 laptop, there is a lot to like about the new model. The unit is about the size of the Sphere/Zeos Palm Top PC I travelled around Europe with in 1994. This was a little larger than a VHS video tape, ran on two AA batteries and used the MS-DOS operating system, with a copy of Microsoft Works in RAM. It was a clamshell design with a 7 inch screen and a miniature keyboard. This unit suffered from having a very dim monochrome screen, no modem and a volatile memory. The $100 laptop improves on all this in a palmtop computer.

The $100 Laptop has a 7.5” Dual-mode TFT display screen: it is high resolution monochrome for outdoor use and book reading and color indoors for games. The screen is about the size of a paperback book and the 1200 × 900 pixel resolution should be good enough for reading. The team are a bit vague about what the resolution is in color, but my guess would be at least VGA resolution (640 x 480 px), which would be acceptable:
... the color resolution is lower, but exactly how this works out in effective resolution is very complex. Mary Lou Jepsen is planning to write document to explain the effective resolution, which is higher than if we simply reduced the size of the frame buffer and used the red, green and blue channels.

from: Hardware_specification
The unit has only 512 MiB of flash memory and no hard disk. This keeps the cost and power consumption down and makes the unit more robust, but shows it is really an upsized PDA, not a laptop. There is a SD Card slot which could be used for more memory.

There is Linux in another 1024KB flash ROM and the unit is intended to be used with the usual Open Source Linux software. The first units will include a web browser, document viewer, music synthesis tool, musical memory game, eToys, RSS reader and, most importantly, the Abiword, a word processor.

What seems to be lacking is the content for educational purposes for the computer. There is a manifesto on constructionist education, one Wikibook text in progress on Algebra in Simple English and that is about all. The philosophy behind this may be worrying to some, such as the use of Simple English. This may been seen as imposition of a foreign culture, rather than a way to deliver efficient education.

Problems remain

A mockup was displayed to the media by Nicholas Negroponte and the Secretary-General of the UN last November. This looked very attractive in the TV news, but clearly was not a working unit. The hand crank (to charge the battery) fell off when the Secretary General tried to use it.

I had reservations about the $100 Laptop:

1. It isn't really a laptop.
2. It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money.
3. There are better things to do with the technology
4. The developing world has already designed and built better computers.
B1 Model $100 Laptop compared to normal laptop
It isn't really isn't a laptop

The $100 Laptop is really a PDA with a larger screen and a keyboard. Many such devices have been made and sold for educational and other purposes, but have not been successful. I have owned several and while they work, they are looked at as a curcuriosity most people.

It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money

At $100 the computer will still be too expensive for many in developing countries and they could find better uses if offered the money. One computer per school or village, might be a more realistic and useful goal.

There are better things to do with the technology

Computers can be used to help with agriculture, business, civil administration, disaster management and defence, as well as education. As an example I have helped get the Sahana Open Source Disaster Management System to run on handheld computers.
The developing world has already designed and built better computers.

Devices such as the Indian developed Simputer PDA have already investigated the idea of a computer for developing countries. The Simputer uses innovative open source hardware, Linux software approach. A non-profit organization designed the computer and then licensed it to manufacturers. Unlike the $100 Laptop, the Simputer is a commercial product and the customer can choose to buy it or spend the money on something else.

An other Indian computer, the Mobilis, is essentially a Simputer PDA with a bigger screen and rubber keyboard and is very similar to the $100 laptop. It has not been successful. One unusual use is in the dashboard of an Indian Electric Car. But Encore Software Limited, who make the Mobilis seem more intent on more profitable uses of the tectechnologyhey have the SATHI (Situation Awareness and Tactical Handheld Information) which is essentially a battlefield version of the Simputer.

Combine First World Marketing Hype with Developing Nations' IT Expertise

My suggestion was to combine the powerful marketing ability of the MIT Media Lab with superior technology skills of developing nations. Some suggestions I made were to:
  • Omit the hand crank charger and have an optional separate hand cranked charger like the Freeplay unit, or the Freeplay foot powered "Weza" portable energy source shared by a school.
  • Use a rugged rubber keyboard.
  • Sell the units, so the user can decide if they want them.
The first unit shows that the project team have adopted some of these ideas:

No hand crank, but the team m are still talking about having individual human powered generators:
Where's the Crank? (you are asking...) Human power is still a major program priority! Inside the laptop isn’t always optimal as human power is not always required. Human power stresses components. The crank is great symbol, but not the most efficient for actual generation. We are performing human motion studies: legs are stronger than arms, but arms may be free while walking to school. AC Adapters are already located on the ground/ and floor. Several types of generators are under development, including one integrated with AC Adapter. More freedom of motion will allow for optimum power generation.

More practial be a shared generating source. This could be human powered or solar or wind powered.Cambridge Z88

* Rubber keyboard: The unit has a rubber keyboard, similar to the Cambridge Z88 computer I had about 15 years ago. Unlike the Z88 which had a black keyboard and case, the $100 computer has a bright green keyboard and white case. The team have obviously never used a computer in the field, or they will have seen how dirty they get. The white and green will quickly show dirt and a more muted color scheme would have been better.

Also the use of a swivel screen is questionable; this is designed to allow the screen to be rotated 180 degrees and have it lie flat over the keyboard, to make a tablet computer, or e-book. Table computers and e-books have failed as a mass market products and the hinge makes the computer much less robust. Also there are two rabbit ear covers over ports on each side of the screen which look like they would break off with kid use.

The business model for the computer remains unchanged: they will be given or sold at a subsidy to governments and then distributed to children. This does not sound alike an efficient way to distribute and may be impractical. The government of a developing nation which cares for its citizens will have much higher priorities than computers for each child. It would be better to accept these priorities than try to regulate the use of the computers by children.

I would like to have one of the computers and would be willing to pay for it, with the profit used for education.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is the $100 Laptop a Windup?

A $100 laptop computer designed for education in the developing world was displayed to the media by Nicholas Negroponte from MIT and the Secretary-General of the UN last week. The colorful hand cranked little computer looked very attractive in the TV news, but is not a reality just yet. It may never be a reality and even if these computers are made and actually work, they may not necessarily be a good idea.

The $100 laptop is an MIT Media Lab project:
The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. This rugged laptop will be WiFi-enabled and have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel.
As the Media Lab points out the laptop is not yet in production and will not be available for sale, but distributed to schools under government supervision.

The Secretary-General talked at the media event, but this isn't a UN project. If you look at what he actually said, he wasn't endorsing the details of this project, but the idea of economic and social development by improving learning.

I have a few reservations about the $100 Laptop:
  1. It isn't really a laptop.
  2. It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money.
  3. There are better things to do with the technology
  4. The developing world has already designed and built better computers.
It isn't really isn't a laptop

A $100 Laptop is difficult to make and would be a major achievement, if it was true. But the $100 Laptop is really a PDA with a larger screen and a keyboard. That is not as difficult to make and such devices have been made for many years.

If you look carefully at photos of the unit being held in the hand, it is much smaller than a laptop computer. The processor and memory specifications of the unit are lower than those of a laptop and closer to those of a PDA. The computer would be better described as a subnotebook or palmtop computer. This is a size which would suit a child and many such devices have been made and sold for educational and other purposes.

It is too expensive and there are better things to do with the money

At $100 the computer will still be too expensive for many in developing countries and they could find better uses if offered the money. Even if basic needs for food and shelter are met and money can be spent on computers, there may be more realistic priorities than one per child. One computer per school or village, might be a more realistic and useful goal.

There are better things to do with the technology

Computer can be used to help with agriculture, business, civil administration, disaster management and defence, as well as education. A large scale humanitarian operation is underway in areas of Pakistan affected by earthquake. Providing children who have no shelter with laptop computers is not a priority. However, some small computers would be useful in coordinating relief operations. Recently I tested a new version of the Sahana Open Source Disaster Management System for a handheld computer.

The developing world has already designed and built better computers.

MIT's $100 Laptop does not actually exist, it is just an idea. In contrast the Simputer exists. This is an Indian designed PDA for developing countries. The Simputer uses an innovative open source hardware and software approach. A non-profit organization designed the computer and then licensed it to manufacturers. The computer runs Linux open source software, as the $100 Laptop proposes to do. Unlike the $100 Laptop, the Simputer is a commercial product and the customer can choose to buy it or spend the money on something else.

The Simputer is not perfect and doesn't seem to have been a great sales success. Perhaps the Simputer's largest problem has been in marketing it as a PDA. In comparison with conventional PDAs the Simputer looks large, cumbersome and dull. Also the Simputer lacks a keyboard. Another Indian made computer is the Mobilis. This is essentially a Simputer with a larger screen and a small rugged rubber keyboard. It is similar in concept to the $100 Laptop, but closer to reality.

Combine First World Marketing Hype with Developing Nations' IT Expertise

The best features of the proposed $100 Laptop could be combined with those of proven computers from developing nations, to produce a real computer for education.

The strength of the $100 Laptop is in its colorful case mimicking a laptop and the powerful marketing ability of the MIT Media Lab. The weakness is in the lack of practical and proven design. At the media event the charging handle of the supposed rugged $100 computer came off in the hands of the Secretary General.

The Simputer has a design tested in use and in the market. It suffers from honesty, in describing itself as a PDA and in having a simple case which looks dull. It also suffers from having to be made from components which are available now at the price they cost now.

Taking the best of both worlds a better computer for the developing world could be designed. This would have the marketing and backing of the $100 computer, with the practicality of real low cost computers designed in the developing world.

The result might be a computer with the internals of the Simputer and the colorful case of the MIT design (see my drawing). Unlike the MIT design, the unit would not have the charger built in and would have a rugged rubber keyboard. A separate hand cranked charger like the Freeplay unit could be used, or the new Freeplay foot powered "Weza" portable energy source shared by a school. The units would be available for sale, as well as humanitarian use (mine is shown running Sahana for a relief operation).

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