Energy Technology: “Lighting the Way”

The Economist: Energy Technology, “Lighting the Way”

Solar lighting is an emerging technology with the potential to transform incomes, education, and health in developing countries.  And, as global population outgrows electrification, solar lighting proves to be an economically sustainable alternative to kerosene lighting.  One approach to solar lighting in Ghana “involves a centralized, village-level system with a large solar panel that charges a car battery” and in turn is used “to charge smaller batteries in the lanterns, which are built using local materials.”

To read more on innovations in solar lighting in developing countries follow the link.

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Studying Local Markets to Improve Emergency Response

Guest post by John Schellhase, Program Assistant at the NYU Development Research Institute (DRI).

Dr. Christopher Barrett, Dr. Daniel Maxwell, and their team have developed the Market Information and Food Insecurity Response Analysis.  MIFIRA analyzes the capacities of local markets to sustain large purchases of food in times of crisis.  This work helps aid agencies choose between shipping food from overseas, providing cash transfers, or buying food locally to distribute to people in crisis.

Unfortunately, aid agencies and NGOs often neglect to systematically think about the consequences of their interventions, thus failing the Hippocratic imperative to “Do no harm.”  If enough food supplies are available in local markets, aid agencies should seek to make purchases in the region where they are distributing aid.  But if supplies are limited, large purchases by aid agencies during a crisis can drive up prices, leading to inflation and putting basic commodities out of reach for average citizens.  In other words, attempting to solve one crisis has the potential to create a new one.

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Technology’s Role in African Human Development

Guest post by John Schellhase, Program Assistant at the NYU Development Research Institute (DRI).

A counterpoint to more hopeful dispatches from Africa, the African Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes a continent facing a number of challenges.  Focused entirely on the issue of “food security,” the report concludes that 218 million Africans are malnourished.

Released at the end of May, at about the same time the G-8 unveiled the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the 190-page document is another signal that food security will be a central theme of official development policy in the coming years.  The authors argue that addressing hunger and malnutrition is a prerequisite to improvements in education, health, and household income.

The report has much to say about technology.  Continue reading

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Food Security, Investment, and the G-8

State Department Photo

Guest post by John Schellhase, Program Assistant at the NYU Development Research Institute (DRI).

At the end of May, President Obama and other leaders of the G-8 announced the creation of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  A number of African heads of state and high-level officials attended the announcement in Washington D.C., including CTED partner Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange.

In anticipation of the summit, 48 companies committed to invest over $3 billion in the agricultural sector across Africa.  The investments will start in Tanzania, Ghana, and Ethiopia, expanding soon to Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and other nations.

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Education Incentives and Effective Research Methods: A talk by Yaw Nyarko

Professor Yaw Nyarko, Director of the Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED), gave a talk last week at Evidence-Based Education: Policy-Making and Reform in Africa, an education conference in Ghana. The conference, hosted by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in collaboration with the Ghana Educational Service (GES), focused on issues of education policy and reform. Professor Nyarko spoke on a panel entitled “Teacher Characteristics, School Governance, Accountability And Incentives.” His remarks are based on his personal experiences growing up in Ghana and his philosophy of teaching. His one quibble with the conference is its implication that rigorous research is randomized control trials and vice versa. He cautions that research, even RCTs, can be good or bad, rigorous or non-rigorous. He received the most animated responses from his remarks that under the guise of rigorous research many of the papers several years ago on rates of return to education were presumed rigorous without enough attention to the larger economic theory. Many of the conclusions of that literature led to a de-emphasis on tertiary education, which today is lamented by many in Africa and which today we know was probably wrong. Many of the Ghanaians in the audience seemed to relate to this point passionately.  Continue reading

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Market Information Systems – Public or Private Provision?

Recently, we came heard about a new service in Ghana, CocoaLink, which is a partnership between the World Cocoa Foundation, Ghana Cocoa Board and the Hershey Foundation (USA). From marketing to health advice, Cocoa Link provides cocoa farmers with information on all facets of life. The really interesting thing to note about CocoaLink is the manner in which it is reaching the farmer – via mobile phones. The mobile phone holds the promise of a major transformation many sectors in poor nations because so many of the poor have access to these phones and service is now widely available.  But is it right to have donors finance this service?  How sustainable is a service which depends upon donor support? Currently, CTED is working with our partner Esoko, a private company, which also runs a Market Information System (MIS) that provides price information to farmers.  Although private, many of the customers of Esoko’s service are NGOs which purchase the price alerts on behalf of farmers and farmer groups.

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CTED Research Seminar April 5th – “Alleviating Road Traffic Congestion in the Developing World through Information Technology”

Road traffic jams continue to be a major problem in most cities around the world and especially in developing regions – resulting in massive delays, increased fuel wastage and monetary losses. Due to the poorly planned road networks, a common outcome in many developing regions is the presence of small critical areas which are common hot-spots for congestion; poor traffic management around these hotspots potentially results in elongated traffic jams. Center for Technology and Economic Development Co- Principal Investigator and NYU Courant Professor Lakshmi Subramanian will deliver a talk regarding this pervasive issue and how he and other CTED researchers are developing methods of analyzing and alleviating traffic congestion in developing cities via CCTV camera feeds.

Join us April 5, 2012 at 6 pm in Sama Tower 1305 for this exciting talk!

Please RSVP to

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CTED Conference: Education and Accessibility

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Sunandan Chakraborty’s post on the Education and Accessibility Panel.

The panel opened with a talk by Indrani Medhi of Microsoft Research Lab India, titled Characterization of Accessibility focusing on methods of increasing access to ICTs for low-literate population.  She explained that a large share of mobile users in developing regions use their mobile phones just for voice calls. Other services offered by the mobile phones, like SMS, are left unused. In her talk, Medhi spoke about designing User Interfaces (UI) with which even low literate users can access different services with minimum assistance. Based on studies performed in India, Kenya, South Africa and Philippines, some usage patterns were observed. The users were unable to read text messages and texts in other phone applications; navigation, particularly through a hierarchical structure, was difficult and some application terms did not translate well into the local languages, making the terms difficult to understand. Based on these observations, Medhi presented some design recommendations. They include adding graphical cues; increasing the use of the local language, particularly through audio and minimizing the use of scroll bars and text inputs. Experiments were performed exploring the different options of input methods: text, audio and graphics. Based on the results of these experiments, Medhi concluded with the following design options for better performance:  i) Live operators (if possible), ii) Spoken dialogue supported by live operator for troubleshooting, or iii) Graphics augmented Interactive Voice Response System.

Joyojeet Pal (University of Michigan) gave a talk on Assistive Technologies, which started with an overview of different technologies available for different kind of disabilities, such as mobility aids, solutions for communication and assistive technologies for vision and hearing impairment. Pal, whose work is mostly centered on vision impairment and the use and effects of screen readers, raised various issues with assistive technologies. For one, the high cost of such systems lead to the use of pirated versions for home usage and introduces reluctance in purchasing assistive softwares in workplaces, making visually challenged people unemployable for those places. Furthermore, all the existing solutions are designed mostly for English speakers. Having no support for other languages make them almost unusable in non-English speaking developing countries. He also showed that the (audio) quality of the screen readers is inversely proportional to the application support. Asked about the difference between developed and developing countries when it comes to assistive technologies, Pal pointed out that in the industrialized regions, people learn to use such technologies at an early age, whereas in developing regions they only start learning as adults. This makes the technologies hard to grasp and prevent being used to their full potential in developing regions.

The final talk in the session was given by Rakesh Agrawal of Microsoft Research, titled “Enhancing Quality and Accessibility of Education through Technology”. Agrawal began by stating the importance of education in improving economic well-being of people. He emphasized the role of textbooks being the most widely used and cost effective means of education. However textbooks, particularly in developing countries, often lack clarity and completeness of information. As a solution, Agrawal suggested improving the quality of textbooks by augmenting the textbooks with materials from the Web. This approach deals with two problems. What to augment? And, where to augment? Not all sections in a textbook are poorly written. Hence, it becomes important to find the sections which need augmentation. The solution involved finding the key terms explained in the section and their inter-relationship. If in a section the key terms are sparsely related, it makes it difficult for a reader to grasp the section’s content. Actual augmentation from the Web is also based on these key terms, where the Web is searched for materials emphasizing such key terms. So, the challenge is to mine textbooks to find the key terms in each section and their interrelationship. Agrawal further discussed the future of education and gave insights on how future classrooms might look like, giving examples such as the Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare and Shankar Academy. Agrawal concluded by suggesting a way of funding education in the future, citing an ancient practice in India. There, students offered gurudakshna or a gift to their masters to show their gratitude, much later when they are better established.


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CTED Conference: Technology for Health Care

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Alex Coutts’ post on the Technology for Healthcare Panel.

The technologies for healthcare panel presented some exciting new work in developing technology in new ways to address problems unique to the developing world:
Dr. Michael Perrott of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology presented research on utilizing economies of scale in healthcare technology in order to reach the world’s poor in an affordable, sustainable manner.  It’s unrealistic to simply transfer sensitive, power-intensive, and expensive healthcare devices to the developing world. Instead his research focuses on developing ultra low power and low cost devices suitable for less developing country contexts.
Dr. Umar Saif at MIT believes that we can save lives through early warning systems made possible by the use of technology. The 2011 dengue fever outbreak in Punjab affected 300,000 individuals, and killed thousands. Using Dr. Saif’s early warning system, it is possible to take advantage of advanced geographic and spatial models of disease outbreak to get help to those most in need. Advanced tracking of calls placed to the help line can give disease experts and healthcare professionals a better picture of how an epidemic is spread, and allow them to better mobilize their resources to save lives.
Dr. Bill Thies of Microsoft Research is conducting groundbreaking research to address the gap between drug availability and proper adherence to dosage. Tuberculosis kills two million people a year, and while in India antibiotics are free, deaths from TB are still common. Using fingerprinting technology on both doctors and patients it is possible to ensure that doctors are providing the proper dosages, and patients are taking them. By holding both accountable, it is possible to avoid these preventable deaths from TB.
Santanu Biswas is the director of e-health services at du, a telecommunications company based in the UAE. His aim is to create an m-health product that is accountable to the patient, by providing up to date information catered to that individual. Chronic illness information combined with bio-medical monitoring technology will allow individuals to live the healthiest, most comfortable lives possible given the current state of health technology.

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Renewable Energy: A Stimulus for Development

On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Emilia Soldani’s post on the Energy Panel.

“Representatives from the Volta River Authority – the main generator and supplier of energy in Ghana, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology discussed the current state of renewable energy and how technology can bring about scientific advancement in the lives of the poor. Among the examples cited were solar-powered or handle-rechargeable cell phones or high efficiency, low risk stoves.

The panel’s main message was that renewable energy, besides being clean, is sustainable and safe and can also be a powerful stimulus for development, by ensuring employment and energy autonomy. This is especially true if it comes as the result of an endogenous market-led process, rather than from aid-sustained projects. In developed countries high switching costs are still used as an excuse to delay conversions. Underdeveloped countries, however, do not have secure access to carbon fossil energy and that represents an additional incentive for them to invest in solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power.

In the past decade, world energy consumption has increased sharply and is likely to keep growing. One-fifth of the world’s population currently has no access to electricity and, accounting for primary and secondary consumption, the largest consumers use up to 138 times more energy than the smallest. More than 80% of global energy supply is produced from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) and the intense use of coal for heating and cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa creates a serious hazard in terms of domestic accidents and poisoning.

North Africa and the Middle East share the highest solar resources. However, hydro power constitutes 16% of the world’s electricity supply, including large projects underway in China and Ghana, and geothermal energy, with large scale projects like the Takoradi plant in Ghana, have shown rapid growth.  In addition, wind power, is very location-specific, with South Africa being the country with the greatest generation volumes in Africa.”




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