Blogs tagged as technology

  • Using technology to go beyond the ‘Resilience’ buzzword

    August 8th, 2016

    “Sustainable…Participatory…Resilience”…I have to admit that I hate buzzwords – they get thrown about so much that they can often lose their real meaning and ability to do any good. That is why to me the work of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance is so important. The Alliance works not only to increase the resilience of communities to floods but also to determine once and for all what makes a community resilient?

    Resilience is complicated; there are hundreds of papers, discussions and frameworks floating around the development space. Yet there are no empirically verified frameworks that lay out the contributing factors to resilience[1]. If we don’t know this how can we tell if we are successfully building resilience?

    To address this, the Alliance has developed the Flood Resilience Measurement Tool. Working jointly, the Alliance has identified 88 different sources that contribute to flood resilience and is currently halfway through a two year testing phase.

    Flooding in Bangladesh

    Flooding in Bangladesh

    The Technology

    Here is the most exciting part, the Flood Resilience Measurement Tool has been developed into a web based tool and an App. The web tool allows the user to design a study that can be sent directly to the designated field worker’s Android App in their local language. Working offline the field worker fills in responses directly to the app just like a regular survey. The data is easily synchronised to the web tool which generates a summary and collates relevant data together for simple comparison. A simple A, B, C, D grading exercise is then carried out across all 88 sources by team members before a summary is then automatically produced.

    Why is this good for the community?

    Helping people cope with climate change. Floating gardens enable poor families in Bangladesh to grow crops even when the land is floodedThe App: Saves our beneficiaries time during data collection so they can get back to doing what matters to them. Automatic uploading of data saves our teams time so they can spend more time working on things that really matter.

    The Grading: Generates informed discussion and gives our teams a greater knowledge of where they work, allowing them to make more informed decisions.

    The Web Tool: Simply presented results that can be looked at under a variety of lenses allowing us to make links which may have previously been missed.

    The Big Data Set: Data is entered into the tool from a variety of different contexts and countries by several different organisations. Through testing pre and post-flood events researchers hope to identify global trends in community resilience and determine once and for all where to focus disaster risk reduction interventions for maximum community impact.

    Read more about the Alliance and the Measurement tool or get in touch at

    [1] Thomas Winderl, “Disaster Resilience Measurements: Stocktaking of Ongoing Efforts in Developing Systems for Measuring Resilience,” United Nations Development Programme, February 2014,

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  • 3D printing in developing economies

    February 24th, 2016

    The growth of 3D printing has been rapid in the last decade, with the creation of low cost printers and the availability of easy to use software.

    The growth and use of this technology is evident across many developed economies.  3D printers are now a common tool for prototyping and used by many design agencies, engineering firms and research institutions. However, there is now a real opportunity to use 3D printing in developing economies and help to leapfrog highly capital intensive manufacturing.

    The premise of 3D printing is simple, in that firstly 3D geometry is created using specialist 3D modelling software. This geometry is then virtually sliced into layers and outputted as numeric code. This code is read by the 3D printer which prints layer by layer to create the final part. The print material could be metals, plastics or ceramics and typically come in one of the following forms:

    1. Liquids – often cured using a laser
    2. Filament – typically extruded from a nozzle
    3. Powder – typically cured using a laser or form of adhesive

    These 3D printers are available in various sizes and have respective build qualities. Although traditionally very expensive, growth in the 3D printing industry has led to the development of desktop printers which are easy to use, affordable and have relatively good part quality.

    Future of 3D printing

    Some predict that this rapid development of 3D printing has started a new industrial revolution which will ultimately influence and affect almost every aspect of life. However, it is already evident that the advantages of 3D printing have opened the way for novel product development and innovations which can provide a range of logistical and technological advantages. The core advantages include:

    1. Ability for low volume production
    2. Faster and more responsive production than traditional methods
    3. Simplification and shortening of manufacturing supply chains
    4. Democratisation of production
    5. Ability to optimise and personalise a design

    (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2013)

    These advantages represent a potential paradigm shift in the manufacture of products which will have a direct effect on the design and distribution process. The market and application for this technology is clear in the developed economies. However, there is now an opportunity to investigate the application of 3D printing in developing economies as a way to alleviate poverty and help bridge the vast technological divide.

    3D printing in developing economies

    3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

    3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

    Although developing countries may not be the most obvious place to adopt 3D printing technology, the rapid uptake of mobile phones shows how new technologies can be used to leapfrog developed nations.

    Over the last 30 years the cost of mobile phones has significantly decreased and the rate of adoption has reached 3.4bn (50% of the population). Uptake in developing countries has far exceeded expectations, with usage in sub-Saharan Africa now at 60% of the population.

    Before the mobile phone, developed economies had invested large amounts of money in land-line infrastructure. However, developing economies are able to effectively skip the landline, which, after all, would have been prohibitively expensive in poor communities due to vast distances and low population density. The popularity of mobile technology, its ability to increase levels of income, and the rapid adoption demonstrates the real opportunity for 3D printing as the technology development curve is not dissimilar to that of mobile communication. Furthermore, this lack of infrastructure and limited logistics provides a huge opportunity for 3D printers as it could mean rural villages would be able to print their own products or agriculture tools and not have to rely on unreliable supply chains. The advancement in mobile communication and the internet continues to support this technology allowing for the rapid transfer of data between sites.

    For engineers, this development could enable greater access to these markets through online communities (which are already beginning to form) and enable end users to join the design process, creating more effective [product] solutions to meet their needs.

    3D printing pilot study in a developing country

    Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

    Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

    As an academic, it is interesting to see how this technology can be integrated into the development sector. In order to begin to understand this De Montfort University has partnered with Practical Action to carry out a pilot study with the charity’s office in Lima, Peru.

    The primary aim of the project is to see if 3D printing can be used to enhance the design of existing solutions, and if some of their current products can be more effectively developed across multiple site offices. The secondary aim is to understand if the possession of a 3D printer enables new and innovative design ideas to be created, which were previously not possible. The hope is that this pilot will lead to a larger study exploring the potential of this technology in the development sector.

    Initial findings from a visit to Lima highlighted that one of the first things Practical Action wanted to do was to print a 3D topographical map of the areas of poverty in Lima. This showed, in clear detail, how landslides were a real danger and what would happen in their inevitable event. These 3D maps will be used to explain, across a language barrier, to people living there why we needed to make changes, to have safety measures put in place. Without 3D printing it would not have been possible to produce these. These insights are really useful and demonstrate just one potential benefit of 3D printing technology.

    The study is being carried out with Practical Action using an Ultimaker 2 Desktop printer. For further information please visit the project website or contact 

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  • Merry Christmas, goodbye and thank you!

    December 15th, 2015

    At the end of December I’ve chosen to leave Practical Action after 15 years. For me it’s time for a new challenge and I’ll start 2016 full of the spirit of adventure – news of any challenging opportunities gratefully received. I’m excited to explore what next.

    But I leave too with great hope and great sadness.

    Hope because of the transformation I’ve seen in the lives of people who work together with Practical Action across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

    Because of the brilliance of our education work which is helping European citizens think differently about technology, poverty, and our world. We need to work for a changed world together.

    And because of our work at Practical Action on knowledge – maximising the impact of everything we do, and helping others share their learning through podcasts, answering enquiries on a one to one basis often face to face, our call centre serving farmers and fisherfolk in Bangladesh, web based info in Peru….. and so much more. I first came to know Practical Action through Practical Action Publishing and remain a huge fan. Today our work on knowledge – sharing rather than hoarding – helps millions of people each year. It’s just amazing!

    I not only hope, but know, Practical Action will continue to make a difference in our world – providing practical solutions to poverty, working together with communities, sharing learning and respecting the finite nature of our planet.

    But I also feel sadness.

    Sadness because I leave a great group of people – committed individually and as a global organisation to helping communities escape poverty. Their passion, hard work, dedication to inclusive development is just amazing.  I will miss all of the Practical Action teams for different reasons – but the golden thread throughout is their commitment.

    Sadness too because I’ve had some great times – I remember listening to two amazing children in a remote village in Bangladesh talk not only about Practical Action but their aspirations for their lives, laughing with women in Zimbabwe building a micro hydro who when I tried to help discovered how weak I am, and the posher things too – talking at conferences, meetings with our Patron, HRH, The Prince of Wales, exploring ideas and work with big business, even being forced to give impromptu speeches in various parts of the world. I’ll miss lots of things I’ve got to do with Practical Action – it’s been challenging, exciting and fun.

    But my biggest sadness is that we haven’t achieved what we set out to do – the lives of many people are better, access to energy for poverty reduction is now firmly on the global agenda, and indoor air pollution ‘Smoke – The killer in the Kitchen’ (the first Practical Action campaign I led – together with the brilliant team) is recognised as a major health hazard  – but technology – which could help so many people and issues, is still is developed primarily to meet the wants of the rich not the needs of all and our planet.  I am not in any way arguing that technology is all that’s needed to change our world but technology is a lever, a way of making a difference in a big way – people talk about systemic change (big picture, the long term). Technology can be a driver of systemic change – a different approach to technology, one that focused on the big challenges in our world would be soooo exciting!

    One of the things I like about Practical Action is that we work with the pragmatic, the possible, the now, but we also dream of bigger change – a world where technology is used to help end poverty and protect our planet.

    Whatever I do next I will continue painting a picture of the exciting and different way our world could be.

    And finally in what’s turned out to be a much longer piece than I imagined – I want to say goodbye to our supporters – you have inspired, challenged, enthused and humbled me, and you are brilliant!

    Have a wonderful Christmas.  And I hope we all – around the world – have a brilliant and peaceful 2016.

    Margaretdarfur boy with goats


    Ps The picture is of a boy in Darfur, Sudan where I saw some of the most amazing work Practical Action was doing in the middle of conflict, and through our work trying to lessen conflict. Reminded me that change is possible.

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  • Reflecting on technology in the lead up to COP21, Paris

    October 16th, 2015

    These videos outline the background to the UNFCCC meetings held recently in preparation for the vital COP21 climate change talks in Paris at the end of November.

    Technology needs assessment

    Over the past year developing countries have been identifying their priority technology needs, to provide a basis for a portfolio of environmentally sustainable technology development.


    The opportunities of decentralised renewable energy


    In depth technical paper to facilitate detailed planning

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  • Practical Action’s commitment to our supporters

    September 2nd, 2015

    Practical Action is a charity with a difference. We believe in local solutions that can grow to scale, people centred development, sharing every ounce of our knowledge so the maximum benefit accrues (helping others to share their experience too) and working to help end poverty and protect our planet.

    We are also different in our approach to fundraising.

    Practical Action supporter servicesI’ve been Marketing and Communications Director at Practical Action for 15 years – I’m told that sticking around in such a post for so long is rare – but each year as I’ve learnt yet more about Practical Action’s work my enthusiasm has grown. Normally I talk about our projects on the ground or the people I’ve met, but today I want to talk about our fundraising. I love the appeals, project updates and newsletters my team pull together. They do a great job. The team are really connected with and passionate about the work of Practical Action. I hope you can sense that in everything we communicate.

    As well as sharing stories from our work we also try and listen. If you ring Practical Action (01926 634400 between 9am and 5pm) or send us a letter or email, there will be someone here able to answer your queries. Every year we run a Supporters Day where donors come together with our international directors, programme workers, etc. It’s a brilliant event with real in-depth sharing. It’s also vital for the fundraising team providing a special opportunity for them to mix with, put a face to and listen to a large group of our supporters.

    We believe that in supporting Practical Action you become part of our community.

    It’s for that reason that I can categorically say that during my 15 years in charge of fundraising Practical Action has never sold or shared supporter, enquirers, or other data. And our commitment to you is that we never will.

    We will write to you regularly – when we last researched the frequency of our mailings we were pleasantly surprised how most people said that we had the frequency about right. On the other hand if it doesn’t work for you, just call us up and we can customise to your needs (best if you don’t request ‘no mail’ as years ago when we changed our name I met a donor who was very grumpy about not being informed, but we were keeping to the instruction not to contact her).

    As a Practical Action supporter I hope you know that your contribution is invaluable to our work – however the news stories that have been in the press about other charities over recent weeks make me want to say it again.

    We – the whole of Practical Action and the people we work with – value your support.  We also have a great team of fundraisers who genuinely care about what we do and the people who support us. Our promise is to honour this joint endeavour. We will be passionate when we talk about our work – what we do, our cause, the changes you and Practical Action can make in people’s lives – are just too important, too exciting to communicate in a way that’s dull. Alongside that passion for our work our commitment in all our communications is to be fair and honest – and to listen.

    And if you want to talk with me directly my email is I would love to hear from you!

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  • Innovation – is there a role for government in getting new technology to market?

    September 5th, 2014
    Solar panels for sale in market in Harare, Zimbabwe

    Solar panels for sale in market in Harare, Zimbabwe

    Conventional ‘free-market’ economics dictate that the role of the state is to regulate markets, not to become actively involved in them. Technology innovation comes from lean and agile companies responding to market pressures, so the mantra goes. Government bureaucracies don’t foster creativity themselves and lack the capacity to recognise it in others, so asking them to pick commercial winners to back is also inefficient and ineffective.

    But is that actually true? The economist Mariana Mazzucato, R.M. Phillips Professor of Science and Technology at the University of Sussex suggests not in her recent book: The Entrepreneurial State – Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Anthem, 2013). In an extract from the book published in the Milken Institute Review, Prof. Mazzucato looks at the renewable energy industry and “how the state plays a vital role in promoting radical new technologies – not merely by inventing new tax incentives, but by getting (and staying) involved in every aspect of the wind and solar power business”.

    One example given is the Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas. Vestas, originally an agricultural machinery manufacturer, was able to move into the renewable energy sector by exploiting Danish government financed research into large scale turbine technology. Vestas then went on to establish a foothold in the renewables market following an order for one thousand turbines from California, where US tax subsidies were, at the time, deliberately aimed at supporting the growth of renewable energy production in the state. A company built in part then on public investment in technology research and a deliberate public policy to support an emerging market with subsidy.

    Prof. Mazzucato shows again and again how critical government support has been in stimulating innovation in the renewable energy sector: R&D support for solar technology from the Department of Energy in the US; the German Government’s feed in tariffs and its “100,000 roofs program” (that, together, encouraged residential and commercial investment that expanded the country’s solar capacity from just 62 MWs in 2000 to over 24 GW in 2011); and, of course state support for the development of solar panel manufacturing capacity in China – now the largest global supplier of PV technology.

    Government finance can be vital in early stage technology R&D, where failure rates are high and even venture capitalists are often reluctant to take on the levels of risk involved. And governments are sometimes also better able to take the long term (maybe 20 year) investment view necessary to complete the journey from the lab to a fully commercialised product; a point evidenced in Mazzucato’s book by examples of the Danish and Chinese government’s willingness to restructure or support key renewable energy companies when they got into financial difficulty, to ensure sector capacity was retained for the future.

    Why is all this important in the context of poverty in the developing world? Because today the increasingly commercial drivers of innovation mean that technology development rarely addresses issues of poverty. A 2008 Global Health Forum report, for example, estimates that only about 5% of the world’s resources for health research are applied to the health problems of low and middle income countries, where 93% of the world’s preventable deaths occur. Meanwhile, a 2009 UN Food & Agriculture Organization report estimates that the 80 poorest countries of the world account for just 6% of global, publicly funded agricultural R&D, and just 2% of privately funded agricultural R&D.

    Although there is an increasing interest in developing products and services for the “bottom of the pyramid”, there remains a strong rationale for public funding of technology R&D to address issues of poverty, whether than be a search for a malaria vaccine, low cost sustainable techniques to increase food production, or cleaner and more efficient cook-stoves, to take just 3 examples. If even a sophisticated market such as renewables in the US and Europe requires government funding to stimulate and support technological innovation and market development, then why should we expect things to be any different in the developing world context?

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  • Can a seed pot really do that…….

    August 12th, 2014

    Appropriate, simple, technological solutions to help people out of poverty. That’s what our work is about. cressA bit of kit or an improved way of doing something. This is the practical side of our work, what we passionately believe can provide a sustainable difference, but our work always starts and ends with people.  We work hand in hand with poor communities so the project is theirs.

    They dig trenches for irrigation channels that enable them to grow more food, they are trained to repair micro hydro systems that provide vital electricity or they are shown how to run their own businesses so they can earn a better living.

    I am constantly amazed by the difference our work makes to very poor communities and as a fundraiser it is my job to keep donors ‘amazed’ too so they continue supporting our work. They are doing an incredible thing and I want them to know that.



    Every new donor is sent a booklet showcasing some of our ‘technologies’ and the differences these have made to people’s lives. Examples of how their support will help families across the world. Included with the booklet is a ‘make your own practical seed pot’.  A practical and fun way for supporters to be reminded of the type of work we do. If they make it, grow some seeds in it and keep it on the kitchen window ledge at home they can be reminded of how important their support is.  A short ‘how to’ video (below) has also been produced to help them make the pot.



    I’m hopeful that small seed pot can do wonders, can reaffirm why they support Practical Action, encourage them to continue giving and to make them think ‘that’s the type of charity I want to support’



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  • The world wide web at 25

    March 12th, 2014

    The World Wide Web is 25 years old today. To celebrate we asked our donor liaison officer Annie Halliman, who is also 25, to say how the web has transformed her life and Kieran Walden, our IT apprentice, to describe how it has transformed Practical Actions work. 

    It is the World Wide Web’s birthday! The internet has today turned 25 years old, the same age as me. I was surprised to hear quite how long the internet has been around, however, I struggle to remember a time when it was not a part of my life, and it is now something that I use every day and I must admit that I cannot imagine how my daily life would function without it!

    internet_2837932bI first started using the internet regularly as a young teenager when I would chat with my school friends via MSN messenger, and I now consider it a vital tool for keeping in contact with my friends and family, both near and far.  Using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram enables me to quickly scan for updates as well as using email for more detailed contact. This contact means that even though I live hundreds of miles from my family and most of my close friends, I can maintain these relationships despite the distance.

    I do often think of the perhaps negative impact that the ease of access to the internet has had, for example, Facebook enables me to keep up to date with friends without ever having to personally contact them, although this can be seen as a plus, it makes for lazy friendships. Additionally, having 24 hour access on my phone means that I check my social media far more often than necessary; which for some people can create unhealthy addictions, checking for updates every few minutes.

    I also use the World Wide Web as a consumer; shopping for clothes, gifts, groceries, travel and much more. By accessing shops online, the choice is limitless and shopping around for deals makes shopping more economical as well.

    I also use the web to keep up to date with news and also media, catching up on TV with iPlayers and listening to podcasts. It was also a vital tool when looking for and applying for jobs, as well as when looking for a new home. I also manage my finances and bills using the internet.

    When I sat to write this blog and thought about it, it made me realise that there are very few areas of my life that don’t involve the use of the World Wide Web in some way.

    Kieran Walden writes

    World Wide Web’s 25th Anniversary

    Kieran sets up equipment for video conferencing with our overseas offices

    Kieran sets up equipment for video conferencing with our overseas offices

    The World Wide Web’s 25th anniversary is a time to reflect on how Practical Action as an organisation has benefited.

    Technology is more advanced than ever and with the internet being at the source of it all we are able to communicate and collaborate better in the way that we conduct out work. The internet has enabled us to use technologies such as video conferencing which lets members of staff have a productive meeting with people on the other side of the world! This effectively increases performance in the work that we do.  Fast and reliable email communication internally and externally helps us spread our work and promotes technology justice. Our website on the internet draws in donors that read about our work and helps improve lives.

    From an IT perspective the internet has spawned services such as Office 365, Microsoft Lync and SharePoint which are cloud based systems. The ‘cloud’ has been a massive impact as it saves on hardware, software, licensing costs and reduces power consumption in all of our country offices as well as being a more advanced and dependable service.

    Practical Action will keep on moving forward and the internet will carry on being a vital tool that we need. Future plans consist of bandwidth becoming more available and at cheaper cost which will help us implement better services in the future.

    And the money saved will help Practical Action become more flexible and better able to fight poverty.

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  • Reaching the last mile in Nepal

    March 6th, 2014

    So it’s nearly the end of our financial year here in Practical Action. The great thing about this time of year is the chance to look at just how far we have come. At a recent video conference for our knowledge sharing service, Practical Answers, we did just that and we discovered fantastic progress and great innovation.

    Taking our work in just one country as an example. In the last three months in Nepal alone our free of charge technical enquiries service  has handled more than 5000 enquiries per month. This is a huge step change – as only a few years ago the whole service handling only 3500 enquiries globally in a year

    Knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    The key to Nepal’s success has been taking the knowledge out to the people who really need it. “Reaching the very last mile”. We have a really constructive partnership with an organisation called READ Nepal . They have established 55 community library and resource centres across the Himalayan country – all are self-sustaining. Into about 20 of these libraries we have put a knowledge service, handling technical enquiries and running training and regular “focus group discussions” to tackle current issues with the local community. If an answer is not immediately available from the library, we seek help from local and district authorities. And if a question is particularly frequent we get a Kathmandu radio station to record a programme on the subject that can be played back to the community. I saw this once when there was great interest in mushroom cultivation as a possible additional source of income for people living on the margins.  One innovation this year has been for one centre to start to provide real time weather forecast information to the local community to warn against extremes,  and help the farmers plant and harvest at optimal times.

    A further innovation in the last year has been the establishment of local knowledge management committees. These are made up of local government representatives , agriculture officers, sometimes the water authorities. Far from being bureaucratic they have helped give the service real sustainability. It’s great to bring these groups together and demonstrate how valuable simply sharing knowledge can be and what an impact it can have on people’s lives and livelihoods.

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  • Electricity for Christmas

    January 2nd, 2014

    Like quite a lot of British people today is my first day back at work after a long Christmas break.

    Over the holiday period, there were serious storms, and thousands of people had their homes flooded, and many people went through days with no electricity.  Luckily I was not one of them, but having lived a number of years in rural Africa I know what life without electricity can be like.  Smoky kerosene lanterns giving poor light; nothing to charge your phone; expensive batteries for a radio; and a charcoal stove for cooking. It’s not easy.  In the UK it will have been cold too.  It can’t have been an easy time for anyone.

    Late last year, I had the chance to visit a project we have been running in Malawi, in which we were helping to bring electricity to villages which are many kilometres away from the grid, and probably decades away from being connected to it.  A small electricity grid is powered by a small hydro-electric station, which takes water from a small river close to the village, and provides a low power connection to people’s houses.

    The technology, which includes taking water from a perennial stream, and passing it through a small hydro-power station is well proven, in other parts of the world – simple, reliable, sustainable.

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it  is most needed

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it is most needed

    When I was there, I was reminded how transformational electricity can be, by a poem that a young student had written and recited at a small celebration to mark the opening of the scheme.  He talked about the immediate things we might all think of – lighting to do homework, power for phones, radio, TV, even a computer for the school.  However, it was interesting how the new electricity grid meant he could feel proud of the village, and how government teachers & doctors would be happy to be posted there, and not seek a transfer back to the town at the first opportunity.  “We’re now a place with a future”, he said.

    Being based on a sustainable source, this system should run for many years to come, and of course emits no carbon dioxide either.  There is plenty of potential for similar small hydro-electric plants in other parts of Malawi, so we are keen to share our story, and see the approach replicated by others.

    This is perhaps a long way from power cuts in the UK, except that it’s interesting to reflect on how much a difference that an electricity connection can make.

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