Students design new technology to help the third world

2 March 2010

Team One Beep left-to-right: Steve Ward, Chanyeol Yoo, Vinny Jeet and Kayo Lakadia

Students from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have worked out an ingenious way to send data via radio waves to poor villages in the developing world.

The project has won them one of four places in the finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup - the world’s largest technology competition. It challenges students with engineering, software or technical backgrounds to develop solutions to the globe’s toughest problems.

Team One Beep, made up of fourth year undergraduates Vinny Jeet, Steve Ward, Kayo Lakadia and Chanyeol Yoo, worked through the summer break to prove their idea could work. Their proposal was to send streams of data across the readily available FM/AM frequencies to impoverished communities.

Their project addresses a common problem encountered by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) charity. The charity makes education more available to third world countries by delivering low cost laptops to remote and poor communities. They have distributed 1.2million laptops already, and the number is growing. However a lack of infrastructure, such as broadband or even telephone lines, makes it nearly impossible to update the educational materials on the laptops.

One week before the competition closing date, the students proved their breakthrough technology works. They have developed software which converts characters that make up a file into series of multiple frequency beeps via radio waves. The receiving end decodes the audio and reconstructs the document. The only hardware required to make it work is a OLPC laptop, a standard 20c cable, and any cheap radio at the receiver end.

“We wanted to create something that wasn’t reliant on infrastructure, something that just works on its own,” says Kayo. “We believe this a step toward providing universal primary education, helping the 1 billion of the world’s children living in poverty access knowledge.”

“It can also help educate communities about aids, malaria, or send out civil defence warnings,” Vinny adds. “It saves on paper and transport costs and, unlike mobile technology, is extremely reliable.”

The technology is awaiting a patent, but the students have chosen not to profit from it. Instead, they will make the software open source so it is available to all. The software would also be made available to governments so content can be developed in native languages.

Team One Beep hopes to keep improving their technology so it can send pictures, video and software. They are also working to improve the speed and security of data transmission, and are developing a simple graphical user interface, so children with little experience with computers can easily use it.

Already they have received interest from Oxfam to assist with a trial in Vanuatu, and Kordia is interested in using the technology for their marine radio broadcasts around the globe.

Three of the four teams to have made the finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup final 2010 are from The University of Auckland.

The others were Team Vital Link – made up software engineering and Business School students, who plan to use the viral marketing capabilities of Facebook to help artisans in impoverished countries achieve higher sales and get a fairer price for handicrafts.

Team Enpeda, computer science students from the Faculty of Science, devised a working prototype of a computer controlled driver assistance system to warn drivers if they stray off course and into danger, with the aim of reducing road accidents.

The national winner will be announced at The University of Auckland Business School on Friday, 30 April. The winning team will travel to Poland to represent New Zealand in the global final in July.

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