For the past couple of years, UNICEF Uganda and partners have been designing, developing, prototyping and rolling out youth-focused community computers that can operate on mains power where available, or solar-power in remote rural areas. Work has just finished on the design of the second generation Digital Kiosk, and the UK's fanless computer specialist Aleutia is now working on a new open source, low power computer system to squeeze into the table-topped repurposed oil drum that will become the Digital Drum.
The aim of the Digital Kiosk project was to develop a rugged, multi-use computer kiosk to address the educational needs of young people, to be installed in established youth centers, community resource hubs, business centers, teacher colleges and other education hubs throughout Uganda. Though some community facilities have access to AC power and the internet, many do not, so the system needed to be able to operate on solar power and include sufficient offline digital content to cater for the educational and locally relevant needs of users.
The design brief called for systems that were easy to use and able to withstand the rigors of frequent use. They also needed to be pretty easy to repair on the ground. The first generation Digital Youth Kiosk comprises three computer workstations with small wall-mounted screens and input peripherals on a shelf-like table running the length of the installation.
"The current Digital Kiosk is already used and installed in around 50 locations in Uganda, as a wall-mounted, three-computer, solar-powered system," UNICEF's Technology for Development unit coordinator in Uganda Stefan Bock told Gizmag. "The next version of the Digital Drum 2.0 is aiming at upgrading the previous version: new design (round set-up to improve interactivity and accessibility for youth), bigger screens, less power-consumption, better performance, public screen for presentations or bigger events and audience, easier handling for shipment and installation, and half the price."
Working on a new design
In a collaboration that began in 2012, UNICEF partnered with Norway's Design Without Borders on the overall design of the next generation kiosks, with the aim of scaling the system and preparing it for global rollout. The firm's interaction designer spent considerable time getting to know the needs, interest and skills of the young people in rural Uganda who would be using the system.
The new Digital Drum design adapts locally available oil drums into digital kiosks, with a rugged circular table divided into three booths up top. The system comes complete with webcams, microphones, speakers and a USB charging port for juicing up portable devices or saving/sharing files. The three screens are larger than the wall-mounted kiosks, each fronted by scratch-resistant plexiglass. There's a single larger public screen up top for the delivery of video learning or training packages to a larger audience, or perhaps a village entertainment hub for a budding local video-jockey.
"UNICEF has worked with Design without Borders over the last year to do a lot of user testing with the youth in Uganda and get user feedback on the previous version of the Digital Kiosk," said Bock. "All information gathered fed into and led to the new design of the Digital Drum 2.0."
The Aleutia connection
Now Aleutia is working with UNICEF to develop a low power all-in-one computer for deployment in the next generation of off-grid Digital Drum kiosks. Aleutia already has experience of providing low power, low cost systems to schools in Uganda, having installed its T1-based "Solar Classroom in a box" solution in more than 100 schools by October last year, with over 1,200 computers and custom fanless servers all running from power provided by PV systems.
The company's new brief is to improve the overall design of the new Digital Drum, with an eye on reducing cost of production and installation. All of the electrical components (including the 12 V battery, power inverter and charge controller) will be contained within the oil drum and accessed via a hinged door. The design will be module-based to make repair and maintenance easier, flexible enough to be solar or AC powered and capable of being setup and ready to use in one day.
"UNICEF is now partnering with Aleutia in an 'open-source design collaboration,' basically using the already available design idea, but now further explore the technical side of the whole Drum, including adequate ICT hardware and all other requirements already mentioned above (including the PV system: mainly focusing on long battery life, especially since most low-cost charge controllers are usually not designed to ensure such long battery life due to the pre-set LVD levels)," revealed Bock.
A preview of the new computer system
Although the new all-in-one computer system is still in development, Aleutia's Mike Rosenberg did give us a taste of what to expect.
"We've developed a ground-breaking all-in-one PC that uses less than 10 watts power consumption," he told us. "Working with UNICEF we'll develop a low cost solar platform that not only builds manufacturing capacity, but also provides ICT access to those who need it most."
"Though we are considering ARM-based boards for the prototype, we will be using Intel's new Bay Trail Atom NUC board with E-3815 processor and probably 4 GB of RAM (1.35V Low Voltage)," he revealed. "Bay Trail gives us much better Linux support than Cedartrail and we can operate fanless in temps > 40° C (104° F). Though it's only 1.5 GHz single core, it benchmarks the same as the older D410 1.8 GHz Atom processors used in nettops like the Asus EeeBox."
"Most importantly, it has peak power consumption (with RAM and embedded SSD) of just 4.9 watts and can run on a wide range of DC input. A 12 V battery varies from 11 V (empty) to 14.4 V (fully charged) and we want to avoid using a 12 V regulator since that's hard to buy locally. This way we can run directly from the charge controller – keep it simple – and we can even use 24 V battery if we need to."
"The greatest innovation is on the display. There's a huge discrepancy between what the actual LED panel uses and what an off-the-shelf monitor consumes and it's down to the commoditized inefficient internal PSUs they use. Instead, we are powering a 15.6-inch LG laptop display directly from the board using an internal embedded Display Port (just like on a laptop) so we have power consumption of just 3 W and wide input. The display is protected by plexiglass."
"So the total system consists of three Atom-based terminals, two with small SSDs (just enough for apps and Ubuntu OS) and one that doubles as a file server with a larger SSD and a 2 TB hard drive (so we can fit all 4.4 million Wikipedia articles with photos). Total power consumption of 35 watts means we can use a single low cost 160 W solar panel and 100 Ah battery to run everything and provide full day use. It's evolving and we'll offer larger battery combinations and may also reduce power further with ARM, but we're onto something that provides very, very low cost computer mini labs for rural Africa."
Bock confirmed that at the end of the 6 month deal, the results of the collaboration will be open-sourced, with blueprints of the Digital Drum available to anyone who wants to build their own systems.
"More and more jobs and educational opportunities in today's connected world require a basic understanding of how to use a computer, basic word processing, and the internet; and youth who do not have these skills will have a difficult time bridging this digital divide," he said. "The open-source design collaboration is bringing together UNICEF´s expertise, knowledge of the specific needs and already established access to partners with Aleutia's professional experience in high-quality product design and development."