SADC: Off the Grid for the Last African Mile?

By Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek

November 17, 2015

In rural regions around the world, it’s not only distance that prevents people from accessing goods and services, markets, healthcare, and education. There is often a confluence of geographical, geopolitical and economic factors that further complicate service delivery.

Power isn’t perfect anywhere in Africa, but rural regions have unreliable, inadequate or no supply at all. Where there is a network—and the presence of dark fiber is becoming more common—it’s likely to serve a proprietary, commercial purpose. In rural, impoverished regions where there are few to police the infrastructure, copper thieves make it extremely difficult (and costly) for the telecommunications industry to maintain. Therefore, wireless and off-the-grid innovations are especially promising where there is an abundance of wind and solar energy.

These challenges concern the 19 Southern African Development Community (SADC) scholars who participated in a two-day high performance computing (HPC) workshop at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) last week. While they are in Austin, Texas-U.S. they will also attend SC15.

One workshop afternoon, delegates could choose between parallel technical and outreach tracks. Seven joined Texas Alliance for Minorities in Education (TAME) program Director Linda Collins for a tour of the mobile Trailblazer 1 unit that is also located on the University of Texas’ J.J. Pickle campus in Austin. All but two of the delegates who toured Trailblazer are from rural villages in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, and Tanzania. Most have teaching and systems administration responsibilities, and all are interested in human capacity development.

trailblazer-truckTrailblazer I and II tour the Texas countryside visiting students, teachers and families. Inside are stations featuring science and engineering demonstrations designed to engage critical thinking processes, inspire innovation and enlighten guests to a range of tech-enabled possibilities. As the SADC group toured, they began to think of ways the experience could be adapted for sub-Saharan Africa, and to include age-appropriate HPC training. For example, the addition of a Raspberry Pi training cluster, collection of tablets (stored nearly in a tight space), and science case studies that resonate with each region’s industrial footprint would ensure commercial buy-in from companies with a vested interest in a well-prepared, and customized workforce. Perhaps the unit could serve as a network point-of-presence, and collect its own power? Then, in the evenings when it’s cooler, a mobile laboratory could become a learning oasis where teachers, students and families converge to socialize, and discover how ‪#‎HPCTransforms.

The SADC activity was sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and University of Texas, with help from TACC, Airlink Airlines, Intel, Cray, DataDirect Networks, and STEM-Trek.

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