Monday, 31 October 2011

Dreaming big

The pioneers group.

It’s a story about four young men who dreamed of something big. Taha Hassan, Rohail Hassan, Muneeb-ur-Rehman and Syed Payman Raza, sat in the plush computer labs of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and came up with a solution that could mean an eventual end to blackouts in Pakistan.

It all started with theme-based Microsoft Competition called the Imagine Cup, which brings teams from across the globe to New York, to come up with creative solutions to one of the UN Millennium Development. The competition has three categories, digital media, embedded development and software design.

Competing with one of the most diverse audiences, with some teams coming from “almost unheard of places”, the team of four from LUMS is the first Pakistani team in ten years of the competition’s history to go for the final leg of the competition in New York.

“We picked up a bunch of MDGs. One of those was reducing hunger and poverty and another one was developing effective communication. The project was to be built to be used for a specific time-frame, from 2010 to 2015,” said Taha.

The idea behind the competition is whether you can use technology, specifically Microsoft technology and work in one of the above-mentioned paradigms and build a technology, a phone app solution or write a code etc. for a bunch of people. Muneeb, who was the main brain behind the project, hails from Sahiwal — a place where, he said, 12-16 hours of load shedding was a common occurrence and was making life miserable.

“What if instead of having a complete blackout, where nothing works, no appliance or fan, the people get a guarantee that there will be minimum load shedding. And at the same time, the electricity usage of every household could be restricted to a certain legally allowed limit,” explained Muneeb.

Their final product was based on two ideas: To threshold the maximum load allowed to a certain user. And to build a management system whereby the control to allow and disallow this usage is provided to the utility provider. “What is lacking is the need for communication between the grid and the user. How much electricity are you consuming, how much are you allowed to use and are you consuming beyond the allowed limit. It is essential that the electricity provider have all this data with them,” Taha elaborated.

Pakistan currently suffers from commercial unaccounted losses (like electricity theft) to the tune of Rs12.9 million annually. Rohail added, “If we are able to save even 80 per cent of these commercial unaccounted for losses, this Rs12.9 million can be saved every year.”

And that is exactly what these fantastic four plan to do with their “smart metre.”
This metre is GSM-enabled and transfers energy data via SMS to the utility providers so that the utility providers can act in real-time. “If you use more than you are allowed, a message is sent to the grid station and the utility provider sends a message to shut down the power supply. Because by using more than you are allowed, you are putting the entire system under risk. The smart metre taps the current and is continuously looking for any discrepancies. So that the utility knows there is something wrong going on in that particular area,” Taha explained further.

Talking about the commercial implementation of this project and whether it was really something that would make the users happy and satisfied, the students said that they were not proposing it as a long-term policy. “And essentially you sign up for it voluntarily. The purpose is that by using smart metres over a certain time period, the utility providers can eventually overcome the energy deficit.”
Munneb added, “Raising electricity prices every now and then doesn’t help, not even the dual pricing. Our solution is context driven. It’s threshold, looking at deficits and pointing at areas, which are some sort of red zones, hence helping in better energy management.”

Taha explained the aim of their project, saying, “We are providing the policy makers with data, consumption trends for say a season and then they can look at data and see when the consumption is highest. If there is a maximum load that has to be served in a particular area such as a hospital, they can allow them more usage. The policy needs to be more considerate and flexible.” The team made it to the final round of the competition, being chosen among the top 20 of the world. The sad part is that two of the team members did not receive their visas for the US in time.

“Because it was essentially a four-person project, Muneeb and Payman, who couldn’t go to New York were on video-conferencing all the time, doing all the debugging from here,” he added pointing to the lab they were sitting in at the time. “The result was that we ran into minor problems every now and then and sometimes our submissions were late,” Rohail added.

Their proudest moment was when they met professors from MIT, who informed them of the work being carried out on building AMIs, Advanced Metering Infrastructure currently – different sorts of smart and other intelligent metres.

The four who have been under the constant mentorship of Professor Nauman Zaffar at LUMS hope to take their project to its final culmination point. They are currently testing their device at one of the faculty apartments at LUMS.

What they could not win at the Lincoln Centre, NY, they hope to win in the form of a grant being offered by Microsoft to the finalists of Imagine Cup. The grants are worth $3 million and will be distributed to the teams of 2-5 projects.

This piece was done by Hosh media contributor Bushra Shehzad. Hosh media is a volunteer based organisation that aims to bring youth voices onto the mainstream media in Pakistan.

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