Category: Opinion (page 1 of 2)

Part 2: Why can’t you build a weather station for under $50?

Know Your Climate has embarked on setting up India’s first network of citizen-owned weather stations around the city of Bangalore. Each weather station costs about 35,000 rupees, and a frequently-asked question is why a weather station costs so much. It’s a question that we at Know Your Climate were asking back in 2013.

Rajeev Jha of Yuktix Technologies, KYC’s technology partner, answers. This is the second of a two-part series. [Read Part 1 here.]

In the first part of my explanation of why you cannot build a good automated weather station with $50, I talked of various components which cost more than that. Here I will be elaborating on other reasons that influence the cost of professional-grade devices – the remaining three of seven broad reasons.

At Yuktix, we have to ensure continued supply of weather stations. People can do one-off favours and customisations for cheap, but running production batches repeatedly needs good quality components that are tried, tested and readily available from distributors. This can cost significantly more.

There’s the tyranny of the “MOQ”, the minimum order quantity. If you have budget to make large number of weather stations, say a few thousand, then the whole supply chain will give you deep discounts. Everything from manufacturing to assembly to shipping to testing becomes cheaper per unit. You can afford to get components directly from the supplier instead of using a distributor. Large MOQs also allows you to approach quality vendors who otherwise would never talk to you. Setting up machines take time and no one wants to invest time in you unless you can guarantee good numbers. As a simple example, take fabrication of a metal plate. The vendor with the right machine will never do 10 units. He would like MOQ to be at least a batch in size — which could be a 100 or more units.

Short quantities mean that one has to pay a premium for good components, as well as put up with a high cost of discovery. The only alternative is a compromise on quality.

Sixth, there’s the related cost of a generic design, related to the MOQ challenge.  Managing different ‘Bill of Materials’ (BOM) is difficult for a startup. Getting one design into the market can sap out the funds and you cannot afford to keep going back to drawing board. The next best thing is to do a generic design that you can adapt to different needs in order to make money. However that also means an escalation in costs. As an example we can do a citizen weather station on cheaper PIC18F-type 40-pin chips. However same board will not work for a professional version. Hence we use a 100-pin chip that costs 1600 rupees instead of 150 rupees. The power supply story is similar: if you have the numbers, you can make designs optimised for a solar, battery, or adapter based designs. However doing a generic design that can work with Solar or Li=ion batteries or AC power means more costs again.

Finally, there are labour costs involved in assembly, installation and maintenance of the weather stations. DIY assumes your own labour to be free, and unfortunately we are unable to do that at our fledgling startup.

Rajeev Jha is the founder of Yuktix Technologies, Know Your Climate’s technology partner for the Citizen Weather Network.

Feature photo: Thejesh, the owner of the Electronic City weather station along with his niece and nephew Varsha and Jayanth.

Keep Calm.

keep-calm-and-wait-for-the-summer-rains

Keep Calm and Wait for the Bangalore Rains. Issued in Bangalore’s public interest by Know Your Climate.

Part 1: Why can’t you build a weather station for under $50?

Know Your Climate has embarked on setting up India’s first network of citizen-owned weather stations around the city of Bangalore. Each weather station costs about 35,000 rupees, and a frequently-asked question is why a weather station costs so much. It’s a question that we at Know Your Climate were asking back in 2013.

Rajeev Jha of Yuktix Technologies, KYC’s technology partner, answers. This is the first of a two-part series. 

You go to an American supermarket and you see a “weather station” that is selling for 50$. If look it up on websites like Alibaba.com, you see that are going round for 100$. Even well-known vendors have a kit that will sell for 200$ or 300$. So why the heck we can’t do a station for 50$?

The thinking goes like, get a 8051 chip, plug sensors that are available for 1000/2000Rs and I can have my station for 3000Rs. Sure, you can do that and we have done that. A nice station on breadboard with an LCD in place that could measure temperature, pressure and humidity and display it on LCD. If you add another thousand rupees, you can have the rig beaming data on bluetooth to your phone. Add Wi-Fi and the contraption can be online. So why not?

While working on the Citizen Weather Network, we asked ourselves this question. However, the zeroth questions to settle were, what do we want to do ? What is the end goal? Are we publishing blue-prints for the Hobbyists? Do we want to only demonstrate a proof of concept?

Or instead, do we want a neatly packaged finished product? Where we can provide guarantees on the data, where the data is reliable. Where you don’t need someone near the station at all times who can flip a switch when the station goes down? Where the station cannot be kicked, trampled or spoilt easily.

At Yuktix and at Know Your Climate, we set out to build a research-grade data acquisition platform, that can operate on solar power in remote areas, without the need for human intervention. However, we added a constraint that it should still be affordable and customised for the urban environment.

So here are the first four of six reasons how a Yuktix Automated Weather Station differs from a hobbyist weather unit, and why it costs more.

First,  there is a difference between in-house and out-in-the-wild station. A house oriented station uses your wi-fi or bluetooth, is kept indoors and is not affected by the elements on a daily basis. It is not out in the harsh sunlight and doesn’t have rain pouring on it. That is our first problem. How do we package everything in an all weather proof box? Any quality supplier (with IP65/66/67 certification) will charge you decent money for such a box.

Right now we are paying 25$ for such a weather-proof enclosure. You can surely can pick a cheaper box with gaskets in chuna mandi or Chandani Chowk but the quality is not guaranteed. It is one thing to plug your sensors into your Arduino or RPI where you know the connections and can fix it. It is quite another to put this all back in the wild without any supervision.

box-profile1

The weather-proof box that houses the weather station’s electronics.

Second, there is a cost to data. With a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth attachment, people are using existing internet connectivity, subject to its own failings. We put a GPRS SIM there because we would also like to operate in situations where there is no Wi-Fi nearby (or cannot be). We found that it was better to front-load GPRS data costs for three full years, so that the operational costs of running a weather station are next to nothing.  After all, the value of the weather information increases the longer the data is collected from the same location, year after year. The comparability is obviously superior with long-lived stations. Budget another 75$ for data.

The third factor of cost is a solar radiation shield. You cannot measure air temperature accurately without something to shield the sensors from reflected radiation. Whether it’s from a concrete surface or a whitewashed wall, reflected radiation can dramatically increase temperature and other sensor readings. Instead of measuring ambient air temperature, the sensor can start reading its own heated temperature.

What you need as a ‘radiation shield’ is an enclosure that doesn’t heat up, cuts off all stray sources of radiation (especially around the infrared band) from reaching the sensors, and allows ambient air to keep flowing through. We tried to build our own radiation shield, but one that would not survive the outside environment for long without replacement. A quality product is also one that will not turn yellow in the sun, and you would be surprised at how fast a DIY unit would do that.

The fourth factor of cost is a good rain bucket. The units that measure rainfall and wind in a weather station are typically the only ones that have moving parts, which also means that they are most likely to fail. The rain bucket first. And obviously, no indoor weather station measures rainfall. You need to be able to measure rainfall accurately, but also be able to measure large quantities of it. You want a good funnel that repels water and allows all of it to flow down. And you need to measure the rainfall quantity before the water collected evaporates. We decided to use a high quality tipping bucket weather station which can last a while without rusting or becoming inaccurate in other ways.

Add an extra $200 for both the radiation shield and the rain gauge together.

IMG_20140809_163344700_HDR

Radiation shield on the left and the rain bucket on the right in our pilot weather station.

This concludes the first half of why we can’t build a quality automated weather station for $50.

Rajeev Jha is the founder of Yuktix Technologies, Know Your Climate’s technology partner for the Citizen Weather Network.

Not every disaster is man-made

By Pavan Srinath

Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home – as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.

The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known, but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives, currently estimated in the hundreds – can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations, of which by all counts the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job. Thereafter comes time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.

What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.

One human factor that can be brough into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.

The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.

Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps

On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and  inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.

In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.

We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps

All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes as free of evidence as some of the claims I mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.

Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. But it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.

Originally written by Pavan Srinath in The Transition State blog on the Indian National Interest.

The Plans of Mice and Men

Sitting through what are perhaps the last few days of the rains this season in South India, Priya Ravichandran writes about Hurricane Sandy and Cyclone Nilam, and how we reacted to the both of them. 

Starting a few days before late October from when Hurricane Sandy was to hit the eastern coast of the United States, the state governments, specifically in New York and New Jersey had started preparing for the storm that was forecast to be the biggest ever to hit the north eastern seaboard. With a sharp forecast, the focus was on who needed to evacuate, who needed to stand by to evacuate, the shoring up of supplies, emergency drills, emergency routes in case of flooding, and preparations for all other possible worst case scenarios. Information on whom to approach, where to go and when to go were all detailed out over radio, news, state and local websites, social networks. Police, fire, medical personnel, and other emergency workers were kept on stand by and information kept flowing, updating people on the nature, the breadth and the impact of the storm. Weather channels went into overdrive with the mapping and explanation of how strong and serious Sandy was shaping up to be. Mayors and government officials held press conferences informing, warning and assuring people. The hurricane made a landfall on October 29th.

A day before Sandy hit land; an atmospheric depression started gaining strength in the Bay of Bengal, off the south eastern seaboard of India. The depression was officially declared as Cyclone Nilam on the 30th of October was to hit the eastern coast of India specifically the southern coastal states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Low-key warnings on the Indian Meteorological Department’s website, which then reached people through the announcements in the weather sections of regional TV news programmes. Much of the national media however, including most English news channels had heavy programming focusing on evacuation, emergency preparedness, the potential aftereffects and worst case scenarios… not for Cyclone Nilam, but for Hurricane Sandy. Yes. Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy hit produced high winds up to 175 kilometres per hour (110 miles/hr) while Nilam hit the coast with winds just under 80 km/hr (50 miles/hr). The death toll for Sandy in the US alone is close to 130 and might increase. Nilam has so far taken close to 56 lives. Both numbers remain a conservative estimate, given that the delay of recovery is resulting in more fatalities.  The economic damage from Sandy is predicted to approximately $50 billion USD to $56 million USD for Nilam. Most generic comparisons of the impact of the two storms remains specious because of the differing scale of both weather events. Hurricane Sandy was dubbed as a “Frankenstorm”, and became the largest ever Atlantic hurricane in size in recorded history. Nilam, while no pushover, is the strongest cyclone to have hit the Indian coast since Cyclone Jal in 2010. 

The purpose here is to use this coincidence of large storms hitting the United States and India simultaneously – and learning what public officials and governments could have done in India and what we can learn from the preparations for Hurricane Sandy.

A lot of Sandy’s preparation learnt from what went wrong when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Several critical analyses of the havoc caused by Katrina were available and all the measures carried out where announced through every media outlet possible to ensure enough people got the message and got out or took precautions. As the NPR reported, the federal Disaster Management Agency had its paperwork in order and close to $3.6 billion ready for temporary housing even before Sandy hit.

In contrast, preparations for Nilam began quite late with a weak warning and very little information available to the public. Worse, between the IMD and state governments, the cyclone was not adequately tracked after it made landfall, where an it is possible that an assumption was made that the worst was over. Though the low pressure front weakened, heavy rains fell on Andhra Pradesh well after the cyclone made landfall – resulting in much greater loss of lives, crop damage and necessitated far wider evacuations of about 68,000 people, than what was expected earlier.

The eastern coast of India is no stranger to cyclones and some of the worst natural disasters in India have occurred near coastal AP and TN. A national workshop for developing strategy for cyclone mitigation met in 2003 and came up with a list of proposals to ensure minimizing the damage from cyclones. A budget of more than Rs.1490 Crores (~$300 million) was allotted then for cyclone damage mitigation,with very little to show for the money so far.

Basic measures like radio transistors, cyclone alarms, escape routes, flood drainage, reliable, cyclone resistant, cyclone shelters, warning systems at sea, sea walls and development of mangroves were all suggested but never carried through. The lack of planning showed.

In spite of cyclone structures being available and food being arranged, there was very little instruction on how to get to those places, or information on facilities within the structures. Given the estimated strength of the cyclone, very little precautionary measures were announced for residents. While the fisher folk were evacuated and other evacuation orders for people living in low lying settlements were given, no information on emergency procedures were issued for urban dwellers. There were also no additional measures taken for the differentially abled people.

There were very little, sometimes no updates from higher officials like the mayor on storm preparedness, absolutely no information on government websites state and local, very sparse coverage by English media and over the top, sensationalist coverage by regional media that took to comparing the cyclone to the 2004 tsunami. This was in direct contrast to the regular updates by NY mayor Bloomberg who was always accompanied by a sign language translator, giving to the point updates and helping reassure the people.

A lot of damage could have been prevented had there been fairly basic preparation both on the eve of the cyclone, and in general. Unclogging storm drainage systems, covering of potholes, and warning on the hazards of driving or being out on the streets could have been handled well before Nilam started. Part of the suggestions by the workshop for cyclone mitigation called for disaster preparedness including the provision of cyclone proof infrastructure. Natural sea side vegetation like mangrove forests were strongly recommended to act as natural barriers. Very little has been done to mitigate flooding in the affected areas in spite of recommendations. Every report on handling natural disasters has usually had a committee submitting a list of recommendations, extending a budget for the states to use and the states failing to put the list into action and misusing the budget with shoddy or no implementation.

Additional measures like declaring state wide holidays, ensuring additional power for hospitals and basic resources in schools and shelters where people were evacuated to could have been carried out. The most critical part of any disaster preparation has to be for the people who are going to be affected directly to have the information well before the disaster happens and to have it from a trustworthy public source. A lower minister who has had no experience in communication being sent out to warn people in fits and measures does not inspire confidence. Indian politicians often underestimate the importance of what really good PR skills are – they are not just about taking down the opposition, but providing and projecting leadership in times of duress. Calm, prompt and precise communication goes a long way in reassuring people. With the advent of social media and 24 hour news channels, the state and other governments ought to have taken an initiative to make its presence felt.

The simple fact of the matter is that by and large, the residents of coastal Tamil Nadu as Cyclone Nilam lost much of its intensity over the sea and the impact on land was lesser than expected. Good fortune does not excuse the complacency of the officials in handling natural disasters. Naturally occurring phenomena like cyclones and hurricanes become disasters only on reaching human settlements. While we need more robust forecasts and predictions, mitigatory and adaptive measures to protect ourselves can ensure that disasters need not happen as frequently as they do.

Priya Ravichandran is a Programme Officer with the Takshashila Institution and a resident of Chennai, India. Views are personal.

Older posts

© 2017 Know Your Climate

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑