DIY solar panel maker heads to Africa for charity

DIY solar panel maker heads to Africa for charity

Mark Kragh explains how to make a solar-powered mobile phone charger

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In a north London suburban street there is an unassuming wooden door which leads into a garage-cum-workshop which at first glance is remarkable only for a drum kit at one end.

A second glance reveals a bunch of solar panels stacked against the wall and a man, busy breaking them up and reassembling them in a very home-made fashion.

The end result is DIY solar kits that can recharge phones and batteries. They look makeshift but they have the potential to make a huge difference to people thousands of miles away in Kenya.

As the director of KnowYourPlanet, Mark Kragh’s day job is to resell solar panels to small businesses and hobbyists.

But in February he will travel to Kenya to distribute specially-made kits he is giving away as charity, and to show local people how to make more.

Solar scrap

For many in Africa there is little access to electricity due to mains power shortages. Infrastructure has not kept pace with the explosion in mobile phone ownership so it is not unusual for people to walk for several hours just to charge their phones.

“Often, charge points are driven by petrol or diesel generators, which are dangerous to operate and of course emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants. A daily phone charge can cost a considerable amount relative to people’s wages,” said Mr Kragh.

He was inspired by a chance conversation with a friend to experiment with using solar power as an alternative method to charging phones and batteries.

“The project started a few years back when my friend in Senegal asked me if I had any cheap options for solar power for Africa. I told him that PV [photovoltaics] was way too expensive and not a viable option, it required batteries and many other components and he should just forget about it.

“I kept thinking about this, could this really be true? Why could we not use a renewable energy? So I did some research and realised there was an entire community of people who already make solar panels from scrap,” he said.

He was also inspired by his grandmother Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, a lifelong charity worker who founded the UK’s Donkey Sanctuary.

“She passed away this year but my granny travelled in Africa for 40 years, hands-on with all the good and bad that brought with it. She made a huge impact on the local people’s lives and I hope that I will be able to carry on this work in my own way,” he said.

Locally sourced

Mark Kragh in his workshopMr Kragh wants to source as much material as possible in Kenya

The kits he creates are made from solar panels that manufacturers have rejected.

“There are very strict rules,” said Mr Kragh.

Slight chips in the corner render the panels useless for traditional solar energy use but perfect for the DIY kits Mr Kragh has designed.

He aims to make them deliberately makeshift, creating a fairly crude circuit of solar panels on plywood.

The panels also require some more sophisticated kit.

“Initially we will bring specialised materials with us such as voltage regulators, UV stable encapsulants, solar cells and PV ribbon,” said Mr Kragh.

But over time he hopes to be able to source components locally.

“To start with that would be glass, LEDs, batteries, wood and metal, wires and connectors. A great part of the pilot is simply testing and trying lots of non-solar materials to see what works,” he said.

“Our main concern is the intense sun which causes degradation due to the high levels of heat and UV rays,” he added.

Armed with a £5,000 grant from charity World in Need, Mr Kragh aims to build at least 1,000 kits when he arrives, training local people along the way so that they can build new ones and service old ones.

The ultimate goal is to create a $1 (64p) solar charger which has at least a five year lifespan.

“We aim to train local people in these techniques to create cottage industries, giving people locally the opportunity to generate income and keep currency in the community, rather than pay European and Chinese manufacturers and distribution chains and retail networks,” said Mr Kragh.

And, in case you were wondering about the drum kit in the corner of his garage – it is for letting off steam and celebrating good deals. Come March Mr Kragh will be hoping to sound out a distinctly African beat.

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Two more earthquakes shake Christchurch

Two more earthquakes shake Christchurch

A post by Chris RowanJust as it seemed that seismic activity was finally dying down in Christchurch, the city has been shaken by two more earthquakes. The USGS currently has the first shock pegged as a magnitude 5.8, and the second as a magnitude 5.9; theNZ Herald reports that the effects in Christchurch itself include loss of power,liquefaction and flooding, and rockfalls, but only minor injuries so far.

The first shock occurred about 2pm local time. The rupture was shallow (about 5 km deep) and located offshore, about 25 km miles east of Christchurch. The focal mechanism suggests westward thrusting on a north-south oriented fault. This earthquake was quickly followed by a magnitude 5.3 event. The second M 5.9 hit just under two-and-a-half hours later, 5 miles closer to the shore. It was also a relatively shallow rupture, and the focal mechanism also indicates thrusting, this time in a more northwest direction, mixed in with a bit of dextral strike-slip.

USGS focal mechanisms for the December 23rd M 5.8 earthquakes near Christchurch, with the focal mechanisms for the September 2010 Darfield and February 2011 Port Hills earthquakes, and their approximate ruptures, plotted for comparison.

(a primer on interpreting focal mechanisms)

It’s quite early, and the focal mechanism on the first shock in particular is a little poorly constrained by the look of things, but a few things stand out.

  • The area that these earthquakes occurred in is along the trend of the fault – the Port Hills Fault, that ruptured in Feburary’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake. It’s likely that the Port Hills earthquake would have caused the stress in the crust in this region offshore to have increased slightly.
  • Looking at the focal mechanism for February’s quake, it also indicates north-west directed thrusting with some dextral strike-slip.
  • So whilst based on the first, less well-constrained, focal mechanism, I thought that this new sequence was due to motion on an entirely new fault, it is possible this is just stress being released on an eastward extension of the Port Hills fault that ruptured in February, or possibly a parallel strand of the same fault system.

It will probably become clearer as more data is collected and analysed in the next few hours and days. In the meantime, the NZ Herald has a rolling updates page on the situation in Christchurch. My guess would be that the smaller size of these earthquakes compared to the Darfield and Port Hills events, and the fact that they were further away than February’s shock, meant that the shaking from these earthquakes was much less likely to cause catastrophic damage on its own. However, the cumulative effect on already damaged buildings may be an issue, and liquefaction, and the flooding and subsidence that are associated with it, could greatly increase the long-term impact.

Sound Pollution on Google Maps

Sound Pollution on Google Maps

AirCasting is a platform for recording, mapping, and sharing environmental data using your smartphone. Currently, AirCasters can upload sound level data recorded by an Android app.

AirCasting currently maps noise levels but there are plans to expand the range of devices that plug into the AirCasting platform to include pollution sensors. Currently the AirCasting smartphone app lets you capture real-world sound measurements, annotate the data and share it on a Google Map.

You can view an example of AirCasting in action on this Times Square to Central Park map. The map shows the noise levels recorded on a walk up 7th Ave from Times Sqaure. Using the map you can see how noise levels are very high in Times Square and again at 57th Street before dropping almost immediately upon entering Central Park.

AirCasting is a platform for recording, mapping, and sharing environmental data using your smartphone. Currently, AirCasters can upload sound level data recorded by their phone’s microphone. AirCasting is intended for measuring outdoor noise. Soon, we’ll expand the range of devices that plug into the AirCasting platform to include sound-level meters and pollution sensors. AirCasting lets you broadcast what’s happening in your environment, crowdsource your information with that from other AirCasters, and identify patterns and commonalities.

To start recording, mapping, and sharing sound level data for your neighborhood, simply download the AirCasting app to your Android device and press play. Don’t have an Android device? Check out theAirCasting maps to see if someone has already contributed data for your area.

Download AirCasting

RecordandmapRecord & Map Environmental Data

ContributetocrowdmapContribute to the CrowdMap

ShareShare Your AirCasting Sessions

Using 2! Google Earth in the classroom

Using Google Earth in the classroom

Since the earliest days of Google Earth, many have viewed it as an amazing tool to use in the classroom – and they’re right! We first showed some educational uses for Google Earth more than five years ago, and since then we’ve seen great uses from Duke University andStrataLogica, among others.

Today we’re looking at GEteach, a site developed by 9th-grade Geography teacher Josh Williams. The site uses the Google Earth Plug-in to give you quick access to a wide variety of information such as the CIA Factbook, population densities, and various other human and physical geographic overlays.


The site also includes a “Two Earth” mode to allow you to view different layers side-by-side, similar to AnotherEarth. This is a great way to show students how natural aspects of the earth can affect human behavior, such as comparing the “vegetation” index to the “population density”, as seen here:


I asked Josh for more info about how the site got started, and he came through with the full story of the site, shared below:

My major is Geography and like most people I’ve always been intrigued with Google Earth. For the past 6 years I’ve been trying to find ways to incorporate Google Earth in my 9th grade geography classroom. At first I scoured the internet for kml files that worked with my curriculum, but very little seemed to fit. Three years ago I started creating Earth’s with simple placemarks of images and maybe some text within the balloons. I later found an interesting script allowing me to export ESRI shapefiles into kml. This was the turning point that led to what you see today. My first useful Google Earth file was an Earth where I incorporated CIA Factbook data into balloons. I later created dozens of thematic Earths using the same process. My students currently use improved versions of these thematic maps to observe, understand, and predict levels of development for regions and countries.

Two years ago I stumbled across NASA’s Earth Observatory website and discovered how they wrapped their images around an Earth. I then used that process and NASA’s content to show mostly physical geographic patterns and processes. The images from NASA like blue marble, average land temperature, plant growth, sea temperatures, and topography are great at showing the students Earth/Sun relationships, climate controls, and physical processes impacted on population distributions (NASA Earth Observatory has a nice population density map).

Over the past year and a half I have been trying to put all of these Earths together in a package teachers and students could use. I quickly realized that creating a website using Google Earth api would be the most efficient way to control and distribute the content. Over that past year I have learned a little html, JavaScript, css, and jquery. I started first with embedding a webpage with Google Earth gadget files. As I learned more about html and JavaScript I ditched the gadget and created simple webpages with using the api. Nystrom then came by our school to demo Stratalogica (a great Google Earth tool for education). I thought I was going to be able to stop developing my webpage, but realized that I could not get my content on their page. After seeing Stratalogica, I spoke with my father and told him I thought we could create a really cool website available to everyone. We spent a year building geteach. The Google Earth side was pretty easy. We just went to the Google Earth api site and combined several of their demos like “Hello Earth,” “China Syndrome,” “Fetch kml,” ect… Creating and incorporating menus, iframe shims, creating and replacing iframes to change with the selected Earth (they hold the Earth’s descriptions, map legends/keys, and credits), and creating a really cool array were more challenging and took a while to learn; especially because my father and I had to learn or relearn most of this. Today’s is really the 4th version. The first version had a very 2004 look and feel to it. It had ugly generic drop down menus, check boxes, and radio buttons. Version one only had about 6 Earths, but the core functions like choosing different Earths, fetching an Earth, and controlling the left or right earth were all present and working. Version two replaced all the generic forms and buttons with jquery ui buttons. We added an array which allowed more Earths. Version four changed from a table based to a div based html document that allowed the width to adjust with differing resolutions. However, the most time consuming aspect in creating is attempting to make it look similar across browsers.

This is the first school year where my students and I have extensively used the website. The first lesson we for was Earth/Sun relations. This is mostly me using Google Earth’s grid layer and sun feature to show the solstice and equinox. I then click to the multi-earth and demonstrate how temperature and vegetation is impacted by this relationship. The students’ next big lesson is identifying climate regions and the climate controls. Here the students use the climate regions Earth on the left side and change the right Earth to help develop an understanding of what climate controls like elevations, wind currents, ocean currents, latitude, position on the continent, etc. are responsible for the temperature and precipitation patterns. Next the students use level of development indicators like life expectancy, GDP per capita, infant mortality rate, etc. to predict standard of living for regions and countries. Our district curriculum blends regional with conceptual geography. Therefore, with every unit/
region (every 3 to 4 weeks) either my students, time permitting, or I will use to observe physical and human patterns of the new region and start making spatial observations and peaking curiosity for the unit. It is really a lot of fun and truly why I created this site in the first place. My goal is for students to expend some of their bandwidth on spatial observations, understandings, and predicting. When they ask, “Mr. Williams…why is..?” I know I have them where I want them.

It’s a phenomenal way to use Google Earth in a classroom setting, and he has done an awesome job with this site. Great work, Josh!

Melting Glaciers Mean Double Trouble for Water Supplies

Melting Glaciers Mean Double Trouble for Water Supplies

New research shows that as ice disappears, overall evaporation speeds up.

Ice and snow cover Vulture Peak in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Glaciers like those on Vulture Peak in Montana’s Glacier National Park are receding around the world, putting critical water supplies at risk.

Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

Rick Lovett

For National Geographic News

Published December 20, 2011

This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues. 

Mountain glaciers long have been known to be in retreat as the planet warms. But the process is occurring even more rapidly than previously believed, scientists said earlier this month in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

For example, said Garry Clarke, professor emeritus of glaciology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, the massive glaciers of Canada’s Saint Elias region, now comprised of nearly 98 cubic miles of ice (453 cubic kilometers), are likely to be cut in half by 2100, even under middle-of-the-road climate-change scenarios.

“[And] that’s the good news,” Clarke said.

In parts of the Canadian Rockies, he said, today’s glaciers will all but disappear completely, while others will shrink to remnants just 5 to 20 percent of their current size.

“We think that we will be witness over the next century mainly to the disappearance of the glaciers of western North America,” he said.

Other disturbing finds are coming from the Himalayas, where Ulyana Horodyskyj, a graduate student at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, has been monitoring supraglacial lakes—ponds of water that appear on the surface of melting glaciers.

“Most people think about glaciers receding,” she said, “but they also shrink vertically. These lakes can lead to enhanced melting, and we see a lot of them forming throughout the Himalayas . . . You can think of these lakes as cancers that are consuming the glacier.”

Even if all of the world’s mountain glaciers were to melt, the effect on sea level rise would be small: Clarke, estimates, for example, that even if all of western Canada’s glaciers were to completely melt away, the oceans would rise by only 6.6 millimeters (a quarter-inch), “not enough to worry anyone.”

See the global impact of your water footprint >>

global water footprint


Glacial Water

But glaciers act as natural reservoirs, storing water in the winter and doling it out in the summer as the ice slowly melts.

“If most of it disappears, there will be extreme consequences for most of these regions,” Clarke said. “The stream flow will change, the timing of peak stream flow will change, and the temperature of streams will change.”

Even the total volume of runoff will change, added Michel Baraer, of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, because glacial ice keeps the water locked away in a form in which it doesn’t easily evaporate.

Thus, even if precipitation remains the same in the high mountains, more of the water will be in liquid form, which evaporates more quickly.

Building dams also will not solve the problem of decreasing runoff. “Evaporation from reservoirs is much higher than sublimation [conversion of solid into gas] from glaciers,” Baraer said. “Dams will never, ever, replace the [natural] hydrological systems that are in place today.”

Peak Water?

Already, Baraer said, Peru is on the verge of facing water shortages. That’s because one of the largest rivers coming off the high Andes glaciers, the Rio Santa, is already running low on glacial melt, he said.

Previously, scientists had thought the problem lay several decades in the future.

But based on satellite measures of ice cover and water-flow at gauging stations in the river, his team has concluded that the Rio Santa has already hit “peak water”—the point at which glacial runoff plateaus and then begins to decline.

“What it means is that instead of having 10, 20, or 30 years’ perspective in which to find some solution for water allocation, these years did not exist,” he said.

And that’s just the beginning. Much of South America, with its high mountains and tropical sunshine, appears to be particularly vulnerable to climate-induced glacial shrinking.

Thus, he said, the next step will be to turn to Peru’s neighbors, particularly Bolivia and northern Chile, to see if similar stream-flow changes are occurring there.

Skitch iPad app

Millennia ago, all you needed to get a point across to your buddies was charcoal and a cave wall or a pointy stick and some sand. Now, we sit for hours crafting passive-aggressive emails to make a point that once was communicated with an arrow and a grunt. There’s beauty in that simplicity. Let’s return to it.

Say hello to Skitch for iPadavailable now for free from the iTunes App Store!

What is Skitch?

Skitch is the amazingly fun and surprisingly powerful way to move your ideas and projects forward using fewer words. With Skitch, annotate and draw on just about anything that you see, whether it’s a new or existing photo, a webpage, screenshot, map, or a blank canvas. Then, share your work with friends, colleagues or save it all to Evernote. It couldn’t be simpler.

Skitch for iPad

The Skitch for iPad home screen gets you started. Here’s are your options:

Photos and Camera
Choose to work on an existing image from your camera roll or take a new photo with your iPad. Use the camera to take photos of things that inspire you or to draw a mustache on a friend. If you have an iPad 1 with no camera, then the camera option won’t appear.

Skitch for iPad has built in smarts that help it identify recently-made screenshots. Taking a screenshot on your iPad is easy, simply press both the power and home buttons at the same time. The screen will flash and the screenshot will be saved to your camera roll. Open Skitch, tap the Screenshot button, annotate the image, then share it with your team. This is great for everything from mobile app design to showing off your latest Angry Birds score.

Skitch for iPad has its own web browser designed to help you mark up any webpages you encounter. After tapping the Web icon, you can either go directly to a URL or type in a search. When you find the page you want, tap on the Snap icon. Now you have an image of the webpage to annotate. Use this to provide feedback on a web project or to point out something you want to buy.

Have you ever struggled to explain exactly where to meet someone or which building on campus is yours or how to find the best hiking spot? Then the Skitch Map option is for you. Pinch and zoom into the map, then use the Skitch drawing tools to point out a landmark or draw a path. You would be surprised how often the exact place you need isn’t easy to locate without some additional help. With Skitch, you can put an end to driving in circles or walking for hours.

Sometimes you just need to start fresh. Open the blank canvas and sketch to your heart’s content. Use the shapes, arrows, drawing tools, and colors to compose a work of art or to play a killer game of Pictionary.

The drawing tools

Skitch comes with a number of touch-friendly drawing tools that are designed for speed.

  • Finger: Use the finger tool to grab and manipulate any object that you’ve drawn and move it around. You can also tap on an object and rotate it or pinch and zoom to resize it. Using two fingers to rotate and resize Skitch rectangles is surprisingly satisfying. We don’t know why.
  • Pencil: The pencil is your go-to for freehand drawing.
  • Arrows: Draw the famous Skitch arrows to point out what’s important.
  • Text: Select the text option, then tap wherever you want your text to appear. Enter it into the text box and tap Done.
  • Shapes: Choose from circles, squares and lines. Drag you finger on the canvas to draw your shapes.
  • Crop: Crop your canvas to any size you wish with this tool.
  • Color and thickness: Tap on the colored dot to choose a color and line thickness for your arrows, shapes and text.
  • Trash: Select something with the finger tool, then tap trash to remove the item, or tap without selecting to clear the canvas.

Save it all to Evernote

All of your drawing and annotations are saved in the Skitch for iPad app, but if you’d like to have them available to you everywhere, then you should save them into Evernote. Save your images individually or by tapping on the elephant icon.

Share to Twitter, email…and AirPlay!

Skitch for iPad gives you a few different ways to share your drawings. You can send them to your friends over email and you can post them to your Twitter stream. One additional option is sharing over AirPlay, which lets you mirror your iPad onto any screen with an Apple TV attached. This is perfect for giving presentations, demos and for teaching.

iPad first

We built our iOS version of Skitch first for iPad because it’s the ideal form factor for tactile annotation. Fear not, Skitch for iPhone is in the works. In the meantime, go try it out. Use it for work, for play, for school, for design. Use it to plan your wedding layout or to build your house. Use it to communicate when you don’t speak the same language. Just use it and you’ll be amazed by how much a few simple shapes and arrows can do. Enjoy.

Get Skitch for iPad now »


How to convert a webpage to PDF

There are times when you want to save a web page for later use. Sure you can save a bookmark, but what happens if the site shuts down or your bookmark gets erased. PageSnap lets you easily create a PDF of the entire webpage.

Why not just print to PDF you ask? Well, many companies may not let you install additional software on your work computer. Sure some newer operating systems have the feature to print to PDF, but what about while you are mobile? Read on to see why PageSnap is different.

How to convert a webpage to PDF

The process it quite simple really. When you are on a webpage you need to save, then hop on over The site default language is in Polish, but there is an English version you can access by clicking on the flag in the top left of the page.


You will need to input the URL for the site you’d like to create a PDF of.

enter url-pagesnap

You will need to enter the words in the captcha. I know this is a pain to do, but it is a necessary evil.


Then click on the Generate PDF button.

generate pdf-pagesnap

The PDF output options

This is what makes PageSnap better than a print to PDF app. You will see the thumbnail for the site to the right side of the page. If you click on it, your PDF program or browser will show the PDF you generated. One thing to note: if your PDF reader supports the feature, all of the links will still function.


You have options to download the PDF or share your saved page via Twitter and Facebook.

download or share-pagesnap

You can also see the QR code for the page. When the QR code is scanned, it will not take you to the page. The PDF will be downloaded to your device and open.

android market qr-pagesnap

How you can use PageSnap

There are a lot of potential uses for a service like PageSnap. And because it can be accessed from most mobile browsers, you can use PageSnap more creatively. Here are some ideas of how you may use this webpage to PDF webapp.

  • Use the QR code to copy your FAQ page for a print ad or flyer or coupon
  • Tweet an interesting recipe page making it easier to print out
  • Save how-to articles for offline use
  • Save pages for your web design portfolio.


A webapp like PageSnap is a very simple idea with a lot of potential uses. PDFs are pretty universal, so sharing documents this way reduces the chance someone will not be able to open what you send them.

See Also: