What's New



  Digital Divide


  Smart Metering


  "Past" Research



Other Activities







The bulk of my current current research falls into several broad categories:

Digital Divide  

My work aims to understand and overcome the Digital Divide, including leapfrogging technology and policy designs.

  1. Better metrics are important for understanding the digital divide.  For starters, national data are misleading at best (e.g., official International Telecommunications Union [ITU] statistics), and rural areas are the most underserved.  In addition, most composite measures focus on Literacy, wealth, and, of course, penetration.  I have proposed measures covering Awareness, Availability, Accessibility, and Affordability.  

  2. The implications of the digital divide (network exclusion) can be far worse than previously explained by network effect externality models, in part because of ICT's broad reach, theoretical capabilities, and rapid changes (e.g., Web 2.0).  Using a new (proposed) exclusion centric framing of examining disparity, Working with Ernest Wilson, I've shown that the costs of exclusion can become exponential regardless of underlying network structure.

  3. "Meaningful broadband" is often missing in much of the world, with lower speeds (including in the upstream direction, caps on usage (I'm talking 0.5 GB/month), port/application restrictions, or other restrictions on usage.  While network management has to be balanced with net neutrality, the far bigger challenge in much of the world is broadband availability.  Given mobiles are the norm for last-mile access, this diminishes copper, necessary for DSL or cable.  The "3rd wire" into the home (electric) has theoretical potential, but I've shown it is too little, too late in most cases (broadband over powerline).  Cost of connectivity is a major problem, with limited backhaul (uplinking) capabilities, and high costs.  Some 17 policy and regulatory add-ons can cost *multiple* times what the technology could or should cost.  This is one reason connectivity in developing regions can cost vastly more in absolute sense, not merely relative sense.  

  4. Developing nations have the opportunity to leapfrog, given their limited deployment of infrastructure to date.  Mobiles are widespread, but they have limited capacity, (expensive) third generation (3G) notwithstanding.  Innovative technology (optical fibers plus fixed/portable wireless) combined with open access models can dramaticly lower the costs of connectivity.  In the FiberAfrica project, I've show a design whereby the majority of Africans can avail nearby broadband for only about $1/capita investment.  My work has also been focused on more effective regulation, which is a bigger bottleneck than lack of capital per se.  Developing regions especially struggle with issues of public vs. private, part of the political economy of reform and deregulation. There is, for example, a significant amount of optical fiber in developing regions, often owned by the electricity company.  One challenge is who gets to use it, at what price, how, where, etc.

ICT for (Sustainable) Development, a.k.a. ICTD

ICT for Development has gained a lot of disability, including by governments and heads of state.  However, many efforts are simplistic, and lack proper metrics for analysis of viability.  In addition, there is often insufficient interaction and integration of the various domains involved in a challenge, not least of which is the intersection of ICT and development specialists.  The field is littered with anecdotal studies, high visibility but limited scalability pilots, and solutions that only make an incremental difference or that reinvent the wheel (technologically speaking). 

I have, working with others, been leading academic efforts to make ICT for Development a more rigorous, scholarly, and impactfull research field.  Based on several workshops on ICTD I organized for the UN, World Bank, and NSF, a major takeaway was the importance and challenges of integrating development professions and local stakeholders into ICTD projects, starting with the design and goals phase all the way to the metrics and evaluation phase.

To what extent is ICT a means vs. and end?  What are its limits, let alone costs vs. benefits? The farmer may ultimately need fertilizer, water, etc., but information can help optimize her inputs. As an example pointed out by a participant at our first Workshop, given nearly all the top 10 risk factors for burdens of disease in developing regions are related to diet, sanitation, sex, indoor cooking, etc., educating and empowering the mother becomes a primary option for improving health in developing regions.  I am actively working on these questions, in part focusing on specific development domains.   

Selected specific research projects include:

  1. The use of speech recognition on (mobile) phones for semi-literate healthcare workers (Healthline).  Roni Rosenfeld, Jahazeb Sherwani, and I hypothesize there is a sweet spot between the literate (who have alternatives) and the completely illiterate (who may not have the demand) for such technologies.  

  2. Faheem Hussain and I have shown community radio is an extremely cost-effective mechanism for providing information to underserved communities.  The capital costs are very modest, and two-way communications are possible via dial-in by mobiles.  The challenges are often regulatory, where regulators have traditionally regulated radios in a controlling manner or treated them as commercial cash-cows.  

  3. Drawing parallels to other policy problems, Eswaran Subrahmanian and I have postulated that ICTD might be a Wicked Problem - one that is so severely over-constrained (or under-constrained) that traditional engineering optimizations and solutions will fail.  One doesn't know which constraints to relax (or add); the only solutions possible are iterative, and the problem formulation is the key.  

  4. Given the enormous amounts of data that are and could be created, new techniques for not only analyzing the data but developing policies may be necessary, viz., machine learning.  Development agencies like the World Bank extensively use tools like regressions, that apply linear (or transformed linear) fits to data.  What if the real world doesn't look like this, and is better examined through regression trees or neural nets?  E.g., why is Brazil lumped together into S. America for comparative analysis, when it has more in common with S. Africa than Uruguay (at least per water data that EPP graduate student Sean Green and we have examined)?

  5. Can computer games be a useful tool for teaching students, especially differently abled children? With this goal, Robotics Institute students Ling Xu and Vinitra Varadharajan created DeSIGN: An Intelligent Tutor for American Sign Language.  

  6. TechBridgeWorld is more than a project, it is CMU university-wide initiative on bridging global development through technology and partnerships.  In addition to courses, research, and outreach, a major component is student-driven projects.  Graduate students in many departments at CMU can undertake research on topics of technology and development have have this count towards their degree, a very unique system (V-Unit).  There are also opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to spend their summer doing ICTD consulting, implementation, and design (TCinGC).

Smart Metering

Electricity networks operate much as they did almost a century ago - the power flows where it's requested based on uncontrolled physics.  While newer technologies such as Flexible AC Transmission Systems (FACTS) allow it to be controlled, we don't even have granular measurements of power today.  Smart metering is the idea that every kilowatt-hour can be measured with arbitrary granularity, down to every consumer.  By moving beyond Time of Use pricing for electricity to real-time pricing, consumers can adapt their consumption to save money and also make the grid more robust.  

I have studied how the drivers for smart metering are different in developing than developed, focusing on peak management (avoiding all-too-common blackouts) and theft reduction instead of labor saving per se.  

A few key insights and questions:

  1. Today, the ingredients for a cost-effective solution (down to households) exists, but integrated solutions are not yet "off the shelf".  The bill of materials for such systems is low - design and standards, in particular open standards, may be key.  
  2. Saving 5% off the peak load can reduce generation costs by about 25%; more for regions experiencing shortfalls
  3. If the bulk of savings can come from only a minority of consumers, what designs are appropriate for the population at large? Are voluntary systems fair and efficient?  
  4. A remote connect/disconnect switch is important not merely for operation needs, but to allow emergency load control in a fair, granular level.  Today, load shedding is crude, at a feeder level.  In the future, with a smart, ICT-enabled system, all homes could receive a lifeline of, say, a few amps.  Traffic lights, schools, hospitals, etc. (or those willing to pay through their nose) could receive full power. 
  5. What are the appropriate stakeholders and how are they to be regulated
  6. Should the utility build its own telecommunications system? What reliability are they seeking? If the goal is auditing/accounting, delays are no problem.  If the goal is control, then can they rely on a third party? Cellular networks are nearly ubiquitous, but carriers can make more money off SMS (text) messages than discount bulk messages from utilities.  There is also the economic issue - at 5 minute readings, this is over 100,000 readings per node per year.  
  7. What is or isn't included in "the network?"  Is there a gateway system? Where is a logical boundary for the utility? They don't necessarily want to get into the home, but they want to enable smart appliances, distributed (renewable) generation, plug-in vehicles, etc.  Consider fridges - there is no reason the defrost cycle (essentially, a heater, consuming much more peak load than the compressor), ever turn on during peak periods?  Talking to manufacturers, in volume, the incremental cost of a communications chip per fridge might be as little as a few dollars.  
  8. How are consumer rights and privacy to be met?  An experimental project at CMU on "extreme metering" (sampling many times per second) shows that complete appliance-level identification is possible! 
  9. To what extent are solutions scalable, upgradeable, and secure?  The worst-case scenario would be if a hacker can turn on a stove.  Security is, in fact, a major reason for bi-directional communications instead of merely metering (billing) uploads.  

I am on the Technology Advisory Board for a leading California utility's Advanced Metering project, a project that was judged by its peers as the best in the US.  Through CSTEP, I have been invited by the Govt. of India to jointly create an updated report on IT for the Power Sector.

Energy and Power for Developing Regions

Similar to but perhaps worse than the digital divide is the global energy divide.  It's worse because the costs of providing services is much higher than for ICT (mobiles, anyone?), and also because there are global challenges of availability and the environment.  

Much of my work has focused on India, a booming economy constrained by its lack of electricity and other infrastructure.  There are more people lacking electricity in S. Asia than in Africa!  

Pundits often talk of "India and China" as being to blame for high oil prices, food price spikes, etc.  There is no such thing as "India and China."  The latter has added electric capacity at over 100,000 MW/year, while India is well below an order of magnitude that growth. China now provides electricity to some 97+% of households, while in India the majority of rural homes lack electricity.  India has been unable to grow energy services even without added constraints of carbon.  Asking it to comply with restrictions will likely fail.  China may comply due to air pollution concerns - India needs technologies, finance, and assistance to meet its growth targets.  

Details on specific topics:

  1. Anshu Bharadwaj and I have been engaged in the analysis of biomass for power and energy (liquid fuels).  Conversion of biomass solids to electricity via gasification is a somewhat proven technology (we set up a pilot plant in rural Karnataka), but the issues are of scale and finance.  Farmers often get electricity for (nearly) free, and its really hard to compete with free.  One idea is to consider gasification for cooking plus electricity - the former would displace the highly indoor polluting solid cookstoves that lead to significant health issues in developing regions. 

    Converting biomass to liquid fuels is possible, but the challenges are more than economic ($140/barrel oil makes many alternatives competitive).  Land is very limited, and there can be detrimental impacts on food supply.  We found that just to create the tiny level of target blend for biodiesel envisaged by the government of India would require cultivating jatropha on an area bigger than the state of Tamil Nadu!  Dreams of marginal croplands, fallow lands, alongsides of railway tracks may be wishful thinking because of the high supply-chain costs.  In addition, jatropha on dry land does grow, but the yield is lower.  Similarly, for ethanol, until cellulosic technologies mature, use of sugars will be market-constrained, and, more than that, in scale this will require enormous land, water, etc.  In contrast, just 4 large SASOL style coal-to-liquid plants would produce enough diesel for a 20% blend in the coming decades.  Of course, India's coal is also constrained, and there are environmental penalties, but this highlights the need for integrated, life-cycle assessments of technologies, which we are working on during the coming years.

  2. Nuclear power was never out of vogue in India (and is resurgant in the US), but India's program has had a modest impact on total power (~2% of capacity).  Previously, I had shown that the 3-Phase Nuclear Program as envisaged by India, reliant on fast breeder reactors, would not grow capacity nearly as fast as hoped.  Instead, what may make sense, and currently being pursued, is international collaboration for traditional nuclear power plants, perhaps lightwater reactor design, using imported fuel (India has limited domestic Uranium).  

Past (and Ongoing) Research

Old research never dies - it just needs updating! These are areas I don't spend as much time on these topics as before, but try to keep updated or incorporated into newer analysis.

  1. Natural gas is a clean, versitile fuel, but its distribution is regionally skewed. Unlike oil, there is limited global market given the need for dedicated pipelines or special liquefaction facilities.  I calculated the costs and security measures for importing natural gas from West or Central Asia, overland (i.e,. through Pakistan), showing it made economic and strategic sense for both countries.  This work helped seed the proposed real-world pipeline being negotiated today.  I also did extensive briefings and analysis notes on this topic for government officials and decision-makers.

  2. It's easier to find out what's wrong with electricity pricing and regulation than what's right.  India's electricity two-part tariff was flawed because it gave the likelihood for additional profits to generators without giving them any of the risk.  I suggested some changes to the statutes, including pricing gas on actuals than nominal norms.  Electricity pricing is still contentious, but one needs a balance of incentivizing producers and keeping costs low for consumers.  India operates mostly on costs-plus models, so getting it right is especially important.  Of course, a market would only work when it's a true, competitive market! 

  3. Electricity reform in developing regions hasn't gone as planned (unbundling and privatization), as per the so-called World Bank model.  A major team effort headed by PESD, Stanford University, showed that this wasn't merely because countries didn't follow the textbook model correctly - the model itself was flawed due to a poor understanding of hybrid firms, ones combining public and private attributes.  In my chapter on the Political Economy of Power Sector Reform in India in The Political Economy and Institutions of Power Sector Reform in the Developing World, I showed how India's reforms were surprisingly similar to the experiences of other major developing countries, with some additional twists due to the federal and state nature of electricity in India.

  4. Security is a theme that has come up again and again, be it energy security, network security, or a nebulous human security.  Security is likely a relative term, and countries like India need not stress 100% indpendence as their goal when it comes to energy (or food) security.  It's too costly, and hurts penetration and equitable distribution.