The DAI Maker Lab

Recent years have seen the emergence of tools and approaches that are radically lowering barriers to designing and fabricating sophisticated electronic and mechanical hardware. More accessible microcontrollers are democratizing the design and implementation of embedded electronics. The current generation of digital fabrication tools enables affordable desktop factories that can produce precision parts in a variety of materials, without an overwhelming training burden. Collaborative workspaces provide access to tools and training to people without major up-front costs. Open source cultural and legal frameworks mean that innovators have access to cutting-edge approaches and techniques without building mountains of intellectual property on their own. These are powerful new tools for applying hardware to problems.

For developing countries, distant in every way from the traditional ecosystems for producing hardware, this is potentially transformative. The DAI Maker Lab uses these new tools and approaches to build hardware and build capacities around hardware in support of the projects we implement around the world. Some representative examples include:

Flood Early Warning for Cambodia

Working with a nongovernmental organization called People In Need under our Cambodia Development Innovations project, the DAI Maker Lab designed a sonar stream gauge called Tepmachcha for flood detection in vulnerable areas. This $300 device triggers People In Need’s interactive voice response (IVR) system to send warning calls to thousands of downstream users within minutes of detecting a flood condition. Because few phones feature adequate Khmer language support, this audio warning call is effective where SMS warnings would fall short. This idiosyncratic local need was far too niche to be met by commercial manufacturers, but the DAI Maker Lab was able to work with People In Need to design a device that worked with the API of its RapidPro IVR system and to train its staff to build, maintain, and extend the design. With a further grant from the Development Innovations project, People In Need has since built nine more units to extend the flood warning network across the country.

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Empowering Water Utilities—and Local Entrepreneurs—in Indonesia

The Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IUWASH) Plus project works with small water utilities to build their technical and administrative capacities to provide quality service. Real-time data about parameters such as water pressure can be a powerful tool for utilities to operate their distribution networks more effectively, but commercial hardware is too expensive for most Indonesian utilities, and local support is unavailable. With the support of IUWASH Plus and the DAI Maker Lab, Jakarta makerspace Makedonia is working with local innovators to engage utilities in a user-centered design process around water pressure telemetry hardware. Once testing and iterative prototyping yields a final design, IUWASH Plus will issue the first commercial contracts for deploying the units. Rather than procuring expensive and unsustainable commercial hardware, the project will create a local private sector ecosystem that can meet the need with locally appropriate devices.

Building Skills and Industries in El Salvador

It is a familiar problem: Graduates of vocational institutions struggle to find jobs, while industry has unfilled vacancies because the skills they need are in short supply in the local workforce. Part of the problem is that technology moves fast in a global marketplace, and what industry demands a year from now could be quite different from what it needs today. How can vocational institutions equip workforces with skills that industry does not even know it wants yet?

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The DAI Maker Lab is supporting an innovative initiative under the Puentes para el Empleo (“Bridges to Employment”) project to address this need: the Puentes Makerspace Platform. Puentes is funding two makerspaces, or collaborative workspaces where youth can access tools and training in an open-ended, youth-led environment in vocational and community institutions. These makerspaces will serve as platforms for small teams of youth to participate in industry-sponsored competitions to demonstrate skills demanded by local enterprises. With their physical work product as credential, these teams will be able to build and demonstrate their technical skills in areas like 3D-computer-aided design and digital manufacturing for rapid prototyping, as well as soft skills in areas like presentation and teamwork, directly to employers.

To keep in touch with the DAI Maker Lab, follow us here in this space, on Twitter at @DAI_Maker_Lab, or by contacting us at [email protected].

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