Faster Energy Access Requires Better Data: This ‘Smart Platform’ Aims to Provide It
In 2015, the United Nation established Sustainable Development Goal 7, an ambitious goal to ensure that everyone would have access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. Yet 1.06 billion people lacked access to electricity in 2014, an improvement of only 2 million over 2012, while an additional 1 billion only have access to an unreliable grid. What’s more, 80 percent of the 1.2 billion without electricity access live in rural areas, where connections to the central grid are often economically prohibitive and can take many years to realize.
Despite broad agreement about the importance of power to human development, the critical nature of rural electrification, and the opportunities that distributed renewable energy (DRE) technologies present for accelerating energy access, most countries suffering from energy poverty have yet to truly mobilize the power of DRE. Power for All is a coalition of more than 200 DRE-focused organizations including companies, NGOs, banks, trade associations and research institutes alike, advocating that decentralized technologies are fundamental to filling this access gap.
DRE technologies such as solar home systems, mini-grids and a host of off-grid appliances can reach last-mile communities in a fraction of the time and at much lower costs than purely centralized grid extension approaches can achieve alone. As the first and only global advocacy campaign founded by energy access practitioners themselves to advance the role of DRE technologies, Power for All works with partners in key countries to increase awareness, drive behavior change and educate key stakeholders about best-practices for catalyzing local DRE markets.
The ‘Information-Use’ gap: So much data, so little time
Since our launch in 2014, we have worked in some of the least electrified countries in Africa, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. In the process, we’ve recognized that the lack of awareness about technological advances in DRE solutions and the scale of their impact provides a major impediment to strategic energy decision-making. Business-as-usual approaches are still entrenched due to lack of good data. While several well-known institutions are conducting important research on achieving universal access (including DRE), many reports and associated data sets don’t reach key audiences. In fact, a 2014 World Bank study found that nearly one-third of their policy reports have never been downloaded, and almost 40 percent of their reports have been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Every year the volume of data produced about energy access grows exponentially, and yet the sector still struggles to provide the right data, about the right people, at the right time.
A simple review of current and popular energy information portals shows that DRE is under-represented, even within the energy access space. So though important data exists and is continuing to be produced, there is no comprehensive, easy-to-use, up-to-date inventory of the current, critical facts in this quickly evolving sector. To address this looming “information use gap,” Power for All conceived and built the Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK). It’s a first-of-its-kind open-access platform built by a team of experts across Africa and America – some focused on technology, some on research – using creative ways to communicate established science. PEAK helps users draw meaningful insights about energy access from unwieldy volumes of data. While we absolutely acknowledge a sheer information gap, we also believe there is a lot of data that we do have access to, which as a community we are probably not using as effectively as we could. That’s the goal of PEAK– to help us truly make use of what we know as a sector.
PEAK: Integrating modern data management applications
New data sources can give us new insights, but only if they’re accompanied by the right mix of tools and processes for filtering, managing and analyzing their data. PEAK integrates a carefully selected portfolio of modern open-access applications that together facilitate the processing, sorting and cataloguing of relevant publicly available reports and data. PEAK is completely open-access and costs nothing to use.
Part of PEAK’s novelty is that it automatically aggregates the best publicly available research to create a specialized DRE library. It is embedded with a sector-specific search engine – a host of carefully selected terms to help you find the information you need more easily. It allows users to compare, contrast, layer and work with multiple data sources all at once, and also to interact with others by sharing this data and working together to analyze it.
What’s more, PEAK is smart – it uses state-of-the art web applications that allow for auto-recognition and auto-tagging of data, and smarter “semantic” searches. These smart functions make the platform intuitive and interactive, and we are currently building in new ways to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning innovations that help PEAK learn about user needs over time. Speaking of smarts: Our dedicated team of young researchers also synthesize data from PEAK into a series of short, sharp, ready-to-share fact sheets about a multitude of energy access themes, used by practitioners, investors and policy makers alike.
One example of how this unique combination of technology and research helps streamline access to high-quality facts is our compendium, Powering the Sustainable Development Goals. PEAK researchers synthesized findings from well over 40 datasets and reports, all stored in the platform, and turned them into quick two-page fact sheets for speed-dial access to the most up-to-date facts on how energy access directly affects each SDG. PEAK’s ability to combine different datasets also helps highlight shareable insights. For instance, simply mapping Nigerian health centers and utility infrastructure shows health centers are clustered tightly around the grid, suggesting that Nigerians living off-grid likely do not have access to either electricity or healthcare. PEAK makes this kind of map work extremely simple, allowing users to find helpful facts and evidence quickly. A number of other case studies can be found on the platform itself.
The future of energy access data sharing
We launched PEAK (beta) in August, complete with a webinar tutorial series. Over the last three months it has received over 22,000 visitors from 100 countries, including visitors from the United States, South Africa, Kenya, India and Nigeria. However, to truly crack the information-use gap, we want to continue to improve PEAK’s ability to transform data – and we want to do more to target the specific needs of different data user groups.
As excited as we are about PEAK’s successful launch, we are even more excited about its future development. Much like the data it aims to wrangle, PEAK is growing – and the feedback we get from users like you is informing our next steps. We look forward to exploring ways to make PEAK sleeker and smarter, by using artificial intelligence to identify and grab useful and relevant data from a wide array of sources – or by producing a low-bandwidth version of PEAK for users who, like us, work in areas with slow and/or intermittent internet. As PEAK evolves, we hope to keep addressing the sector’s need for actionable insights. And we are excited about the many ways that new combinations of technology can alter how we imagine, utilize and act on data for the acceleration of energy access. Join us to get involved.
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