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Smart technology in the developing world

The IT Girl
|Written By Sarah Dale-Harris
Smart technology in the developing world

I am all for technology as a means to an end — particularly if that end benefits the many as opposed to only the few — and innovation that contributes to the improvement of quality of life is unquestionably something we need more of, particularly if it improves the lives of people living in developing countries.

Researchers at Oxford University have developed a data transmitter that can be installed into the handle of a well pump which feeds information back to a data center so in the event a pump fails to perform, help can be more quickly dispatched to repair it. This technology is intended to support pumps in the developing world, and in particular, trials will be conducted in Kenya and Zambia.

I don’t know a lot about hand pumps, but I have spent a bit of time in developing countries and I can say that a well that produces potable water has a transformative impact on a community. Whether or not this device can “promise clean water in Africa” remains questionable in my mind but for those who know me, my mind is always open to being changed in the face of sufficiently compelling evidence.

Digging a bit deeper, as I understand it, a mobile data transmitter (Waterpoint Data Transmitter or WDT) could be built or retrofitted into the handle of a pump and is designed to measure the number of times the handle has moved as well as the estimated volume of water displaced. A text message containing data would be sent once per minute informing a central office on a regular basis so that if the flow of water is affected (or ceases) someone could be dispatched to go out and repair the pump. The goal is to be able to quickly identify the issue and keep repair times to within 24 hours. If these smart systems work out, their value may not only be in keeping much needed wells functional, but in the data they can generate.

Credit is certainly due to this team of researchers who is seeking to leverage existing technologies and networks to improve the functionality of water pumps in developing nations. Whilst these WDTs are being designed to be affordable, scalable, and maintainable, there are a number of challenges to be considered and I have a number of questions about this proposed “smart system.” In particular, the elements I struggle with include:

(a) A battery may be more valuable to the community if used elsewhere — can these devices be powered by solar energy or other means instead?

(b) The pumps in question are not likely to be uniform — can the WDT be fitted to any hand pump?

(c) Is there an impact on the technology in terms of environment, frequency of use, or quality of the pumping device?

(d) Is there no one who can repair the pumps locally?

(e) Are people so untrustworthy and is the situation generally, not only in rural communities, so political that they cannot be responsible for maintaining their own pumps?

(f) Would a (NGO or otherwise funded) program that supports regular local visits by equipped and empowered mechanics be an improvement if not sufficient?

(g) If the funds are available so that WDTs can be installed, monitored and maintained, could the money be more efficiently spent sufficiently training technicians/mechanics and equipping communities with parts and tools instead?

(h) Who would be covering the costs associated with WDT systems — technology (proprietary versus open source), infrastructure, maintenance, repairs, mechanics, travel, parts, and the like?

(i) Can those responsible for installing and maintaining the WDT systems be relied upon? Will they be locals, government officials, members of NGOs, representatives of the manufacturer(s)?

(j) At what point do you let go and allow a community to police and sort itself out once it has the tools it needs?

(k) Is anyone legally responsible with respect to the device?  It has to be said (this is a legal publication after all) and not facetiously at all — on the one hand we have the great advances that can be made to assist some of the world’s neediest people and on the other, we have infrastructure, business, technologies, data, liability, and the legalities that relate to each. Or maybe I’m just overthinking this. Occupational hazard I suppose. At the end of the day, I do believe the most important thing is to enable access to clean water.

I recently re-visited a remote community in Nicaragua where, through a Canadian charity, a group of us had funded and built a school the year before. What we found was that the government had, shortly after the school had been completed, dug the community a 300-foot-deep well. Where before there had been a shallow man-made well containing tepid water of questionable quality drawn by horses pulling a length of rope with a bucket on its end, there now stands a gleaming pumping station (complete with fencing, barbed wire, and a commemorative plaque) from which locals and people from neighbouring communities can draw fresh potable water.

I can tell you firsthand that clean water is a game changer. One can only hope that this well is something that can be maintained long term. Given the sophistication of the station in Monte Olivo, the value of metering such as WDT is not inconceivable. I’m not so sure about its efficacy when used with less sophisticated devices — yet.

More than anything else I find it very disturbing that so many people in the world have access to mobile devices and networks but not to clean drinking water. How is it that the cost of a mobile phone and its related services can be cheap enough in places like Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia where a person living on, say, $5 a day can afford such a luxury? Maybe I need to have a serious conversation with my local mobile services provider.

Can we successfully leverage advanced technologies in order to improve the quality and functionality of very basic technologies? Are there simply too many circumstantial issues to contend with to be able to maximize output and utility? Or can communities be educated and results demonstrated so as to sufficiently incentivize support to see technologies like WDT through to success? Sadly more often than not the greatest barriers are political, so I guess we’ll see. I’ll be looking for news about WDT with anticipation.