How can space technology have implications for international development? We invited mWater team member Amanda Sperber to share mWater’s amazing story and this case study on applying the work we do in space to improving life on Earth.
There’s a real way to take the experience and perspective gained from space exploration and apply it to development on earth.
When John Feighery, a co-founder of the NASA JSC chapter of Engineers Without Borders, was in El Salvador working to create a safe water source in the area, he was disturbed to note there was no capacity for monitoring the water after the source was created. Microbiology labs are not cheap to build.
At the time, John was the lead engineer for air and water monitoring on NASA’s International Space Station and was influenced by his wife Annie, a behavioral health scientist working in global health. They noted the striking similarities between Annie’s work in impoverished communities and his in space. As John saw in El Salvador, when it comes to water safety the extreme environments that define both outer space and very poor places are quite analogous. Both are far from microbiology labs and trained technicians. This means short of setting up (and then maintaining) a lab, there’s no way to regularly monitor the water. The remote water monitoring system that John had designed for ISS was ideal for monitoring water sources back on Earth.
Merging Annie’s work in global public health and John’s in sanitation, the couple founded mWater, dedicated to innovating open source technologies for water and sanitation in low resource communities.
In 2011 they teamed up with software engineer Clayton Grassick at the Random Hacks of Kindness Hackathon in Montreal. Unimpressed with the issues originally put forth for the weekend, Clayton searched the archives and came upon the petrifilm bacteria counting problem John proposed. Clayton won the Hackathon by making John and Annie’s idea a reality, writing the code for what would become mWater’s mobile phone app. Since them, using his twenty years of computer science experience, he has continued to develop the software conceived that weekend to produce the mWater client app. In the summer of 2012, the water test and app underwent a rigorous validation study in Mwanza, Tanzania funded by UN Habitat.
mWater demonstrates the immense opportunities in which technology can be harnessed to vastly impact development. Diarrhea and waterborne diseases including cholera and dysentery are an enormous cause of unnecessary suffering and mortality in the global south. According to the World Health Organization, waterborne diseases are the number of cause of death, with 3.4 million recorded in 2009. A United Nations commissioned assessment recorded that 4,000 children die each day from these preventable diseases caused by exposure to unsafe water. At the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, it was acknowledged that universal access to clean drinking water is a basic human right and added to the text of The Future We Want.
The mWater app is connected to a phone’s onboard camera, and users can take a picture of the test kit’s petrifilm plate. Within minutes it can be established if the water is safe to be used even to wash one’s hands, let alone to drink and use for cooking. The results are then uploaded to a cloud-based database, tagged on the mWater map. People that live in the area and who can access a smartphone or the Internet are able to check a water source’s quality. This allows them to find the safest water possible and doesn’t require a laboratory or even electricity. Water managers and donors are able to monitor a water source’s ongoing function from afar.
As Annie explains, this is game changing in two ways. First, she says, “a lot of times when people monitor a water source, the information gets lost in a paper trail.” Nothing is actually accomplished. Secondly, mWater allows users to track a water source’s safety over time. “mWater can create a longitudinal water monitoring system,” Annie says, “this is totally unprecedented.” She laughed and added, “We aspire to be the Yelp for water, a place for people to make informed water choices.” Both official and anecdotal inputs on the water source can be included.
mWater is an open source platform. The team thinks it’s unethical to study a person’s water source and not freely provide them with information. Clayton has created an open API that can be adapted for other challenges in low-resource regions. This December, mWater co-hosted the Global Sanitation Hackathon and the wining NYC team adapted mWater’s API to create a tracking system for open sewage flows.
mWater’s app launched in alpha this past August and in beta in December. In its alpha stage about 800 people worldwide downloaded it and began using mWater to record water quality results. The app is a free download on the Google Play Store for Androids and can be accessed on any smartphone platform through its browser. The team plans to offer a native iPhone app later this year. Right now the tool’s main users are academics and researchers and mWater is currently working with the Rwanda Ministry of Health and UN Habitat to pilot the app with health workers in Rwanda.
mWater is a wondrous example of the capacity of technology and the free-flow of data to tangibly impact public health.