Our mission is to improve transparency, accountability, and cost-effectiveness of remote water, energy, and infrastructure projects to improve health and quality of life.
We fix the Internet of Broken Things®
SweetSense Inc. is a spin-out, and partner, of Portland State University.
“Good mornings are better when your alarm clock talks to your coffee maker,” a recent ad campaign hints. Your day improves from there when your refrigerator reminds you to buy beer, your thermostat gets the house cozy before you get home, and your car guides you away from traffic jams. It’s a miracle we navigated these first world problems before the advent of the Internet of Things.
IOT, a market anticipated to reach around 25 billion connected devices by 2020, doesn’t have to be just about marginal quality of life improvements for suburban America. It can also help bring critical life saving services to rural Africa, Asia and other emerging economies.
While some worry about warm coffee and cold beer, billions of people in developing countries are preoccupied with finding clean drinking water, safe sanitation, and reliable energy from sources other than firewood and kerosene.
For instance, while the proportion of people with access to water and sanitation has crept up only slowly since 2000, access to cellular data networks has exploded. In Africa alone, the GSM Association estimates that 125 million people who lack access to safe drinking water have mobile coverage. Globally over a billion people within the reach of cellular networks have unsafe sanitation.
Adding electronic sensors, connected over the cellular networks to Internet databases available globally, can help draw attention to, and incentivize, fixing what we might call the Internet of Broken Things.
“The IoT and connected sensors are driving improvements to human wellbeing in healthcare, water, agriculture, natural resource management, resiliency to climate change and energy,” wrote the United Nations and CISCO Systems wrote in a recently published report, Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development.
Our team at SweetSense Inc. has conducted numerous studies since 2010 with our own IOT platform within public health interventions. Our results have influenced the design of these interventions, and provided data to enable performance based incentives.
In one recent study in Bangladesh, for instance, our instruments demonstrated more than a 50 percent exaggeration of latrine use compared to household surveys. That result may enable funders and development engineers to rethink how they implement sanitation programs.
Or in another example, in 2014 we worked on a project to install about 200 sensors in rural water pumps in Rwanda. The purpose was to identify pumps that were broken in order to dispatch repair teams. According to a survey, before the sensors were installed some 44 percent of the area’s pumps were broken at any given time, and it took an average of about seven months to get a pump repaired. After the sensors were in place, the repair interval was reduced to just 26 days; consequently, only 9 percent of pumps were broken at a time.
We also evaluated whether awareness of sensors would impact household use of water filters or cookstoves in rural Rwanda. Turns out, there was a dramatic impact: a nearly 63 percent increase in the use of water filters in the first week, which declined slowly over the subsequent four weeks. On the one hand, that suggests that sensors might be a means to reinforce healthy behaviors. Yet it raises a host of issues for researchers. For instance, to accurately measure behavior, sensors may need to be hidden. And that could create privacy and ethical questions.
Such insights – and opportunities to respond and adjust to challenges in delivering poverty reduction services – are made possible thanks to the Internet of Things. FitBits for clean water filters may soon be coming to a charity near you.