A lab uses remote sensors to measure how well aid projects work

SWEETLab places sensors on latrines, cook stoves, and water filters in the developing world to better understand how they are being used.

Noor Khamis/Reuters/File
Women use cooking stoves in the sprawling Kibera slums in Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. A project at Portlant State University in Oregon is placing sensors on cook stoves, latrines, and water filters in the developing world to study how they are really being used.

International aid organizations are finding out if and how people are using their products thanks to tiny sensors developed by Portland State University’s SWEETLab.

A lack of reliable data makes it hard for aid organizations to know whether technologies actually improve the lives, health, and prosperity of people in communities around the world. But SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory) is looking to change that.

The lab has developed remote-sensing technology to monitor the use of development infrastructure, such as latrines, cook stoves, and water filters. The sensors send information about the frequency of use and behavior patterns back to partner organizations, such as Mercy Corps, The Gates Foundation, DelAgua, and Vestergaard Frandsen, said lab director Evan Thomas.

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The goal, Thomas says, is to “have better information about what’s going on in the field, because monitoring projects is usually based on somewhat unreliable [paper] surveys.” And, according to Thomas, "the sensors help us answer two questions: Does the product work, and do people use it?"

Thomas, a professor of engineering and faculty fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, is also the program director for DelAgua Health and Development Programs, a partner organization using the sensors on a large program in Rwanda. He sees the sensors as a way to better evaluate the effectiveness of aid projects and, by extension, donor dollars.

The project in Rwanda "demonstrates the potential to deploy and monitor international health programs like this on a very large scale," Thomas predicts.

The $50 million Rwanda project will distribute water filters and cook stoves to 600,000 homes throughout the country’s western province over the next year to improve clean water access and reduce the demand for wood fuel for cooking, according to Thomas. SWEETLab’s sensors will be installed on about 500 of the stoves and filters to monitor their use and tell DelAgua whether the products are being embraced by local residents.

The efforts in Rwanda are also unique because they use an innovative carbon-credit financing scheme to generate revenue and fund the scaling-up of future projects. Information about the use of the technologies can now be accurately recorded and sent back to DelAgua.

SWEETLab’s sensors are being used well beyond Rwanda, too. In Indonesia, SWEETLab's first partner, Mercy Corps, had been using spot surveys to determine whether people were using new latrines and hand-washing stations, Thomas told SmartPlanet. But only with remote data collection did Mercy Corps find that fewer people were using the hand-washing stations at night, and some people were just using them before prayer time.

"When the sensors are transmitting data, we’re getting what we hoped for: frequent data on the use of water and sanitation infrastructure in our target communities," Laura Bruno, Mercy Corps’ senior program officer for Southeast Asia, told Fast Company. Mercy Corps can use this information to adjust sanitation education programs.

Other SWEETLab partnerships include a project with the Gates Foundation that installed 60 sensors on sanitation stations in India, designed to assist in a study evaluating behavior change around open defecation, according to Thomas. Another partnership with Mercy Corps will put sensors on cook stoves in Haiti.

Data collected by the sensors is compiled by partner organizations, which use the information to understand the behavior patterns of people they serve and to assess and improve the effectiveness of their projects.

Each sensor is powered by five AA batteries, and “cell phone networks send data to a web-based platform, where the results directly inform any adjustments to the technology or educational efforts on the ground,” according to Portland State.

That’s much faster and more reliable than relying on costly surveys and spot checks, which can provide valuable qualitative information, but often fail to fully identify challenges to the success of projects.

Thomas is hopeful that outcomes of current projects will allow SWEETLab to continue to expand its partnerships and monitor the effectiveness of more aid projects through remote-access data.

More accurate information about how well aid projects are working will let organizations tweak their approaches to better meet local needs.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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