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Do aid projects work? Tiny sensors will now let us know in real time

Indonesia, April 30, 2012

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Michael J. Coren

Fast Company
April, 2012

Companies and NGOs spend millions of dollars outfitting people in the developing world with technologies to improve their lives. But do those water filters or new toilets actually make a difference? Instead of waiting for a follow-up study, we can now mon

Failed aid projects are so common as to be routine. Yet projects where the impacts aren’t known are even more widespread. Did those new stoves really clean the air? Are the new toilets making the water safer to drink? Many times, these questions are left unanswered until a follow-up study years later, where the causal relationship can be hard to pinpoint. So researchers are now designing tiny sensors to monitor cookstoves, water filters, and other devices in the field, and sending back remote data so that these projects can be evaluated in real time.

For now, projects typically record individual successes or failures, but fail to capture the bigger-picture data that would shed light on why the bigger problems of poor sanitation, indoor air pollution, and other maladies persist despite project-level progress. With objective performance and usage data being logged several times a second over the course of years, government agencies and aid groups may now have a whole new view of their world, says Evan Thomas, an engineering professor at the Portland State SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory)....

..."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," writes Laura Bruno, Mercy Corps’s senior program officer for Southeast Asia by email. "We believe we will get more accurate and reliable information using the technology."