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Do Aid Projects Work? Tiny Sensors Will Now Let Us Know In Real Time

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 monitor their effects as they happen.

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).

"The sensors help us answer two questions: Does the technology work, and do people use it?" says Thomas on the Portland State website. "Most international development projects rely on costly in-person spot checks, making it difficult to collect enough reliable data to prove a project’s success."

SWEETLab is deploying latrine monitors to record door openings and motion, fire sensors to detect gas emissions and thermal efficiency and microbial water filters that ensure water stays safe. Each sensor is powered by a few AA batteries for up to a year. Mobile phone or WiFi signals send data to a web-based platform where the results can be analyzed and fed back into any programs or educational efforts on the ground. Portland State engineering students are analyzing the data.

Although SWEETLab is deploying to Africa next year, its first client was MercyCorps who outfitted the sensors on latrines in Indonesia. A third generation of the sensors are now being installed to iron out bugs in relaying data and extending battery life.

"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."

The sensors track the use of latrines and hand-washing stations, allowing MercyCorp to see how its efforts translate into results and see why some interventions work better than others, all while avoiding the skewed observations collected in human surveys.

"The vision is that the technology enables us to have better data that we can use to analyze behavior, change practices, and inform our program approaches."