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How IoT keeps water flowing in rural communities

Non-profit organisation Charity: water has built an internet-of-things device packed with sensors to keep wells in remote parts of Africa and Asia flowing with clean water

With rural communities in remote parts of Asia and Africa relying primarily on groundwater for survival, the maintenance of wells can have a huge impact on their lives and livelihoods.

On average, wells are being pumped five million times a year, or 13,698 times a day, making breakdowns inevitable. While some local communities have been trained to make simple repairs to their own water projects, more complex issues can be difficult to fix.

Charity: water, a non-profit organisation in New York with a mission to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries, has responded to the challenge with an internet of things (IoT) device that detects if and when the hand pump of a well might break down.

Comprising eight capacitive sensors that measure water flow and a magnetometer that measures each stroke of the pump handle, the $250 device can measure how efficient the hand pump is in pumping water.

Using a predictive algorithm, the device will monitor the efficiency of a hand pump over time and predict when it might break. This could trigger repairs to be made by local mechanics before and when it becomes faulty.

All data collected by the device, including temperature, humidity and GPS data about its location, is processed before being transmitted through the local 3G network to a cloud-based platform hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). The data is transmitted once a week to conserve battery power, or more often if there are irregularities in water flow.

On AWS, the data is ingested and enriched with other data such as the demographics of the community before it is analysed. Analytics reports are sent to mechanics and government officials daily and weekly, along with raw data for those who would like to do more analysis.

Christoph Gorder, chief global water officer at charity: water, said developing the device, which has been deployed in countries including Ethiopia where the organisation is running its biggest pilot programme, was enormously challenging.

“It’s really hard to make an original IoT device truly at scale,” Gorder told Computer Weekly from New York. “The biggest challenge was that this particular device is in its own category and there is no industry we can go to where there’s a lot of experience in doing this.

“If you want to build handsets, there’s a whole ecosystem of companies that will test them for you and give you different specifications on how they should be built, but in our case, we had nothing to go with,” he added.

Gorder said most of the challenges were related to the requirement for the device’s battery to last a decade. That meant the engineering team had to incorporate a slew of power-saving measures that control how often the device goes to sleep and how it transmits data.

“How the device manages itself in order for us to not have to change the battery really makes it quite a complex little device,” he said, adding that charity: water tapped the technical expertise of Twisthink, an innovation consulting firm and AWS partner, to overcome the challenges.

Moving forward, Gorder said data from the devices could be used to finance business models to keep clean water flowing in rural communities.

“We can have a contract with a local mechanic to take care of a particular well and create an incentive-based system where we will reward that mechanic for every 5,000 litres of clean water that flows through,” he said.

In such instances, the well’s device could transmit data to the cloud where smart contract technology could be used to send cryptocurrency payments automatically to a mechanic’s smartphone.

Gorder said this offers “serious business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, attract talent and drive private sector involvement in the maintenance of rural water systems in the developing world”.

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