USAID Invests in Open-Source Mobile Tech for Water Sanitation Monitoring
23 August 2013
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)'s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) initiative just announced its investment in mWater. A non-profit tech startup, mWater has created an app for mobile phone users to instantly test and analyze water quality from local sources and share this information on their global, open-source water monitoring database.
Drinking contaminated water is one of the main causes of diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, worldwide. mWater's preliminary work testing over 100 water sources sources in Tanzania's second largest city, Mwanza -- one of the fastest growing urban centers in East Africa -- found fecal contamination in 90 percent of shallow-dug wells and springs. Many of these sources were only a short distance from safer-piped water kiosks. In a baseline survey, mWater found water users choose from up to three water sources each day. The organization believes that more information about the safety of water sources will encourage people to make safer water choices.
Right now, in Tanzania, more individuals have access to a mobile phone than a safe water source. mWater leverages this mobile technology and open data to simplify the work of water quality testing and allow people to easily find the safest water sources near them. mWater is helping the government of Mwanza acquire low-cost water tests. mWater's mobile app uses the onboard cameras on mobile phones to automatically detect colonies of coliform and E. coli bacteria that are grown on test plates from water samples. The water quality data that is collected is instantly analyzed and shared with local communities through a mapped database of water sources.
USAID's stage one funding will allow mWater and partners in Mwanza, Tanzania, to establish a supply chain for the test equipment used with the app, and implement the mobile-based water monitoring system. During the nine-month project, local health and utility workers will use mWater's flagship app and inexpensive water test ($5 USD/test kit) to test drinking water for contamination. This project will help nearly 90,000 people in two pilot wards to locate safe water and identify dangerous water sources.
The USAID investment has already produced results: today, mWater is announcing the public release of an upgraded version of the mobile app. The new version includes mobile surveys that can be used by community health workers to inspect the sanitary condition of a water source, update the functional status and add notes about the price or reliability of water. By the end of the USAID-funded project, mWater's big data approach will allow automated text messages to be sent to water users, suggesting safer sources nearby or providing instructions for disinfecting their drinking water.
To implement the project, mWater has built a strong partnership with the Mwanza Urban Sewerage and Water Authority and the Mwanza City Council, and plans to eventually scale the monitoring program nationwide. Because water leaks and theft represent the Mwanza water management authority's single biggest source of lost revenue, they will also save the city money by using the app and map to identify breaks, leaks and thefts.
By creating a market-based solution that can exist on its own, mWater is part of an emerging alternative to the charity-based, top-down model of "aid." When mWater begins new work in a country, they don't seek to establish a permanent presence. "Our goal is to leave. We want to put ourselves out of business. We want to create the capacity so that this can exist without us here," says CEO Annie Feighery.
As mWater expands its global database of information about contaminated water sources, anyone, anywhere in the world, can get information they need about water sources that might make them sick.