One NMTF member, 2nd year MPA-DP student Catilin Rackish, wrote up a summary of a digital brownbag we did with mWater early in the semester. We are sharing it here and are always open to sharing your reactions/posts on our site! Thanks Caitlin, take it away…
NMTF Digital Brownbag: mWater
Developing countries often find it difficult to regularly monitor and collect reliable data on water quality because of barriers such as lack of basic infrastructure, poor access to both analytical facilities and sampling locations, limited availability of technical staff, and a shortage of time and finances. Traditional laboratory methods for water quality monitoring usually require expensive equipment like incubators and reliable electricity for refrigeration of reagents, and some tests can run hundreds of dollars per sample. Countries need simple, reliable, low-cost approaches to water-quality monitoring that are widely applicable and globally scalable. The mWater approach, which enables local communities and municipalities to test their own water quality using test kits that cost $3.00 per sample and a mobile phone application that tracks, records, and shares test results, is one potential solution and a prime example of how technology is shaping international development work.
The New Media Task Force launched their fall Digital Brownbag Series with a lecture given by mWater co-founders John and Annie Feighery. John, a former NASA engineer who specializes in water and sanitation, and his wife Annie, a behavioral scientist and technologist, combined their expertise to create mWater with the goal to improve water and sanitation in low resource communities. The Feighery’s took an hour over lunch to explain the mWater approach to interested students.
The test mWater uses for E. Coli and fecal coliforms has been used in the food industry for decades, but no one considered it applicable for water until recently. To take a sample, a drop of water is put on a piece of petrifilm paper. The sample is sealed in a clear bag for 18-24 hours, and incubated in a pouch worn under clothes. If dots and/or bubbles appear on the petrifilm it means E. Coli or coloriforms exists. After the incubation period is when the technology comes into play. The application takes a picture of the petrifilm is taken with the phone’s camera and then conducts a bacterial count to determine whether a threat exists. Users receive instant feedback and results are automatically uploaded to the cloud for remote monitoring and management. Each monitored water point with a unique identifier and a geo-point that can be viewed on a map online. Water points within a certain geographical radius can be by seen by users on their phone. If 3G or Wifi are not available, data is saved until services are available.
mWater recently completed a pilot in Mwanza, Tanzania funded by UN Habitat, and will soon begin a country-wide pilot in Rwanda in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. If mWater can demonstrate that its approach is a scientifically valid and cost-effective way to water quality, the Feighery’s believe that there will be no shortage of potential consumers. These include local utility companies, water organizations, development agencies, and both national and local governments. The United States is an untested market, but homes with private wells and travelers are also potential consumers.
mWater is still in the “bootstrapping phase,” the start-up term for the period when a firm has little money, but lots of ideas, and they use whatever resources they have to get their idea out. The Feigherys, however, are optimistic. Feighery said the free beta version of the app, released in August, already has 500 downloads even though test kits have yet to be made available.