Decoding Design

Q&A: Evan Thomas on using remote sensing for more effective humanitarian aid systems

Posting in Aerospace

Thomas has devised systems for using sensors and carbon credits to improve the effectiveness and viability of providing life-support aid to the developing world.

Talking to Evan Thomas is a little intimidating. It’s not just because he earned a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering Sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder, or that he’s an assistant professor and faculty fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. Nor is it because he’s also an entrepreneur who used to work for NASA. It’s all that, plus the fact that he’s an adept businessperson who developed a means for using carbon credits to finance clean drinking water projects.

Also, he speaks very quickly.

So I tried to stay on my toes during our wide-ranging conversation, in which Thomas described some of the humanitarian projects he and his colleagues at the Sustainable Water Energy and Environment Technologies Laboratory, or SWEET Lab, have deployed around the world, and how and why remote sensing technology promises to make humanitarian aid more effective.

Next on his agenda: Bringing water filters and clean-burning cookstoves to 750,000 Rwandans, providing cleaner water and healthier homes while reducing household fuel consumption. By using a remote sensing platform SWEET Lab developed, Thomas will monitor and measure the use of these filters and stoves, thereby adding a means of ensuring and improving the effectiveness of the entire aid project.

SmartPlanet: Why add wireless sensors to otherwise simple, appropriate technology in the developing world? What's the problem you're trying to address?

Evan Thomas: The challenge is that there is a huge international development sector, with groups like Mercy Corp and major funders like The Gates Foundation and the World Bank -- it’s a big sector, involving billions of [US] dollars a year -- but right now the standard for reporting whether money is being effectively spent is through surveys. Someone goes out to the field and asks people about the water systems, sanitation systems, etc. Most organizations self-report their own surveys, and that opens up the possibility of courtesy bias.

So what the surveys end up providing is a bunch of debate and anecdotes that substitute for hard data. Measuring [utility] use with sensors isn’t novel, cities use instrumentation for this. We are trying to introduce that level of rigor, to better measure performance and use.

SP: But why wouldn’t the households that receive these aids, which promise to keep them healthier, use them?

ET: There are both technological and sociological reasons. The water filter might take too long, so it’s not as convenient to fill it up containers as they’re used to. They might find the new stove isn’t as pleasant to use because, maybe, the pots they used on their open fire – which is basically like having a campfire in your house – don’t fit.

SP: But since most cases of disease in Rwanda, where the life expectancy is under 50 years old, are linked to dirty water, and since the new cookstoves cut smoke inside the home and the need for wood by 50 percent, these tools could really improve public health. So how do the sensors work?

ET: The sensors on the cookstoves track emissions and a temperature profile. The sensor on the water filter measures how much water is put in, how much is put out, and how often they are cleaning the filter.

In both cases, the sensor logs the data right on the hardware and then periodically uploads the data to us via a GPRS cell network, and there’s 93 percent GPRS coverage in Rwanda. The devices are powered by 5 AA batteries, which last for up to a year. The sensor packages cost between $100 and $150.

SP: Manna Energy, of which you are executive vice president, is under contract with UK-based water-quality company Del Agua to design and deploy this program in Rwanda, under your leadership. How will the project be financed?

ET: Manna Energy is a social enterprise. We are based in Rwanda, I’ve been working in Rwanda for 8 years, and we partner with other organizations around the world.  For this Rwanda project, Del Aqua, a water quality company, funded Manna Energy to deploy the system. The Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority are also partnering. Also we earn carbon credits for the installations, which reduce wood burning. We [Manna] developed the first United Nations Clean Development Mechanism project for drinking water treatment in developing countries. We sell credits to many organizations, including energy companies, governments and banks.

SP: What results have you seen in other places where the sensors have been deployed to track usage of an aid project?

ET: We worked with Mercy Corps, which installed hand-washing stations in Indonesia hoping to change behavior, to train people to wash their hands after using latrines. Mercy Corps had been using surveys [to determine whether people were using the hand-washing stations]. Once we put the sensors in place we were able to highlight nuances. There is a higher correlation of not using [the stations] at night, and more people were using them during prayer time, for example. So then [with this knowledge] Mercy Corps was able to adjust [how it instructed people to use the stations].

Images: Courtesy of Portland State University and Evan Thomas

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure