IoT Measuring The True Impact Of International Development

Developing aid programmes with the Internet of Things

In 1970, the UN set a target for developed countries to donate 0.7 per cent of their GDP in international aid. For the UK, this equated to £13.4bn in 2016, and could reach as much as £14.5bn by 2021. Whilst few would contest the value of donating funds to international development programmes, it is important for donors to know that their money is truly making a difference. However, with a large proportion of development projects situated in rural areas with poor connectivity, accurate feedback is often difficult to procure. This is where the Internet of Things (IoT) can come in very useful indeed.

The sweet sense of progress

It is undeniable that the aid sector has an accountability problem. In addition to the recent scandals involving high profile charities such as Oxfam and Save The Children, many international development agencies routinely fail to adequately report the impact of their work. One of the main reasons for this is a reliance upon the self reporting of progress – a practice which often uses sporadic and subjective data and can therefore skew perceptions of success.

Founded in 2012, SweetSense produces low cost sensors specifically designed for the development sector. Their aim is to objectively measure the impact of development programmes, by remotely monitoring interventions in domains such as water, sanitation, energy and infrastructure. By placing sensors on items such as hand pumps and cooking stoves, SweetSense can study the performance of these objects, as well as accurately reporting their use levels – thereby measuring the engagement of communities with aid programmes as a whole.

IoT saves the day

The integration of Internet of Things connectivity to development projects makes it theoretically possible for anyone – anywhere in the world – to visit a project’s website and see its results for themselves. This might involve looking into the use of water filters, the adoption of hand washing practices at sanitation points, or the improvement in indoor air quality levels from the use of cooking stoves rather than open fires. Such specific feedback improves communication with potential donors, giving them accurate information that funds are being well spent, and incentivising further donations. It also provides communities with concrete evidence that things are improving, motivating them to persist with changes.

IoT sensors are particularly effective in this kind of application as they do not affect the way in which a person uses an object. Self powered, battery powered, or solar powered sensors are merely attached to an item – without impeding its functionality in any way. They then use mobile, satellite or cloud connectivity to report on its use. This makes it easy to gather data on the impact of development strategies, offering a significant improvement on manual data collection methods.

Improving access to water

SweetSense has already seen significant benefits from the use of its IoT sensors in international aid programmes. A study in Rwanda from 2014 to 2015 saw the application of its sensors to water pumps in rural areas. IoT connected pumps were able to instantly alert technicians to any faults, resulting in a significant reduction in average repair times and improved provision of water supplies.

In a collaboration of similar impact, in 2015 SweetSense became a founding partner in a five year programme led by the Millennium Water Alliance to improve access to water in several counties in northern Kenya. The RAPID project seeks to expand water coverage for sanitation, livestock and agricultural purposes. It features the use of SweetSense IoT sensors on water pumps, water tanks and water distribution systems as part of a wider water strategy.

These examples demonstrate some of the many ways in which technology can be used for good. IoT sensors are inexpensive, versatile, and easy to distribute – providing much needed connectivity to rural areas which require development. The Internet of Things, together with other modern disruptive technologies, offers simple, effective solutions with the potential to transform lives. Businesses wanting to increase their social impact – please take note.

How else could the IoT be used in international development? Would increased monitoring of aid programmes encourage you to donate? Should we be wary of a world in which everything is connected? Share your thoughts and ideas.

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