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Fixing M&E with Sensors and the Internet of Things

By Guest Writer on March 11, 2016


Poverty reduction efforts in many developing countries often take the form of household water filters, community hand-driven water pumps, improved wood, charcoal or kerosene cookstoves, and pit latrines. Improving access to such services could benefit the billions who suffer from diarrheal disease and pneumonia, two of the leading causes of death for children under five globally.

However, there remains a significant gap between the stated goals of service providers and their deliverables measured over time. Present-day monitoring metrics of reliability and impact and associated incentives used by funding and implementers agencies are leading to discrepancies in the impact of these programs compared to their initial intent.

Remotely reporting instrumentation may help address weakness in measurement objectivity through interventions equipped with sensors that can provide more complete and impartial data in real time.

Field Use of Sensors and IoT is Here

An energetic group of technology entrepreneurs have embraced this premise. Among these:

  • In Kenya, M-Kopa leverages IoT to replace charity donations of solar lanterns with pay-as-you-go subscription services.
  • In Haiti, NexLeaf Analytics has ensured that cold chain integrity is maintained and monitored for critical vaccine deliveries.
  • Oxford University has dramatically improved water pump functionality while creating small water service providers.
  • Nano Ganesh provides remote control of micro irrigation pumps in India.
  • And a number of groups associated with the University of California at Berkeley use cookstove sensors and online analytics to study the behavior of households adopting (or not) improved cookstoves.

IoT Sensors Have Impact

Our team at SweetSense has conducted numerous studies since 2010 with our own IoT platform within public health interventions. Our results have influenced the design of these interventions, and provided data to enable performance based incentives.

  • Latrine Use: In one recent study in Bangladesh, our instruments demonstrated more than a 50 percent exaggeration of latrine use compared to household surveys. That result may enable funders and development engineers to rethink how they implement sanitation programs.
  • Water Pumps: In another example, in 2014 we worked on a project to install about 200 sensors in rural water pumps in Rwanda. The purpose was to identify pumps that were broken in order to dispatch repair teams. According to a survey, before the sensors were installed some 44 percent of the area’s pumps were broken at any given time, and it took an average of about seven months to get a pump repaired. After the sensors were in place, the repair interval was reduced to just 26 days; consequently, only 9 percent of pumps were broken at a time.
  • Water Filters: We also evaluated whether awareness of sensors would impact household use of water filters or cookstoves in rural Rwanda. Turns out, there was a dramatic impact: a nearly 63 percent increase in the use of water filters in the first week, which declined slowly over the subsequent four weeks. On the one hand, that suggests that sensors might be a means to reinforce healthy behaviors. Yet it raises a host of issues for researchers. For instance, to accurately measure behavior, sensors may need to be hidden. And that could create privacy and ethical questions.

Impact Requires More Than Just Technology

In order to improve the quality of poverty reduction interventions, our business incorporates pay-for-performance mechanisms incentivize the quality of services provided to communities.

Instead of the government and donor agencies paying to install water, sanitation and energy infrastructure, we work with funders and implementers to develop service incentives that align payments to performance measured by our sensors. In this way, we add value and reduce overall cost ineffectiveness.

Such insights – and opportunities to respond and adjust to challenges in delivering poverty reduction services – are made possible by sensors and the Internet of Things combined with flexibility in business practices to support real, long-lasting change.

By Evan Thomas, CEO of SweetSense Inc.


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