Tech Meets Social Need
In the busy ebb and flow of life in the fast lane, we often turn to technology that can make our lives easier and more enjoyable. Chances are, you don’t need to look far to find a device or solution that meets your needs—whether you’re navigating a new part of town, training for a marathon, or monitoring your business assets. Unfortunately, many of the world’s most vulnerable populations do not have this luxury. In fact, millions of global citizens live without sustainable income, access to healthcare, or the benefits of the digital age.
Poverty is nothing new, nor is the digital divide that separates systems and solutions from the people who could, theoretically, benefit from them the most. With so much innovation happening around us, it’s natural to look at technology in terms of “what can this do for me?” But what if the same technologies behind smartphones and smart meters could measure indoor air pollution or connect a physician with a patient in an outlying village?
Today more than ever innovative scientists, engineers, and corporate thought-leaders are harnessing the power and scalability of connected devices in order to bridge the digital divide and make a tangible impact in the developing world. Maybe it’s time to stop asking what technology can do for you, and ask what it can do for the world.
Whether you’re flambéing filet mignon on a stainless-steel stovetop or frying tortillas over three stones and an open flame, cooking is an essential part of every culture. Unfortunately, for many of the world’s poorest households it can also be deadly.
The WHO (World Health Organization) has ranked indoor air pollution from simple coal or biomass-burning stoves as one of the biggest environmental contributors to ill health, behind unsafe water and sanitation. Accepted estimates say half of the world’s population still relies on these types of fuel—including wood, dung, and crop residue—for heating and cooking. The result is often high levels of smoke inhalation from incomplete combustion, leading to more than 1.5 million premature deaths each year.
Smoke from biomass fuel contains thousands of tiny particles that settle deep in the lungs of the exposed, leaving them vulnerable to chronic respiratory diseases, pneumonia, bronchitis, and lung cancer. Those trying to live their lives in this dangerous environment suffer from stinging eyes, coughing, and allergy-like symptoms on a daily basis.
Women and children bear the brunt of this exposure because they spend the most time indoors and generally prepare the family meals. WHO estimates half of the victims of indoor air pollution are children under the age of five. Pregnant women are also at particular risk. Studies have shown this environment can lead to low birth weights and other pregnancy complications.
For years international, national, and local groups have attempted to address this issue by designing low-emissions stoves and deploying test programs in countries such as India, China, Guatemala, and Mexico. The goal is to develop improved stoves that will curb excess smoke production and minimize health effects; but this can’t happen unless the devices are accepted by the members of the community.
Up to now, efforts to silence this “killer in the kitchen” have not been as successful as they could be, because there is no way to efficiently gather stove-usage data on a large scale. Data is critical to the success of improved-stove programs because it demonstrates whether or not the low-emissions stoves are designed in a way that makes them easy to adopt.
A team at the UCB (University of California Berkeley) is developing a solution to provide this data and silence the culinary killer. The team, which is led by Professor Kirk Smith, director of Berkeley’s Global Health and Environment Program, and Ilse Ruiz-Mercado, a graduate student, is working on wireless SUMs (stove-use monitors) that collect and transmit info critical to the long-term success of stove intervention programs.
“Since the beginning it has been hard to know if people are using (the improved stoves) and if they like them,” says Ruiz-Mercado. “It has been hard to know whether the design is good or not in terms of the perception of the people, and whether it’s fulfilling (their) needs. Our project is basically motivated to answer the question: Are people using the stoves?”
Ruiz-Mercado says there are many reasons households do not adopt the improved stoves. Cultural factors such as peer pressure, and logistical barriers such as not understanding how to use the new stove, are common inhibitors. With adequate data, groups can work to overcome these challenges.
?The SUM devices enable the transmission of sensor data—such as temperature, heat, and current—to a reading device or remote server for usage verification. The concept won first prize in Vodafone Americas Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project last April. Since then, the UCB crew has begun using its grant to move forward on testing and development.
In the past, Smith says scores of graduate students or volunteers would be sent out to physically collect stove-use data. The volunteer would knock on the doors of test households and ask how often and for how long each woman used the new stove since the last visit.
“(This process) is fine when you’re working with 200 stoves,” says Smith. “But if you’re going to scale these improvements up as needed, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of stoves globally—150 million in India alone. You’re not going to send graduate students around to measure these things … what we need is some remote-sensing capabilities, and that’s using wireless (technology).”
Besides being impractical and expensive to gather data by hand, it is also inaccurate. Ruiz-Mercado says gathering data by knocking on people’s doors intrudes on their privacy and can modify their behavior, often resulting in skewed data. She says it’s not that people lie; they estimate, exaggerate, or guess, and that just doesn’t cut it for investors and researchers invested in the projects.
“The wireless SUMs are revolutionizing our ability to understand what’s going on (in these households),” says Smith. “Generally people do not get rid of their old, traditional stove, they keep it nearby. We need to know how much they actually use the new one and how much they continue to use the old one.”
The team is evaluating two potential approaches to collecting data from the wireless monitoring devices: handheld custom readers, similar to PDAs, and direct transmission to a remote database via cellphone network.
In the first scenario, a designated local would periodically walk through a village with a reader device, query SUMs within 100-300 ft., and wirelessly download the stove data. Rather than knocking on doors, the field worker in this scenario would gather information from outside, and would only be required to wait 5-10 seconds to lock the signal and complete the data transfer. Another step would then be necessary to get the data from the reader to a networked computer.
The second scenario would take out the middle man, allowing the SUMs to stream data to remote servers directly through cellphone towers. This scenario would be the least invasive for study participants, and would require the fewest field workers to maintain. However, Ruiz-Mercado says this scenario would require significantly more infrastructure, potentially increasing the cost of units and limiting the number of households that could participate.
No matter how it’s done, smart-monitoring capabilities will invite new ways of promoting improved stoves where they are needed most. In India for instance, a government-led effort called the National Biomass Cookstove Initiative is planning a system of “conditional cash