Water in the Cloud(s)

In case you struggle — as I do — to wrap your head around the concept of "the internet of things," here's a wonderful, accessible, and local example. A Portland company called SweetSense™ has developed a remote sensor monitoring system to improve delivery of drinking water in the developing world. In remote villages in Africa, where the only source of potable water is a community hand pump, pump breakdown is not just an annoyance, but a serious public health problem. 

A local startup that grew out of Portland State University's SweetLab™, SweetSense created an electronic sensing device about the size of a thick deli sandwich that can be installed on community water pumps in remote locations to automatically transmit information about the pump's functioning through the internet cloud.  When the pump stops working, that information is transmitted in real time to dispatch a technician who can fix it. The use of these sensors has dramatically improved water availability. In one study in rural Rwanda, before the installation of the sensors, an average of only 56% of the area's pumps were functional at any given time, with an average wait for repair of approximately 214 days — more than seven months! With the sensors, the average wait dropped to less than a month and the functionality rate jumped to 91%.

SweetSense was in the news recently when the Portland Business Journal reported that the company just received a two-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant will help the company continue to refine its technology and reduce the cost of its devices. The sensors can also be used to monitor many other devices in addition to water pumps, including boreholes, latrines, water filters, and even cook stoves. Although I can't say that I understand exactly how it all works, it seems that the Portland company has found a sweet spot in the internet of things.