Mobile tech could make a difference to Africa’s water

Many mobile apps are at best a small measure and convenience and at worst a mere gimmick. But mobile technology in Africa could be a genuine lifesaver.

Researchers at Oxford University have developed a system that will allow water hand pumps in rural areas to automatically report a fault when they break down.

The BBC reports that most breakdowns are relatively minor and can be fixed by a mechanic without having to take equipment away. The problem is that at the moment nothing is done until the pump stops working and users are able to report it to operators (often many miles away) before somebody is despatched to fix the problem.

The experiment will involve fitting sensors directly to the pump to measure water flow. These will detect changes that may indicate looming problems and then automatically send a report over the mobile network. The aim is that a mechanic will be able to fix a problem within 24 hours of detection, ideally before villagers lose access to water.

The technology uses an accelerometer attached to the pump handle, meaning it’s possible to fit it to any pump without dismantling it. In proof-of-concept lab testing, the researchers used a modified Wii remote control. With the concept being ple, most of the hard work involved figuring out the relationship between the movement of the pump and the amount of water produced, which can vary depending on the person using it.

As well as making repairs quicker, the system may provide useful data. As well as indicating which types of pumps are most likely to develop problems, the sensors will make it easier to get a good idea of how much water people in particular locations need, which could mean more efficient targeting of resources.

The trick will be figuring out the difference between people pumping more because water demand has increased (such as a dry spell) and because the pump is proving less productive. This may be particular beneficial in situations where each user notices the pump is sticking a little, but it isn’t yet problematic enough that anyone reports a problem.

The system takes advantage of the fact that mobile coverage (albeit at slow speeds) is relatively strong in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa: the researchers quote an estimate that more people have access to mobile phone networks than high-quality water supplies. Cheap and basic handsets have allowed many people to benefit from information services, for example with farmers using text message services to get information on weather forecasts or prevailing market prices for their goods.

A separate trial in Zambia will look at using a combination of solar power and kinetic power from the pump handle to power the sensors, rather than rely on batteries.

(Image credit: University of Ofxord)

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