Inside data strategies to build capacity and fill gaps

How can the internet of things help vulnerable people in lower-income countries? Photo by: Freddy Feruzi / USAID Land / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — The internet of things has the potential to help monitor and manage issues supporting the most vulnerable people in lower-income countries, building data that can lead to sustainable outcomes. Is it is an area Coffey International Development is hoping to support countries in developing, Richard Volk and Kai Wanner from Coffey told Devex.

Volk, a former 20 year veteran of the U.S. Agency for International Development in fisheries management, said that data is not being shared equally — and using off the shelf sensors connected to networks consisting of computers, mobile phones, radio communications, or satellites, they can build the data that vulnerable communities tell them is required.

“I just finished 20 years at USAID — I can tell from that side of the table that environmental issues in general don’t stack up against human health issues and priorities, or economic growth issues for donor investment.”

— Richard Volk, Coffey International Development

“We’re all interested in climate adaptation and improved resilience for communities around the world,” Volk said. “There’s urgency in that. But there are two broad paths of adaptation — planned adaptation, and autonomous or spontaneous adaptation.”

Planned adaptation, he said, starts with trying to get governments to understand the urgency and providing them with data and information to improve their policies, laws, institutions, and capacity — which will filter down improved land use policies and resilience.

“But we all know that takes a long time — so how do you match that up with the urgency part? There are a whole lot of people who don’t see their government — they are the last mile, the people off the grid who depend most on natural resources.”

Autonomous or spontaneous adaptation sees people adjust to changing conditions.

“But things are now changing very, very quickly,” Volk said. “We are also hearing that Indigenous knowledge is something that can’t be relied on anymore because the environment is changing so quickly that the same environmental cues that existed for thousands of years no longer exists.”

The urgency means more support is required to make inroads, Volk said, and support communities who are off the grid — including the Pacific in particular — to have access to the same valuable information as everyone else.

And to get there, he believed the IoT is the best available tool.

How IoT can build data capability

Computers, mobile phones, radio communications, and satellites are all the ways of connecting the IoT with sensors that can help monitor conditions — including environmental conditions.

“Anything you think of that can be measured — physical, biological, or other including air quality, soil quality, and wildlife — can be monitored with a sensor,” Wanner said.

These ground monitoring devices can help fill in gaps or improve data collected by satellites, Volk said, adding that it is a trend that has been growing in the development space over the past three years to better identify community needs and monitor changing conditions.

“Before that, it was a tool for the private sector,” he said. “And they have really advanced it. The private sector are already well ahead of us with precision agriculture and we can even see Amazon monitoring products and delivery.”

That potential is yet to be reached in the public sector, Volk believes, because of lack of awareness and clear objectives. In designing solutions using the internet of things, it has to be fit for purpose. And that means ensuring the people it will help are part of the design and collaboration process.

“But the first step is understanding what we are talking about — because not all people have heard of the IoT.”

What about the collaboration process?

Despite not having a budget, Coffey is working on mapping out the process of building data capability through an IoT ecosystem.

“What we’re working on is a two-tier process,” Volk explained. “At one level ... consultations with governments, and with technology organizations such as CSIRO to discuss the architecture. And then we can invite in user groups who are most involved in natural resource management issues at the national level. We would then ask what are the issues, what are the gaps, what are the wants and needs to have,” Volk said.

And based on that, they can develop an ecosystem that is fit for purpose — managed through a local NGO who is on the ground 24/7 to own the innovation, help implement it, and operate and maintain the technology.

“It is centered around users to begin with,” Volk said. “We have no preconceived idea of where we would start and what issues — it needs to be driven by the user.”

But there is an expectation that they would be aiming to tackle simpler environmental challenges in the first instance that can be managed by off-the-shelf sensors, rather than complex maritime solutions.

“For many things in the marine area, the IoT may be too complex a solution,” Wanner said.

Building the case for investment

Building the case for investment and collaboration is now a priority in helping Coffey achieve this objective — but both Volk and Wanner acknowledge that it will be a challenge.

“I just finished 20 years at USAID — I can tell from that side of the table that environmental issues in general don’t stack up against human health issues and priorities, or economic growth issues for donor investment,” Volk said.

But most donors, he believes, will be receptive to analysis that shows direct benefit to socio-economics and human health through networks such as this. Showing benefit beyond simply the environment to be inclusive of multiple development goals — including resilience — is key, he said.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.