The 'internet of things' is narrowing the gap between data and action

Female farmers training on a GPS-equipped “smart tractor” that collects data and a cloud powered booking system that allows farmers to request and pay for services using SMS messaging and mobile money. Photo by: Jehiel Oliver / Hello Tractor / CC BY-NC-SA

One of the winners in the latest round of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations was a startup that builds low cost sensors to help farmers get more accurate weather data at a cheaper price point. Groundtruth, one example of an emerging class of “internet of things” — or IoT — companies, will combine satellite data with information gathered from ground sensors and mobile phones to measure rainfall and inform index insurance schemes.  

Expected to reach 25 billion connected devices by 2020, the IoT market has implications that extend far beyond tracking your steps, and it is just starting to realize its potential to address global poverty by helping the international development community narrow the gap between data and action.

“Adding electronic sensors, connected over the cellular networks to Internet databases available globally, can help draw attention to, and incentivize, fixing what we might call the ‘internet of broken things,’” said Evan Thomas, the Portland, Oregon-based director of SweetSense Inc., which developments and implements cellular based monitoring technologies for global health programs.

The group has installed more than 1,000 sensors in 15 countries on water pumps, latrines and hand-washing stations. These remote monitoring systems ensure that community partnerships deliver on their promises and raise the quality and accountability of those products and services.

“Big data and cloud based analysis tools are critical,” Thomas said. “But the data you’re analyzing has to come from somewhere — and our existing data sources, like surveys, academic studies and reports, are not as continuous or broadly comparable as having instrumentation installed around the world that let us actively respond to, and improve, services like water, sanitation and household energy.”

After SweetSense Inc. installed 200 sensors on rural water pumps in Rwanda, the percentage of broken pumps declined from 44 to 9 percent, and the time for repairs fell from 7 months to 26 days.

From farms to fridges

Sometimes the weakest link in a global health supply chain is also one of the most mundane: like a broken refrigerator. The Los Angeles startup Nexleaf Analytics has developed sensors that allow refrigerators to monitor themselves to ensure the safe storage of vaccines and send SMS alerts to nurses when they require maintenance.

“When fridges call for help, nurses really respond, and we’ve shown that you can actually dramatically decrease the damage to vaccines by putting these devices in fridges,” said Nithya Ramanathan, the president and cofounder of Nexleaf Analytics.

“We are drawing some very big conclusions around questions like what causes fridges to fail, how do we make sure they get the kind of maintenance they need, and how do we ensure that we keep these vaccines safe?”

The organization is expanding its portfolio from vaccine supply chains to clean cookstove adoption and water and sanitation access.

Agriculture is fertile ground for IoT innovation, says Jehiel Oliver, the founder and CEO of Hello Tractor, a Nigeria-based social enterprise that designed a “smart tractor” with a GPS satellite that collects data and a cloud powered booking system that allows farmers to request and pay for services using SMS messaging and mobile money.

On June 14, Jehiel Oliver will examine the changing face of global development at Devex World. Stay tuned for continuing coverage of Devex World and tune in for live coverage Tuesday on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

He explained how IoT can be leveraged to prevent assets from being misused through remote monitoring, keep machines in good working condition through sensor technologies, or maximize the value of assets through collaborative consumption.

“These benefits are infinitely valuable in the global development context where keeping an asset functioning in the market at an optimal level is often times mission critical for the project and the livelihoods depending on the project,” he told Devex.

The cost of broken things

A recent report from the Lemelson Foundation outlined ways that donors and investors, as well as the public and private sector, can support the hardware technology solutions needed to improve the lives of the poor. Donor support will be key to the success of new IoT companies in part because hardware startups face higher development costs and longer product development cycles than their software startup counterparts.

For IoT entrepreneurs, challenges range from the the cost of getting a “minimum viable product” to market, to the challenge of keeping the price of the product competitive without economies of scale.

“There's a perception among many that these technologies are already ‘off the shelf’ — and some of our customers wonder why their iPhone cost $300 and our sensor costs $500,” said Thomas of SweetSense Inc. “But, really, the iPhone cost billions and sells tens of millions — we cost millions and sell thousands.”

He called for implementers and funders to be mindful of the true cost of the broken things IoT innovations can help monitor and fix, from broken water pumps to inefficiently delivered services, as they consider how much they are willing to pay for these systems of connected devices.

“Better monitoring performance, and aligning performance incentives with actual impact, can dramatically improve on cost effectiveness and efficiency,” he said. “A $500 sensor on a water pump that enables a community, an implementer and a funder to demand and receive service pays for itself.”

“This is just starting to emerge where people who are coming from the startup world, who are steeped in the newest technology in machine learning and computer vision, are applying that knowledge to problems outside of San Francisco,” said Ralph Lin of GroundTruth, who has built his career around the combination of sensors, software and statistics.

What will be key, he said, is for people with technical backgrounds to understand that it might not always be as straightforward to users less familiar with technology how they can best leverage the data that comes from their investment in IoT technology.

“You have to start with the people who have the problem and get them on board from the very beginning, even before you start doing any kind of collection, and get them to ask the questions that drive your data collection,” he said.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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