Turn on your sensors, development is about to go 'wearable'

A man wearing Google Glass. Communities of innovators are already looking for ways to harness the new technological revolution for social good. Photo by: Kārlis Dambrāns / CC BY

They range from the simple to the astounding, the familiar to the science fictional. Sensors are all around us, capturing information and turning it into something else: an electrical signal, the basis for a decision, a diagnosis, a warning.

Sensors are hardly a new technological phenomenon, but their portability and connectedness, their newfound capacity to feed the cloud of global information is set to revolutionize many of the tasks and challenges that define global development — and they could reshape the way we collect, share and use information about ourselves and our environments.

A sensor can be as simple as a thermometer, converting temperature changes into numbered mercury readings that help people understand and track their environmental conditions. Sensors can also detect and report on pressure, humidity, vibrations, blood glucose levels and a wide variety of other things that characterize the world, or worlds, that we live in, from the very small to the very large and everything in between.

And as Internet connectivity grants more and more locations, and more and more objects, the ability to “speak” with each other, systems that process information and use it for decision-making and service delivery will be fundamentally changed. Sensors are getting smaller, more portable, more sensitive and more pervasive.

The cutting-edge of sensor technology hasn’t arrived in global development yet. It’s about to, and communities of innovators are already looking for ways to harness the coming revolution for social good.

Wearables — beyond counting steps

Wearable technology is all the rave. The Apple Watch, the Fitbit, Google Glass and many others seek to transport sensor and computing power from the realm of labs and office spaces to the world of everyday fashion. These devices mostly appeal to people whose lives are already deeply intertwined with technology and are designed to make them even more so.

In many cases, wearables are luxurious upgrades that offer tech-savvy consumers greater portability and style than what is currently on the market — and they’ve raised plenty of concerns about a modern way of life that is increasingly invaded by technology and connectivity.

But there’s an important distinction between the underlying technology and the way it’s been applied so far. Just because wearable technology has found its early adoption in high-end consumer products doesn’t mean wearables and sensors can’t supplement more basic, fundamental services, like diagnosing deadly diseases, monitoring pregnant mothers’ health, tracking air quality and alerting people with “push notifications” or warning of an earthquake’s early vibrations.

Those are some of the ideas guiding a new technology development challenge convened by UNICEF — an organization many would be surprised to find at the vanguard of portable electronics — in partnership with the microprocessor company ARM and the design firm Frog. The “Wearables for Good” challenge just closed to applications, and in the coming months the partners will award $15,000 to two winning proposals for wearable and sensor products with social impact potential.

“There’s a lot of data on wearables, but not really as addressed in this space,” Blair Palmer, innovation lab lead at UNICEF, told Devex.

UNICEF’s interest in convening the challenge, Palmer said, was to “ask these questions and provoke the industry and people to think differently on a global level and not just have these things come out of Silicon Valley.”

“This needs to go beyond the Apple Watch, beyond the wrist, beyond this need for just fitness,” Palmer said, drawing a distinction between the “quantified self,” which describes a lifestyle saturated with numbers, to the “qualified self,” which puts those measurements to work in the pursuit of socially valued outcomes.

A system of interconnected sensors monitoring babies’ birth weights, for example, could provide valuable information, not just to individual mothers, but to the network of health workers that would be better informed to serve them.

Close to 1 billion more people are expected to come online by 2017, and UNICEF is taking note, Palmer said.

“How can you look at that next billion people and look beyond that to ... make the data more valuable? It’s beyond just steps,” she added.

Ebola — there’s an app for that

Most sensors are fairly simple devices. The wearables challenge seeks applications that can provide low-power, unintrusive, highly durable solutions in low-income settings, and many sensor technologies fit that bill.

But there is also a world of sensors emerging that stretches the limits of the imagination. These devices might look simple, but are the result of decades of cutting-edge research at the outer limit of human ingenuity. And according to those who wield them, these sensors, which are invisible, have the power to reshape the relationship between people and the services we depend on most.

Dr. Anita Goel, chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym, manipulates nanomachines, absurdly small robots that read and write DNA.

She and her team have “turned them on their heads” and exploited these tiny machines as nanosensors, capable of capturing and conveying information at very small time and spatial scales. One result of this research is the “Gene-RADAR,” a handheld device Nanobiosym developed. Gene-RADAR, which looks something like an iPad, can diagnose any disease in real time with the same “gold standard” accuracy as a machine that typically weighs several hundred pounds and at one-tenth of the price, Goel told Devex.

“What it represents is an ability to really push forth the decentralization of health care, by bringing next generation infrastructure, instead of the big heavy infrastructure of the past,” Goel told Devex.

If rolled out on a large scale, Gene-RADAR would replace a capability called quantitative polymerase chain reaction, which won the Nobel Prize in chemistry 22 years ago.

Goel’s mission is to break down the “very highly centralized paradigm” of health care, which requires patients to visit a hospital or a lab to access information about their own health.

She hopes Nanobiosym will do for health care what mobile phones did for communication and what Google has done for information: decentralize the infrastructure needed to access it.

“There are 4 billion people on the planet today who don’t have access to that centralized health care commodity,” Goel said. “I envision this as a global revolution.”

When the Ebola crisis threatened to overwhelm West Africa and touched off moments of panic in other parts of the world, the limitations of a centralized disease detection system became dangerously apparent.

“We’re working off antiquated technologies,” Goel said. “Even the best hospitals in America relied on a 400-year-old instrument called a thermometer [to diagnose Ebola symptoms].”

Goel believes that had a product like Gene-RADAR been available and deployed in affected countries during the Ebola crisis, allowing potentially infected people to be tested anywhere at any time, the pandemic might have been more quickly and easily thwarted.

Time to get in the game?

With new technological revolutions happening all around them, each promising to be the next great “disruption,” aid implementers frequently face a strategic question: does it pay to be an early adopter?

Should health and development implementers allow new technologies to develop — and succeed or fail — within the world’s innovation hubs and hope they gradually filter into donor-funded programs as they prove their worth? How proactive should development organizations be in taking hold of new technological applications, trying them out, and incorporating them into programming?

There is no definitive answer to these questions. They depend on an organization’s specific remit, goals and vision. But in anticipating the next technological revolution — or, at least, one of them — some general lessons about the broader development community’s ability to absorb new technological opportunities begin to emerge.

“Cutting across sectors and looking at what development outcomes could be [with] new ways of using this technology benefits everyone,” Palmer told Devex. “Even if we say, OK, this technology’s not appropriate. That’s OK too. But we have to seek to find out and encourage that innovation in development.”

The challenge, she added, was as valuable in surfacing new ideas from diverse parts of the world as it was for anything else.

While UNICEF and its partners will take the next few months to narrow down their applicants’ proposals to two eventual winners, Goel’s team already has a product in hand, literally. So what’s preventing the Gene-RADAR and other similar devices from rolling out to every health ministry in the world?

For Goel, it comes down to an “overall inertia” in the global system of health services delivery.

“I don’t think it’s any one person wanting it that way. I think if all the dots were connected it would be a no-brainer. Part of my experience is that the dots are not always connected,” she said, noting that innovators, aid deliverers and health ministers often operate in isolated silos.

Nanobiosym has enjoyed some early success in its efforts to bring tiny, DNA-sensing machines to the world of global health. The U.S. Agency for International Development included Nanobiosym among its Saving Lives at Birth grand challenge winners, and Gene-RADAR earned Goel a prestigious XPRIZE — along with half a million dollars.

The company is actively seeking partners in its effort to put Gene-RADAR and other nano-enabled technologies to work. The group held a symposium last year, with participants from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Novartis and the Harvard Business School.

“We were plotting how to revolutionize the health care system,” Goel explained, without a hint of hyperbole.

While development organizations might not be the quickest to adopt new technology, they can be instrumental in connecting emerging applications with possibilities for them to change people’s lives in significant ways, based on real knowledge about the problems that exist.

“Being able to share ideas from all parts of the world — that’s the revolution,” Palmer said.

To read additional content on innovation, go to Focus On: Innovation in partnership with Philips.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.