“The most difficult challenge at this time is how to modernize our organization, adapting to changes of the 21st century. Technology outpaces our current thinking and people’s ideas outpace our way of working.” Ban Ki Moon.
Five million people die from diarrhea every year, and another five million die from pneumonia (Thomas “Technology”). One billion people drink dirty water, two billion do not have bathrooms, and three billion use campfires every day. Over one billion people are hungry, another one billion have less than one dollar, and three billion people have less than two dollars (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, and Pease 257). Fortunately, some groups are working to improve these individuals’ living conditions. After emailing the head of one such organization, I found out that he was in Rwanda, but I could meet with the lab’s design and production engineer.
On the third floor of the Engineering Building at Portland State University, two blue doors without handles confronted me. Silence rapidly became cacophonous in my ears as I looked around to see if I could ask anyone for help, but the white and gray hallway was deserted. I pushed the left door, but was met with what felt like a wall and the sound of metal banging on metal—the door was locked. After looking around again and being met with the same, depressing emptiness again, I timidly knocked on the door. A couple seconds passed, and I was about to go downstairs to doublecheck the room number when the door suddenly opened. My jaw dropped. My eyes had immediately been drawn to the scene behind the mysterious person who had opened the door. From what I could see, a two year old had entered a junkyard and literally thrown a temper tantrum. A huge, black table cluttered with seemingly random junk sat in the middle. Beyond that lay a collection of arbitrary structures that looked incomplete. The inability to figure out the components of the miscellany covering the table irked me. As my jaw closed, I focused on the person standing right in front of me. He was wearing a white and blue, plaid shirt. Looking up and down, I observed that he was not tall or short, at around five feet and ten inches, and was wearing blue jeans. Above his semibroad shoulders, his wellmaintained, quarterinch long, brown beard and relaxing smile sharply contrasted the clutter of the desk behind him and exuded a calmness that put me at ease. After ushering me in, the man informed me that he was my interviewee, Zdenek Zumr, the lab’s design and production engineer.
I tuned out his voice as my eyes refocused on the central table. I finally recognized that the junk randomly strewn all over the table consisted of colorful wires, coppergreen electric boards, Duracell AA batteries, a collection of screwdrivers, multiple welders, and random pieces of plastic. Looking around, I saw one black tabletop attached to each peach wall. Two computers with huge screens sat atop each side table, adding to the appearance that no technology, besides the computers, was fully put together. An unfathomable machine made primarily of glass was behind the main table, beyond which lay two structures that I subsequently learned were an oxygen concentrator being taken apart for parts and a hand pump on which prototypes are tested. The hole at the far right corner of the room was the doorway to the adjacent, smaller room, which looked similar to the main room. I later learned that undergraduate and graduate students usually work in this room—at the moment, a student was sitting at a desk, typing something into a laptop. Finally refocusing on Zumr, I realized he was giving me an overview of the organization.
The SWEETLab, which stands for the Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory, “develop[s] technologies and experiments in developing countries focused on improving the quality of environmental health projects” (Thomas “Journalism”). Meanwhile, the lab’s commercial alter ego, SWEETSense, provides the framework for largescale production and implementation of these devices. International aid organizations, working on projects such as installing hand pumps and water filters in third world nations, hire the company to implement these technologies, specifically “sensors [that] help … answer two questions: Does the product work, and do people use it?” (“Global Envision”).
“Our instruments pinpoint what could be done better,” Zumr informed me. “They allow organizations to adapt to the reality of the community’s usage.”
Development of third world countries “means different things to different people” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, and Pease 257), ranging from economic growth to human rights to sustainability. These three aspects of advancement, particularly the latter two, are interconnected—“the ability of humans to meet their basic needs should not deplete natural resources to the extent that those resources become unavailable for future generations” (257). Without sustainable development, the future generations would be unable to meet their basic needs. The severe lack of human rights in third world nations is portrayed through the extreme poverty conditions. Currently, “the country with the highest recorded infant mortality in the world is Sierra Leone, whose mortality rate is only 2 percent higher than the rate in the United States a century earlier—17 percent. Yet income per person in Sierra Leone has dipped as low as $404 in the recent past, or onetenth the level of the United States a century ago” (Kenny 11). Members of the “global aid system”, which consists of the United Nations, first world
nations’ governments, and other relief organizations, frequently visit third world countries to give assistance. As a whole, this system “supports some 15,000 donor missions in 54 recipient countries per year—and in some countries this amounts to over 20 official visits per week” (Ramalingam 3). To focus on sustainable progress, these organizations have recently started incorporating environmentallyfriendly devices into their advancement techniques. For instance, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development “was focused on green technology” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, and Pease 293). The dissemination of technology has improved the “quality of life” and reduced the “cost of living” in third world nations. In fact, the global aid system is now realizing that distributing such instruments improves the atrocious situations in these nations better than supporting their economic infrastructures (Kenny 1011). For instance, a device known as the tubewell, which is a well with tubes, was distributed around central and southern Africa to provide access to safe water. Although the lack of clean water had been a problem, the spread of this machine improved the situation. The peasants felt “freer to assert themselves politically” (Smith 155) due to this improvement, “creating a ‘virtuous circle’ of bottomup improvement” (155).
Despite this success in disseminating new devices, at times, “inappropriate technologies [were foisted] on unwilling recipients, with negligible or even negative impacts” (Kenny 194). Examples of such instruments include “seed[s] that fail in…intermittent rains” (194) or “solar stoves that cook during the day when people want hot food at night” (194). These innovations, while great in theory, are horrible in practice. These unsuccessful relief attempts are due to a myriad of reasons, all boiling down to a failure “to deal with nature and human society” (Ramalingam 249). As a result, conducting impact evaluations, which determine the effectiveness of development aid, are absolutely essential to save time and resources.
While there “has been substantial growth in donor support for impact evaluations in recent years” (Ravallion 32), unfortunately there is not nearly enough appraisal occurring. One of the primary reasons for the absence of abundant assessment is that “rigorous evaluations are rarely easy [since] … specialpurpose data collection and close supervision are typically required” (Ravallion 30). Most current appraisal techniques involve the presence of several experts, causing an exponential increase in the difficulties of evaluations. However, the SWEETLab has formulated a unique form of impact evaluation—a monitoring technology that assesses a relief technology, almost entirely removing the need for humans in the appraisal process. In this way, the lab reduces the resources required and possible errors in this process. Similar to how a recent shift in aid development was a novel focus on impact evaluation, the SWEETLab is spearheading an effort to use technology, rather than humans, to conduct these assessments.
Settling into his black, plastic chair with wheels, like the ones in my school’s science labs, Zumr adopted a fatherly tone to tell the lab’s creation story. The SWEETLab was founded just three years ago, in 2011, by Dr. Evan A. Thomas, who first travelled to Rwanda ten years ago as an undergraduate, where he was inspired to help individuals in poverty. Later on, while at NASA during graduate school, he worked on problems involving astronauts’ lives in space, Zumr informed me. Because there were, and still are, limited resources in space due to its harsh environment, Thomas had to use the available resources wisely. Mostly, he designed and tested water recycling systems in space ships, a process known as “vomit comet” (Thomas “Technology”). On the International Space Station, ninetythree percent of water is recycled every day, including urine and sweat. Every time an astronaut drinks coffee, he or she is drinking the same coffee his or her friend drank yesterday. This process of limiting waste is called “closing the loop” (Thomas “Technology”).
“After NASA ended the man on the moon mission, [Thomas] decided to apply his knowledge [about using resources wisely] that he gained in space to the ground,” Zumr said, getting excited. Thomas realized that an “open loop cycle” exists with giving assistance to developing countries. First the funding agencies, ranging from churches to UNICEF, give money to relief projects, like installing water filters or cookstoves, that are designed to have a positive impact on people in third world nations. However, the money only lasts a couple years, so when it runs out, the aid organizations leave, and the villages are left wondering what happened (Thomas “Technology”). As a result, Thomas wanted to close this loop, which he realized would require finding more advanced evaluation techniques and better funding methods.
He first founded a different company that worked on creating the actual water filtration systems, thereby gaining much needed experience. It was here that he conceived two key, new models: evaluation could be performed with devices that monitored the pumps’ functionality, while funding could be provided with the UN’s carbon credit system. With these two ideas in mind, he created the SWEETLab, which worked on the technical model, and SWEETSense, which utilized the financial model (Thomas “Technology”).
Bringing out a box that looked like a first aid kit, Zumr informed me that the lab initially built tools for water sterilization, like ultravioletlight sterilization kits, similar to what Thomas worked on at his original company. The lab then transitioned to its current work, Thomas’ evaluation model: “developing miniature instruments that monitor much larger machines designed to help villagers in the third world.” Since its transition, the lab has built sensors such as electricity conductivity meters, flow meters, water filtration system meters, and hand pump meters. The SWEETLab recently created sensors for four devices: cookstoves, water filters, hand pumps, and public bathrooms. On November 15, Zumr left to join Thomas in Rwanda for an entire year to implement a couple hundred of these sensors.
“All of the them have the same basic design,” Mr. Zumr informed me, while picking up a halfmade sensor. A palmsize housing structure, for which the lab members decide which material to use, encloses the rest of the components. The only piece outside of the housing unit is the antenna, which uploads data to the Internet, using cell phone signals, regularly. The source of these cell phone signals is a cell phone SIM card that the lab installs in the housing. The
uploading of the data is the most powerhungry process of the instrument–the power is provided by five AA batteries. Each instrument has its own individualized sensors and other additions that allow it to monitor the already existing device—“these [sensors] are the only distinguishing features of each instrument,” Zumr said. Lastly, a microprocessor controls all these individual components.
of the machine. As the usage increases, the impact of this technology increases. On the hand pump sensor, “there is an accelerometer to determine if there is any pumping action—if there is, the instrument will sense how much water is going through the pump,” Zumr told me. The SIM card on the device transmits this data via cell phone towers and the internet to the lab back in Portland, where the data is analyzed using a program developed by the lab. The output is a graphic similar to a speedometer: three sections—red, meaning ineffective, yellow, meaning somewhat effective, and green, meaning effective—and an arrow pointing to one. The lab sends this graphic, as well as any other requested data, to the relief organization.
“We also make our sensors as sustainable as possible,” Zumr started, giving me a warm, broad smile as he recounted an anecdote. He picked up what seemed to be a green and white mushroom from Mario Kart without the stem. “This was built by a student working on a project to make the hand pump sensor last longer.” In Rwandese villages, the children were so curious about the monitors that they were breaking the casing. As a result, this student was trying to make a sturdier case and “decided to add a bit of humor into the process by painting it like one of those mushrooms,” recalled Mr. Zumr.
The group not only has green technology, but sustainable business practices as well. The UN has an international carbon credit system, with which companies and governments can receive carbon credits for reducing the world’s carbon footprint—these credits can be converted into money. SWEETSense utilizes this system to keep designing and producing sensors: the devices reduce the carbon footprint, thereby gaining carbon credits, which allows the company to “cash in these credits” (Thomas “Technology”). The company then reinvests in the conception of new sensors and production of previous ones.
The combination of the lab and company has projects all over the world, from the Caribbean to Indonesia (see Figure 2), but most of its projects are based in Rwanda, which is the group’s international staging area. The lab is associated with a factory in Kigali, Rwanda, where many of the sensors are manufactured. Despite the 1994 genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and least corrupt countries in Africa, has the fastest GDP growth in the region, and has the fastest decline in child mortality in world (Thomas “Technology”). Unfortunately, pneumonia and diarrhea are still the leading causes of child death. To lower these death rates, the SWEETLab and Del Agua group invested sixty million dollars into distributing water filters and cookstoves, as well as the associated sensors, to the poorest twentyfive percent of households in Rwanda. The data the sensors sent out, informing the technicians that a filter or stove was not working, alone helped 500,000 families last year (Thomas “Technology”). After analyzing the data, the lab found that the villagers were constantly using the filters and cookstoves, demonstrating the effectiveness of these aid technologies. As a result, this year, the partners are planning to expand their reach to 2.5 million families by installing 200 sensors, each of which cost 500 dollars (Thomas “Technology”). These installations will help the technicians identify and fix the estimated thirty percent of pumps that break down in East Africa (“Rwanda”). Despite all the work it has done, this team continues to design new sensors and improve the old ones.
“There are still a billion people in the world without access to clean drinking water” (Thomas “Journalism”), and the lab and company are revolutionizing third world aid to fix that.
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