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The Value of Data in the Field

“The purifiers aren’t working!” was the first thing the users in the Ugandan refugee settlement of Kyangwali told us when we got out of our truck.  My heart sank as my mind raced through possibilities. In partnership with World Vision in October 2014, we had distributed a handful of our Smart Solar Purifiers a week earlier, piloting a small batch before handing out dozens more for extended testing. I had taught the recipients to use the purifiers entirely through a translator, using a relatively ad-hoc script. None of the users spoke English, so I was relying on the combination of indirect verbal instructions and pictograms in our printed directions. Charlie teaching a small group in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement how to use Smart Solar Purifiers.

What could have happened? The users had seen the red light indicating in-progress, but never the green light indicating completion of the disinfection process. At a loss to even come up with follow-up questions to assess this problem, I instinctively fell back on our usage-tracking technology, for which this was the first live deployment. When I asked to see one of the purifiers and downloaded its usage data, I was at first confused to see that it had apparently been turned off (aborting a disinfection cycle) many times in just one week. The trend continued with a couple more purifiers, leaving me wondering if it was a glitch. Confused, I put faith in the data and asked, through my translator: “Did you turn it off? If so, why?”

“Yes,” everyone I asked said: “we turned it off when we put it away, and we put it away whenever the sun went down or it started raining.” In this forehead-slapping moment I realized what had happened: whenever I demonstrated the usage of a purifier, at the end I would turn it off and put it away. After this breakthrough, the fix was of course easy. I simply added two sentences to the instructions: “You must leave it on until you see the green light. If you turn it off, it starts over from the beginning.” The resultant “Ah-ha” responses needed no translation. A day later, I saw the first green blinking light – the user was so excited to be participating and to have used it correctly that he waited for me to stop by his house to show me.

Over the next few days, I went back to as many people as I could who’d received sample purifiers, to give them the two-sentence refinement to the usage instructions. I also handed out more samples, using the new instructions. The good news is that people continued to use the sample Smart Purifiers, and two weeks later the data – collected by a volunteer, after I’d left Uganda - showed that more than 60% of the samples were being correctly used to purify water. (Note: field studies show only 5-10% correct usage of other water purification solutions, so 60% is an amazingly good number!) Plus, 90% of the samples had seen attempted usage – some users hadn’t received the updated instructions but were still trying to purify water.

How long would it have taken me to diagnose the usage instruction miscommunication without electronic usage tracking? Just one of several initial users reported seeing the green light, but the usage data told me they had not: intentionally or not, they’d misreported their own usage. How would I have known, in the end, whether I’d successfully gotten people to use the purifiers, or just taught them what to say to elicit another smile from this strange and entertaining foreigner? Although I got on a plane thinking my field test had narrowly avoided complete failure, I realized, once I had the data, that we’d succeeded with a level of confidence that isn’t even possible for any other household water treatment solution.

Today, I clearly recognize the power of collecting accurate usage data in the field, and my co-founder and I constantly think about ways to empower our partners with better data. My initial dismay in Kyangwali has turned into a touchstone when discussing the power of accurate usage data: it’s indispensable for solving the challenges you didn’t even know existed.

Household Water Treatment is Needed Even When Nearby Water is Safe

Uganda-Water-SamplingDuring my field trip to Uganda this past October, a first step was to understand how people collect and use water, and find out where contaminated water is a problem. Besides watching, asking questions and taking pictures, I did some water quality testing of my own. I found that many wells were contaminated, and that people were who relied upon these wells were consuming unsafe water. This is a known problem, and one of my inspirations to work on our household water solution. However, what really surprised me was when I tested drinking water drawn from clean sources: I was surprised to find that water in households would often be contaminated, even when the water was drawn from a clean borehole well nearby. IMG_1185_WV-accessible-well-use

As I saw more of how people collected, transported, and distributed water, this became less surprising. People transport water in used jerrycans, and very few of the jerrycans I saw had lids—some even had other objects jammed in the opening to prevent water sloshing out. Asking more questions, I learned that cleaning jerrycans is a problem: one common method is to shake them with sand or pebbles inside. Unfortunately, this method creates scratches that then harbor more bacteria. Additionally, in this community soap is fairly hard to come by, making it nearly impossible to keep containers or hands clean.

The take-home lesson for me, as well as for the community members I showed water quality testing results, was that it’s safest to treat water just before drinking it to avoid many opportunities for contamination – even when the water source is uncontaminated. Uganda-Petrifilm-Results

Crisis in Nepal highlights need for low cost emergency drinking water

Our hearts go out to the people of Nepal. In addition to all the destruction, they are now also facing the disasters of disease that come from a lack of safe drinking water. Reports are emerging from Nepal that the aftermath of the earthquake could include disease epidemics. As a result of the disruption in sanitation services and drinking water supplies, water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases could spread rapidly, with few healthcare services available to contain and treat infected patients.

With municipal sewage and water supplies in unknown states of damage, drinking water is being provided by trucks, and emergency latrines are overflowing, driving people to open defecation. Unicef is providing family water kits that include purification tablets which will last for one month.

We are working as fast as we can to develop the next version of our Smart Solar Purifier and manufacture it at scale, and talking to partner aid organizations to see if it can be used to help the Nepalese people get safe drinking water.