A water filter in the SWEETLab. Photo by Joseph Thiebes.

SWEETLab deploys half million water filters in Rwanda

There are 783 million people in the world who lack access to clean drinking water, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and ­Cultural Organization. Water availability is projected to decrease while demand increases through 2050.

In January, Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory (SWEETLab) finished setting up nearly half a million filters and stoves in Rwanda, many of which contain new sensors that communicate their status over the Internet, ­according to SWEETLab Director and Portland State Mechanical & Materials ­Engineering Assistant ­Professor Evan Thomas.

“This is one of the first times that we’ve used sensors to actually measure health behavior in developing countries,” Thomas said. “In an environment where people don’t have clean running water, they don’t have sanitation, they don’t necessarily have paved roads, but there’s almost universal cell phone coverage.”

Five years ago, PSU founded SWEETLab, which now collaborates with many other universities around the world, like UC Berkeley, Texas A&M, Oregon Health & Science University and the London School of ­Hygiene and Tropical ­Medicine.

The lab is upgrading life-sustaining appliances like water filters and cook stoves in developing countries with sensors, wi-fi, cellular connectivity and GPS in order to measure the health behaviors of individuals in ­developing countries.

By monitoring the use and performance of these devices, SWEETLab closes a feedback loop with data. That data shows how well the gear works and how it correlates to human health in the region, according to Thomas.

“Our primary research is around using instrumentation to measure the effectiveness of health interventions,” he said. “We also deploy those health interventions ourselves.”

Thomas said the sensors can be tailored to the needs of a specific project. SWEETLab has worked with the Indian government to deploy water testing kits, for example, which provide information about water quality.

In Indonesia, SWEETLab partnered with Mercy Corps to put sensors on hand washing stations to find out when they were being used.

Data could be gathered by surveying people in the area, but this method can be prone to error or bias. Using sensor data, on the other hand, can lead to new insights into the way people use the gear, Thomas said.

At PSU, Thomas involves graduate and undergraduate students in his research.

“We’ve had [PSU] students in Rwanda, in Kenya, in Haiti. In the past few years we’ve had students in Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, all over the world, participating in the deployment of these projects,” Thomas said.

PSU Master’s of Electrical and Computer Engineering student Zdenek Zumr has been at SWEETLab since its founding, when he was pursuing his undergraduate degree at PSU. Zumr designs waterproof enclosures for the sensors and electronic circuits.

“It’s my job to figure out how to get these things to gather the data that we need, and do it safely, reliably, and also stay put,” he said.

Sarita Tellez, a recent graduate of PSU’s Master’s of Electrical Engineering Program, analyzes data from backpacks that are used to haul water. Sensors inside the backpack transmit the data, including their volume levels and distances traveled.

“My work is basically trying to make sense of the data that is coming from the sensors, to see how well the system works,” Tellez said.

Kwasi Boateng, a PSU Technology Management doctoral candidate, is originally from Ghana, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree. He specifically sought out the work that is being done at SWEETLab.

“When I saw there were projects in Africa, I naturally got interested,” Boateng said.

Thomas previously worked on life support systems for spacecrafts at NASA, and his work with SWEETLab is a natural continuation of
that work.

“We were concerned about: how do we provide clean air and clean water to astronauts on long-duration space flights? So on a technical level, there’s a close relation,” Thomas said.

SWEETLab has projects in 12 countries and collaborates with groups like the Gates Foundation, USAID and the UK Department for International Development, according to Thomas.

“In all cases, we are engineers, using engineering tools to help public health professionals do their job better,” he said.

More information is available at sweetdata.org.