Wirelessly connected sensors, actuators and other hardware have already changed global development work, and signs point to bigger changes to come. A new report by the UN International Telecommunication Union and Cisco Systems, called Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development, cites that there may be 25 billion networked devices worldwide by 2020, or as many as 50 billion if you count RFID tags.

It’s not a surprise that there will be a proliferation of sensors in the developing world, given that more people in those countries have access to 2G cellular network coverage than to basic services like electricity, sanitation and clean water. What is surprising is the creative variety of applications that are already deployed. Connected devices and big data analytics are monitoring farms, wildlife, air pollution, stove usage, movements of populations during disasters, epidemics and even trends in people’s moods through the words they use in tweets. The increasing ubiquity of sensors has its down side, of course. Increased monitoring has the potential to threaten privacy and safety, which the report addresses.

The Internet of Things could help meet nearly all of the Sustainable Development Goals

Houlin Zhao ITU Secretary-General writes in an introduction to the report that there are trade-offs implicit in the technology. ”For example, gaps between technical security and users’ perceptions of security and trust, or the detailed information yielded by geo-localization technologies,” Zhao writes. “Moreover, the purpose for which technology and applications are developed does not always end up as the sole — or even major — purpose for which they are actually used.”

With that caution in mind, the technology is progressing in interesting ways. Building sensors and developing new applications for them is not expensive. A full sensor suite could cost $250 while single sensors could cost less than $50, the report explains. The field is primed for hobbyists and budget-conscious start-ups looking to prototype their ideas. And businesses, academic and international organizations have put the technology to use. The Internet of Things could help meet nearly all of the Sustainable Development Goals, according to the report.

These are some of the useful ways that the Internet of Things is improving international development work.

Health

In India, Nexleaf monitors the temperature of vaccines during transport to rural clinics. A thermometer device uploads data to the cloud in near real-time via GPRS or SMS. A server then sends updates and warnings when the temperature hits certain thresholds.

Water

In Bangladesh, a team at the Robotic Embedded Systems Laboratory of the University of Southern California tested a network of 48 manual arsenic biosensors to monitor water quality.

In India, Sarvajal provides clean water to rural areas and monitors the water quality and quantity remotely.

In Kenya, a team from Oxford University affixed basic accelerometers (similar to those found in a mobile phone) to water pump handles to monitor usage. The team developed a transmitter that fits into the pump handle that delivers data via SMS.

In Rwanda, Portland State University’s SWEETLab monitors pump performance and water flow, sending alerts by SMS and email. SWEETSense sensors, as they are called, have been used in an array of projects including water pumps in Kenya; cookstoves in India, latrine monitoring in Bangladesh and water filters for hand-washing stations in Indonesia.

Farming

In rural Karnataka, the COMMONSense Net measures temperature, humidity, light, and barometric pressure in an area of two acres area. Soil moisture has been measured with a special probe since April 2005. 14 Data from the sensors are visualized on the project’s website for real-time monitoring.

Syngenta has deployed connected micro-weather stations through its Kilimo Salama (“Safe Farming”) project. The stations monitor temperature and moisture in the air and soil, solar radiation, wind speed, air pressure and other factors. The stations then transmit information to insurance firms, which plug it into digital models that estimate losses after weather events. The insurance firms make mobile payments to the farmers based on the models, automating and speeding the claims process.

In India 20,000 smallholder farmers use Nano Ganesh, a feature-phone (2G) operated unit that attaches to the pump for their drip irrigation systems. An actuator operated by the phone turns the pump on and off. The farmer can see if the pump is getting electricity and if water is available.

Disaster monitoring

Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was created using kinetic sensors on the ocean floor. The sensors measure waves and water flow and transmit warnings about potential tsunamis to disk buoys floating on the ocean surface. The buoys upload the information to government authorities via satellite.

And the Red Cross is experimenting with low-cost, solar-powered fire alarm systems in urban slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and Cape Town, South Africa. The network sounds alarms and sends text messages to the residents and authorities, pointing out where the fire is through GPS.

Wildlife monitoring

A team from New York University in Abu Dhabi has developed a light drone that can fly up to 40 km over the mountainous Wadi Wurayah National Park. The drones gather images of wildlife sent wirelessly from solar-powered camera traps installed throughout the park.

Energy

M-Kopa in Kenya built its business around networked devices. The company installs solar home systems at a discount and charges households for the amount of electricity that they use. The system cuts off the power if the meter runs out and the users can buy more with mobile payments. M-Kopa can remotely monitor the health of its systems and make repairs as needed.

For more on these examples and many others, please see Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development.

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