NASA tech inspires open data infrastructure for water monitoring
- By Kathleen Hickey
- Apr 17, 2015
Technology for testing water purity on the International Space Station is being remade into a simple, low-cost mobile app for evaluating water safety here on Earth -- particularly in places where waterborne disease is the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.
mWater is a free system for monitoring water sources that leverages mobile technology and open data to simplify the work of water quality testing and allow people to easily find the safest water sources near them. It combines three technologies to create an integrated approach to managing water and sanitation: a global map of water sources backed by an open, scalable and secure database; a cross-platform mobile phone app for recording water sources and reporting test results; and reliable, low-cost water testing kits, according to Clayton Grassick, co-founder and chief technology officer of mWater.
mWater’s mobile app uses the onboard cameras on mobile phones to automatically detect colonies of coliform and E. coli bacteria that are grown on test plates from water samples. The water quality data that is collected is instantly analyzed and shared with local communities through a mapped database of water sources.
mWater’s software lets local authorites map and update sites, with smartphone data synced to mWater’s cloud-based servers. It also features a portal for creating and editing surveys, deploying the surveys to users or groups and visualizing survey results in real-time, including viewing charts and map and approving or rejecting data and survey responses. The suite of tools – mWater Surveyor, mWater Mapper and mWater Pathfinder – are accessible via smartphone. They use GPS and cloud-based computing to create an integrated approach to managing water and sanitation that’s accessible to third-world communities.
“We believe paper is where data goes to die,” noted mWater’s website. “Digital data is more actionable because it is more easily accessed and processed with devices that managers interact with every day.”
The inspiration for mWater’s technology came from water testing technology developed by NASA for astronauts. Because of weight and space constraints, the International Space Station recycles its water. Water needs to be safe to drink, so NASA developed an accurate coliform bacteria test (think E. coli) that could be performed in a restricted environment without special equipment. John Feighery, who at the time was an environmental engineer at Johnson Space Center charged with overseeing air- and water-monitoring hardware and currently is the co-founder and chief scientist of mWater, realized that the easier test developed by NASA could have other applications.
“I realized that NASA’s way of thinking in terms of making things simple, low-cost and reliable could be really powerfully applied back on Earth,” Feighery said. But people not only needed access to the technology, they also needed an easy way to access test results. “A lot of the time, data from projects that are done in countries just die in reports and spreadsheets that nobody ever translates or sends around,” he said. “There had to be a way to share data that anybody could use in real time.”
Most water monitoring and surveying must be done by an expert and requires expensive and bulky equipment, a challenge for developing countries and their communities. “We want communities to perform tests on their own,” he said.
Feighery worked with his wife Annie, software engineer Grassick and others to develop the mWater application, which was initially released to the public in August 2012. They are continuing to upgrade and tweak the technology. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, mWater was reworked “from the ground up” in 2013, said Grassick in a blog post. And last September the organization partnered with Water.org to launch the free mobile survey platform – mWater Surveyor.
Surveyor is an online and mobile software platform that allows organizations to map sites such as water points or sanitation facilities and monitor them over time by adding status updates, surveys or water quality tests.
The mWater Surveyor Portal allows administrators and managers to create and deploy surveys as well as to view, approve and export incoming data. The server also communicates with the two mWater apps, Surveyor and Mapper. Whenever one of these apps has a data connection, all of the data is automatically backed up to the server and any updates from other users are downloaded to their device.
Each water point in mWater is identified by a globally unique number, making it easier for governments, non-governmental organizations and local health workers to share information about water sources. The mobile phone app allows health workers to catalog water sources, record water test results and then instantly share the information.
“mWater believes that water source safety information should always remain freely accessible, and the open API encourages application developers worldwide to present water source information in locally relevant ways. It also enables collaboration and compatibility with other methods of water testing,” said Grassick. “mWater’s test kits cost about $5, are easy to use and do not require incubators or other expensive lab equipment. Research has shown that they are comparable in quality to existing gold standard water tests.”
Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.