Our new SMS-based data reporting program is in its pilot stage in Honduras
Lack of reliable, up-to-date data on critical infrastructure has always been a serious roadblock in the path of development. Anecdotes might make great PR pieces, but ultimately decisions - which program to fund, which technology to employ, which community's technicians need training - are based on data. A dearth of trustworthy data makes planning more difficult and more arbitrary, with unpredictable results.
AguaClara plant operators collect performance data several times per day, but that data is stored in logbooks at the plant site and collected infrequently. This spring we decided to change that and build a real-time data collection service.
1. Create a tool that allows plant operators to remotely report performance data
2. Allow operators to report problems or unusual circumstances in real time
AguaClara plants don't use electricity, so typically they are not connected to the grid . That, and prohibitive cost, exclude the use of computers to collect data. Water for People / Akvo's FLOW system is based on Android phones with data connections, which aren't applicable in our situation. So we went with SMS (text messaging), which is a ubiquitous technology that has been put to innovative use many times in Africa, India, and elsewhere.
The principal is to have operators text key measurements throughout the day to a SMS-enabled server, parse the messages, and make the data available in an easy-to-use, extensible way online. Messages are parsed based on a pre-determined syntax of short hash tags describing which measurement is being sent, which can be left blank or entered in any order:
#cod tam #con aguaclara #cau 130 #tac 9.10 #tas 3.10 #taf 0.10 #com hola
The message above shows the flow rate in gallons per minute (#cau) and turbity in NTU entering the plant, after sedimentation, and after filtration (#tac, #tas, #taf) at the Tamara plant (#cod). A message from the operator (#com) reads Hola.
The development of this program has been spearheaded by Chris Kelley, founder of Open Source Water and a PhD student in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.
Data collection began last week for four of the eight AguaClara plants: Tamára, Cuatro Communidades, Alauca, and Atima. While there are a few bugs still to be worked out, the pilot launch of this program has gone extremely well. Some graphs and a summary of the data are available at opensourcewater.net/aguaclara_plants.html.
Our immediate work on the ground is to work with the plant operators to correct formatting errors in the incoming messages, as well as improve the program's ability to handle them. In the coming months we hope to use the results of the pilot testing to add SMS to the annual budget of each plant. At the same time we intend to package the platform into a simple-to-set-up, easy-to-manage software tool that can be configured to receive, parse, graph, and publish many types of data. Some potential users are health clinics in the communities around AguaClara plants.
This program is in its very early stages, but we are very excited about its potential. If you are excited about it too, and want to get involved, send us an email. To stay in the loop about future developments, subscribe to our RSS and Twitter feeds.
 Some plants use electricity for light bulbs. For more information on our gravity-driven treatment system, visit aguaclara.cornell.edu/our_technology.