Water Is Life, Open Data is Access FEATURE
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A former NASA engineer and social scientist create a new start-up to help people in developing countries find clean and safe water sources.

What do space exploration and villages in the developing world have in common? Harsh environments, lack of conventional resources, and the need for clean water, just to name a few things.

Luckily two people saw the similarities and merged their expertise to come up with a solution. It also helps that they're married.

Behavioral health and technology specialist Dr. Annie Feighery and her husband Dr. John Feighery, a former lead engineer for air and water monitoring on NASA's International Space Station (ISS), are two of the brains behind mWater, a tech startup that created mobile data solutions for water, sanitation and health.

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"John wrote a lot about the tools he had developed for NASA, and my own doctorate is in health," says Annie. "So all the time I was like, ‘This is for health. This is for health!'  All this cool water monitoring technology he was advancing just needed to have more health applications in my view."

The couple met their co-founder Clayton Grassick at a Random Hacks of Kindness Hackathon four-and-a-half years ago and decided to join forces. Now, through mWater, they run the monitoring and evaluation for the world's largest water organizations, including WaterAid and water.org.

Designed to work with open source technologies, mWater has users in 95 countries providing free and open access platforms.

mWater performs three main activities. These include mapping sites, such as water sources or households, into the global water database. There are also communities, health tanks, sanitation facilities, schools and religious institutions that serve as water sources. Once these sites are mapped, mWater uses surveys to monitor them. All of that data then is managed through the mWater portal where users can clean the data, create dashboards or reports, and communicate with data collectors.

How is mWater having an impact?

By making this data available digitally, mWater can improve healthcare and water infrastructures"It's really important to understand why global surveys are so impactful," says Annie. "In lower resource regions surveys are really the engine of governance. They're how work gets done. If you've ever read The Checklist Manifesto, it's similar to that. The health worker does their work by filling out a survey that says, 'Did you check on the mother? Did you check on the children? Did you check if the mother is breastfeeding?' Did you see if the children are going to school? Did you check if there's a wash basin and latrine?' "

By making this data available digitally, mWater can improve healthcare and water infrastructures. 

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"What was once just checking if you did your job, is now data that becomes metrics about how the system is working, and where the dangerous spots are," explains Annie.

mWater currently has a project taking place in Haiti, where the Haitian Water Ministry and Haiti Outreach are using the platform to map every single water source in the country, and to check whether or not the're working. Annie says this helps government leaders decide where "the next $8 dollars need to go" because the data gives them a better idea of where the true need for the region lies.

How are other water monitoring tools performing?

Other apps monitoring water quality include iSitu, which environmentalists use to collect real-time water quality and quantity data. In a similar fashion, the Open Data Kit (ODK), an open-source suite of tools that helps organizations field and manage mobile data collection solutions, has been deployed in developing countries to gather information on irrigation and farming needs. Meanwhile in India, there are applications such as Bio Monitoring Field Protocol and Ganga Shravan Abhiyaan that assess surface water and allow citizens to take part monitoring their environment.

As water security continues to be a global problem and tech innovation continues to evolve, there will be more gaps filled by the power of mobile, science and health activists.

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About Melissa Jun Rowley

Melissa Jun Rowley is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and content strategist with a passion for all things tied to social innovation.