How to stretch a billion in the era of IoT!

Water scarcity is undoubtedly one of the most pressing challenges of our times. A recent study found that more than 4-billion people experienced severe water scarcity over the past year. And this is predicted to get much worse — by 2030, the world could only have 60 percent of the water it needs.

Faced with its worst drought in decades, the South African government recently announced the allocation of nearly R1-billion towards drought relief over the next year. On the face of it, this seems like a decent amount, but is it really? The drought is costing farmers billions. South Africa will need to import 750 000 tonnes of maize to meet the population’s needs, a cost that far exceeds Pravin’s billion rand band aid.

When you look at the scale of the drought, one billion seems like a few drops of rainfall in a rapidly drying dam. If you were to be cynical, you might even think the problem was too large to fix.

Thankfully, we are seeing how new technologies can tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. Around the world, we’ve seen the multi-speed effect that a platform like the internet of things can have on everything from industry to agriculture.

Some might see IoT as a pie in the sky technology, but much of the technology we need to make a difference is already in our hands. Our smartphones incorporate the same sensors that are used to protect wildlife from poachers, measure shipping systems and monitor manufacturing plants . It’s well within government’s capability to roll out similar technologies on a broad scale in water, sanitation and agriculture.

Here are some suggestions of how government can get the best bang for their buck.

Be bold enough to embrace IoT

First, I’d urge government to really understand connected technology’s almost unlimited potential to enable better decision-making around limited resources. IoT essentially allows for almost any object to be made ‘smarter’.

To fully understand the power of this, consider the lifecycle of water before it comes out of our taps. Just think of all of the equipment needed to process it and what could happen when it’s made more efficient.

There are some great examples of this happening right now. Take Thames Water in the UK, which uses smart metres to anticipate equipment faults and to respond to leaks in real time. Imagine a similar system in place here at home, allowing us to detect when our ageing water infrastructure needs repairs or upgrades.

Focus on the platform

Smart metres are just the start. Let’s go even further back in the water’s lifecycle, to a farmer staring at a parched field somewhere in the Northern Cape. What if that farmer had a way of knowing which soil could hold water better? Or knew where to move his livestock for more sustainable grazing?

It’s called precision farming and it utilises connected technologies to improve crop yield, resource usage and more. However, it requires a mature IoT infrastructure that people can plug into. Point-to-point solutions must form part of a greater whole; an overarching IoT network that allows government to gather and use the right data.

Government must first create a device and data ecosystem that devices like drones and wearables can plug into. This calls for strong infrastructure investment and focused leadership. Planning, innovating and investment will be the key drivers here.

Don’t drown in data

Once you’ve got the data-rich ecosystem in place, it’s time to consider how to make best use of it. IoT is great at generating data points, but they’re useless unless there’s also a contextual framework around it. The missing piece of the puzzle is analytical tools that can identify patterns and plot future scenarios.

Using information to make better decisions is nothing new, especially in the agricultural sector. There have been almanacs dedicated to planting charts and weather predictions since at least the 1700s. Data analytics are a natural progression of this.

I’m reminded of the movie Moneyball, which showed the impact that statistical analysis had on American baseball. Now take that level of analytical power and apply it to South Africa’s water and agricultural industries and watch how it changes them for the better.

What connected technologies do you foresee as playing a role in the water or agricultural sector?