How data and UI lead environmental technology design

Nithya Ramanathan
Aug 2, 2018 · 7 min read

The exponential technology revolution is accelerating the potential to create positive social impact globally.

As “tech for good” initiatives continue to grow, we have a responsibility to ensure our interventions are sustainable in the long term. Too many global development projects fail due to lack of transparency or course correction that comes too late or simply not at all.

It is a tragic twist when philanthropic resources allocated to projects do not reach or generate sustainable impact for the people who need them. Unsustainable solutions can perpetuate cycles of environmental, financial, and health inequality that disproportionately affect the poor. This runs counter to the good that so many of us are striving for.

As a computer scientist, I’ve seen that collecting more objective sensor data and training people to use and act on that data can bring about the kind of sustainable, responsive solutions that bridge systemic gaps between those working in the field, governments, manufacturers and development organizations. That’s why my co-founders and I started Nexleaf, a non-profit technology company that designs sensor technology to generate data and data-driven solutions for health and climate change challenges in low and middle-income countries.

We use data to help communities answer their most critical questions from effective energy systems that safeguard vaccines to environmentally clean cooking methods. These solutions are based around user needs, in order to foster grassroots engagement, align stakeholders around common goals, and ultimately ensure sustainability and replicability.

Momentum Around Data

Data gathering is foundational to creating transparency and accountability for implementers and increasing the autonomy of people working on the ground — but traditional approaches to monitoring and evaluation aren’t cutting it.

Take vaccination. While vaccination is one of the most cost-effective and successful public health solutions in the world, 1.5 million children still die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases.

There are several reasons as to why children don’t receive the vaccinations they need — including the lack of energy to appropriately store vaccines.

Vaccines are temperature sensitive and need to be kept between 2º C and 8º C to maintain their potency. Health facilities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) rely on specialized refrigerators, freezers, and vaccine carriers to protect vaccines along the vaccine supply chain, known as the ‘cold chain.’ Maintaining temperatures safe for vaccines along the cold chain is integral to their potency, but oftentimes difficult. A joint statement from the WHO and UNICEF found that 20% of health facilities in low- and lower-middle-income countries didn’t have any cold chain equipment to store vaccines and protect them against damage from heating or freezing. Of the facilities that did have equipment, only 2% had optimal technologies for a functional cold chain.

Initially, stakeholders thought the solution to problems along the cold chain was to provide funding for governments to procure more refrigerators, more often. Even with newer equipment, health facilities in LMICs face unreliable power availability and routine equipment failures. Introducing more equipment without understanding the underlying issues along the cold chain only exacerbated the problem, leading to increased wastage of resources.

We asked how could we illuminate the gaps along the cold chain and guide governments to invest their resources more objectively. So we developed ColdTrace, a remote temperature monitoring (RTM) solution, to gather real-time data on temperature and power availability of vaccine refrigerators and freezers. ColdTrace sends SMS and email alerts to health facility staff whenever the temperature becomes too hot or too cold.

ColdTrace’s capabilities extend beyond temperature alerts — the data gathered by ColdTrace is uploaded onto a cloud-based dashboard. Gathering data from the local facilities helps to create a bottom-up cycle that allows Ministry of Health personnel to have a clear picture of their immunization system and to make data-driven decisions on procurement and maintenance. Currently, ColdTrace can be found across 10 countries, and helps governments protect the vaccine supply for 12.5 million babies born on earth each year.

By integrating data into their everyday decision-making, governments and stakeholders are magnifying the potential for impact and finding innovative ways to create transparency within the complexities of the vaccine sector.

We see this success happening in Tanzania where the government, with support of Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, has introduced remote temperature monitoring (RTM) solutions in 200 sites and will soon scale RTM across the nation to create transparency in every corner of the country.

More significantly, Tanzania is taking a revolutionary step to share anonymized data with neighboring countries in order to ensure that they have access to these insights on procurement and maintenance, even if they don’t have the capacity to implement sensor technology.

This is a first step in creating a “culture of data,” creating a system that uses and prioritizes data to steer the sector forward based on objective findings and verifiable actions.

That’s how this momentum around data and innovation can revolutionize implementations. In thinking about creating justice for marginalized communities, we have to also consider how to empower people with information, so they can use objective evidence to advocate for better resources and stronger supply chains. Arming them with data is one way to ensure that governments and people on the ground have their voices heard and that their preferences penetrate and shape sectors.

User-Informed Design

As technology proliferates, our responsibility as implementers is to focus on designing solutions that center around the people intended to be served. We have seen that uptake and acceptance of technology happens when the solutions fit into the lives of users, benefiting them directly.

This is something we’ve witnessed in the cookstove sector. Around 3 billion people around the world still rely on solid biomass, such as as dung and wood, to cook and heat their homes. The resulting emissions from indoor cooking contribute significantly to climate change, and have been attributed to illnesses that cause 3.8 million premature deaths a year. Several major stakeholders, including governments, multilaterals, and NGOs, have tried to tackle traditional cooking by distributing ‘improved cookstoves’ that emit fewer emissions and are more efficient.

But the problem persists.

In response, we began our cookstove program StoveTrace, which applies our sensor technology to cookstoves distributed by partner organizations. With objective sensor data to measure usage, we developed Sensor-enabled Climate Financing. This innovative financing mechanism directly rewards rural Indian women for their role in reducing emissions.

Originally, we thought the climate credits would incentivize women to fully transition to clean cooking technologies, but we learned from data monitoring that usage declined over time. We discovered that even with the payments, we needed to address the barriers to clean cooking.

What we learned was that when the cookstove design or technology doesn’t fit into the lives of the users, the technology is another piece of furniture. In some ways, this intervention was up against decades worth of inherited cooking practices. So rather than disrupting the lifestyle of the communities, we needed to find a way to fit our interventions and solutions into the local context.

We began collaborating with local organizations and other stakeholders in the cookstove sector to target these specific barriers. We have since piloted various stove models in villages in India to address the issue of usability. Because of objective sensor data, we can gather enough data to understand which stoves are actually likeable by woman by tracking their usage and following up with qualitative surveys.

In shifting the focus in the cookstove sector from mass distribution of stoves to shaping the market around the user, we’re providing the women who use the stoves a platform to voice their preferences. They are, after all, the ones who are directly impacted by the side effects of unclean cooking.

By incentivizing the use of cookstoves that create more efficient combustion, meaning that they burn the fuel more completely, we create greater efficiency in producing heat and reduction of harmful emissions like black carbon. Energy efficiency through more efficient combustion means less wood use, less labor for the woman collecting the wood, and cleaner air in the home for the family. We’re currently witnessing an average of 90% sustained clean cookstove usage and 587 metric tons of CO2e have been reduced, equal to 1.4 million fewer miles driven.

Objective Standards to Measure and Monitor Impact

There are still several challenges we see in the development sector. And that’s partly because we as a community and sector have to develop standards to measure our own impact. As we begin to use sensor technology to shape markets for vaccines and cookstoves, we are also working with our partners to establish standards that hold all parties accountable and ensure that interventions are indeed sustainable and replicable.

Through objective sensor data and analytics and IoT solutions, we can rally around creating an agreed upon standards and implement ways to measure against those standards. By working with stakeholders to focus on the people on the ground through defined standards, we can ensure that interventions actually serve them.

We have to begin to monitor impact using IoT sensors and data. This is a way of changing the conversation to focus on the end user and ensuring that data works to advocate for them, and ensuring that everyone involved meets a certain criteria before claiming impact.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of Environmental Innovation.

Nithya Ramanathan

Written by

CEO & Co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics. Improving human and planetary health with sensor intelligence.

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of Environmental Innovation.