ME-Led SmartSpout Sensor Project Deployed in South Africa

ME Assistant Professor Natasha Wright's latest publication details usage sensor research that was successfully deployed in a large-scale field trial in South Africa.

The project, co-led by David Meyer (University of Toronto), began when Wright and Taylor were graduate students. A request by one of their professors to design a new kind of sensor eventually led to the SmartSpout, a simple, low-cost sensor designed to track and log how long a spigot of water is held open for and at what time. The sensors are paired with water purification systems in order to improve water quality and lower exposure to contaminated water.

"Let's say you want to improve drinking water quality, so you distribute a whole bunch of household water filters," said Meyer. "Well, if nobody is using the filters, they don't help anyone. Understanding usage — who is using them, when, how consistently, and why or why not — is critical to designing more effective interventions." The SmartSpout answers those very questions, relying on actual data rather than human memory.

The sensor was deployed in 2017 in a two-year control trial, collecting data from 232 households in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The study found that surveys overestimated usage by 53 percentage points when compared to data from the sensors.

There are other sensors that collect the same information, but SmartSpout is different in its simplicity. The team left the sensor's design in the public domain, hoping that others will "take the idea and run with it" in order to improve public health in areas where clean drinking water is harder to access.