John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Participants of the "International Sanitation Hackathon" have some promising ideas to fight disease and death caused by poor sanitation.
Call it the talking/pooping improvement gap: In many parts of the developing world, there are precious few places to relieve yourself safely and hygienically. In the same places, though, tons of people are using cellphones. “Over 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to proper sanitation, yet over 1 billion of these people have access to a mobile phone,” according Jae So, the World Bank's manager of water and sanitation.
So last December, the bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others staged an “International Sanitation Hackathon” that asked developers in different cities to invent technological solutions to bathroom-related death and disease. Out of the 1,000-plus techheads who participated in the event, 10 recently emerged as semifinalists, carrying armloads of apps that do everything from teach children stellar toilet hygiene to crowdsource the locations of troublesome “open defecation sites.”
The ultimate winner will be announced April 19 and gets a free trip to Silicon Valley. For now, take a look at a few of the semifinalists' potentially life-saving inventions:
People in the poorest nations take a risk anytime they drink from an open-water source. Is it clean today, or is it swimming with raw sewage? This app helps to identify which wells and streams are relatively clean by letting users report pollution sources that they happen to encounter, like leaking sewer pipes, overflowing sewage outflows and unmarked defecation fields that could send bowel-twisting microbes into the water the next time it rains.
"If 90 school buses filled with kindergartners were to crash every day, with no survivors, the world would take notice," glares this app's promoter. “But this is precisely what happens every single day because of poor water, sanitation and hygiene." The San-Trac folks are trying to reduce that casualty number by equipping communal bathrooms with remote-sensing devices made from cheap, widely available electronics. The devices constantly update a public database with the latest news from their sectors: A water tank has gone empty here, meaning perhaps everyone should prepare for a drought. Or, a sudden flood of people are using the toilet, a possible indicator of a cholera outbreak. Anybody who owns the San-Trac app will also be reminded when they walk into the bathroom to always wash their hands.
Because of a lack of “gender-friendly” bathrooms in Cameroon's schools, female students miss up to a week of school each month when they're menstruating. Some simply drop out when they hit puberty. This app tries to empirically fathom the problem by allowing students to text-message their attendance dates to a central Google database, where researchers can analyze and visualize it. Perhaps in the future, it can be used to push for better bathrooms for Cameroon's female students?
The Hackathon entries that didn't make the winners' circle aren't necessarily boring or useless, either. They include a program that lets Latin Americans shoot free complaints to their sanitation providers (because phone calls can be expensive) and an app that promotes hand washing in the U.K., where an estimated one in six cellphones is – how is this even possible? – contaminated with fecal matter. See them all on this Hackathon map.