John Feighery became interested in water testing while working for NASA. Spaceships have sophisticated systems for recycling condensates and urine, and it was Feighery’s job to ensure that what astronauts drank was safe.
When it comes to water testing, a space station isn’t so different from, say, rural Africa. Both places lack expensive equipment for analysis and storing samples. So, Feighery is transferring a little of the space program to Planet Earth.
Feighery and his partner Annie have built an app called mWater that takes advantage of the rapidly falling cost of water testing kits. Their aim is to build a “social network for water,” where quality is transparent, and anyone can immediately know what they’re drinking.
The app records the location of tests, the result, and additional notes (say, if a well is broken). By logging thousands of samples, it builds maps that help individuals and health professionals make informed decisions.
“Our aim is to prevent diarrheal disease,” Feighery says. “It is completely preventable in most cases, and it’s always caused by poor water quality and hygiene.” The World Health Organization estimates the disease kills 760,000 kids under five every year, and that there are 1.7 billion cases worldwide. The majority are in Sub-Saharan Africa and East Africa, where mWater is concentrating.
The tests come in several forms. The most basic is a bag to collect a water sample. You drop in a little change agent, and if it switches from yellow to green, you know E. coli is present. That indicates the water is likely to be contaminated with sewage. Another is the 3M Petrifilm. As well as being cheap in themselves–under $5–the tests don’t require lab analysis, or elaborate transfer procedures.
The Feigherys are also collaborating with a group in Germany to develop “compact dry plates,” which multiply E. coli samples to make bacteria countable. Samplers take a picture of the plate, and the app automatically records the count. And, they hope to include a test for arsenic being developed at at Columbia, and others for nitrates and chlorine.
Feighery believes, in general, that aid groups need to focus more on water quality than simple availability.
“A lot of people are realizing that water they said was OK is not really OK. We want to be the open access database for water quality results, and for people to share data, and not keep it in house.”
“It’s better to have water than not to have water. But it’s even better to have safe water.”