Originally Published 2014-06-23 04:09:32 Published on Jun 23, 2014
Now a mobile App for water management? And, the rapidly dropping price of wireless consumer technology such as WiFi and Bluetooth could turn these individual nodes into a data-rich network.
Fixing water with a mobile App
"When I attended Singularity University (SU), Peter Diamandis, founder of XPRIZE and SU gave us a talk about "Abundance," applying exponentially increasing technologies to the grand global challenges (including water), and he set the bar: How can you improve the lives of a billion people in under a decade? A "water app" could do that. Organizations or philanthropists concerned about the water problem needn't wait for government action. They could "steal the initiative" and partner with an organization like XPRIZE to create a social gaming and collaborative consumption application. Open-source it, crowd-source it, crowd-fund it. For a few million dollars, a prize competition could -- in just a couple years -- create a mobile application that would revolutionize the global water situation. Third party actors could end-run states to create a world-wide transparency of real-time water flows and usage that could enhance human security and prosperity, and do what it seems states are unable to do. Read more to learn how. Water and Conflict Many share a global concern that water could be a source of conflict. Across the world, rivers determine borders; serve to delineate the start of maritime economic exclusive zones. River water is a scarce resource, strongly affected by weather and climate. It is essential to agriculture, health, urban sanitation, canal navigation, and electric power generation. As a limited resource it appears to constitute a zero-sum trade between upper and lower riparian (river) nations and a source of power or weakness in foreign relations. In January I had the opportunity to play in an innovative wargame sponsored by the Skoll Global Threats Fund1 , and put on by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA)'s chief gamer, Ed McGrady. In the game, teams played China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and year by year made nation-state level decisions about foreign and domestic policy including water policy and sharing across conditions of drought and flood. Trapped in a "local minima" The lesson I took from this well-constructed multi-year game was that nation-states were trapped in a "local minima"—sharing water data might benefit the entire region, but it often did not benefit the individual nation or administration to be transparent, and so the incentives of the system were against robust data sharing. This was especially true when such sharing would create bad news, open their books to criticism, or reveal they were taking more water than they should. This is most especially true under conditions of worsening scarcity where it becomes a question of choosing between "me and you." Leaders are entrusted to take care of their own people and it is just easier to blame it on nature and not tell the guy downstream. Democratising data But during the wargame, I just could not overcome the thought that all this government data was going to be "OBE" (overcome by events). It just seemed to me technology was increasingly going to put data once held by nation-states in the hands of everyone—individual citizens and NGOs. With the advances in free geospatial data like Google Earth, with the proliferation of overhead commercial satellite imagery, and with the proliferation of high-quality mobile apps, it was just flat out inconceivable to me that ten years from now we would not be able to get-real time information. Nor is it just the data from satellites or high-end wide-area surveillance UAVs. The cost of consumer class micro-UAVs has recently created an innovation space called "Ecology Drones," where unmanned aerial vehicles are being put to use to monitor wildlife, spot poachers, and chart forest loss.2 In a world where activists are already building their own UAVs for under $2,000 today to locate and track whaling ships, etc.—and posting their designs online3 --it is inconceivable to me that this technology will not be applied to provide a persistent image of water that will emerge without government action. But some on my team doubted that. They talked about the dark art of on-the ground measurements. That you can only tell so much from overhead data and you really needed measuring stations on the ground to do that. At first, in the game, we tried spies. Then we tried cyber hacking to get the data. Crowd-source the water problem to mobile activists But here's the better idea: let's crowd-source the data. Today, even in the most remote areas of the developing world people have cell phones, people have smart phones. Those phones know where they are and have instant data connectivity. They have high resolution cameras. Video processing is advanced enough to measure flow-speed. Image technology is advanced enough to take two photos and compare them to determine things like height and width of a river. Thousands of snapshots by mobile phones could give real-time data on local river flow without permanent ground stations with a transparency that would grow organically completely beyond nation-states. This kind of crowd-sourced "activist mapping" has already proven startlingly successful around the world. In the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election the non-profit company Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony" or "witness") created a website (http://legacy.ushahidi.com ) that collected eyewitness reports of violence reported by email and text message and placed them on a Google Maps map. The Ushahidi platform provides free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping and enables local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. An activist or NGO could do the same for water. Experts on my team let me know that at least in some places, you needed a person to wade into the water with special equipment to make measurements with special flow meters. Open-source the meters My answer to this is the same: Open Source it! The model is a movement called Open Source Ecology (OSE). OSE is a network of farmers, engineers and supporters, whose main goal is the eventual manufacturing of the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), an open technological platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts. This group freely publishes their 3d designs, schematics, instructional videos, budgets, and product manuals on our open source wiki and harness open collaboration with technical contributors to produce high-performance (match or exceed those of industrial counterparts), modular, do-it-yourself, low-cost platforms (8x cheaper than buying from an Industrial Manufacturer).4 Anyone who has traveled to South Asia has seen the amazing ingenuity of people in the developing world who can build their own cars from wood and junk parts. Certainly a gauge could be built from local materials that was "good enough"—and the open-ecology online infrastructure can be used to design, evolve, compete and select the designs. Control of complex devices such as scientific instruments and physical control (including UAVs) are increasingly easy and enabled by extreme low cost open-source microcontrollers like Arduino.5 There is no reason why this could not be expanded to water management: gauges, dikes, micro-hydro, sluices, and irrigation. The rapidly dropping price of wireless consumer technology such as WiFi and Bluetooth could turn these individual nodes into a data-rich network. Use social gaming to create incentives to share Activist reporting might work for a crisis, but is that enough incentive to create regular, daily reports across thousands to perhaps millions of data-points? One solution of course is to pay people. We have already seen tremendous success of "click warrior" platforms where simple pattern recognition tasks can be outsourced to areas where labor is inexpensive. It would be simple to create a market where NGOs or researchers or individuals post want-adds or "bounties" for data and allowed immediate cash (or some other form of credit to include cell minutes). Just providing the mobile platforms enables "big data" on previously unavailable scales.6 I think that properly designed, people will take these measurements for free if there is even the slightest social status / social pecking order advantage. Consider the amazing success of platforms that incorporate some sort of social gaming where individuals see their relative scores, such as leaderboards. Readers who may have experience with any of the new exercise / fitness tracking software know how addictive it can be to "keep up" or earn new "badges." Could this really be done with so many users, in real-time, calculating and displaying flows and hazards while being fun enough to get people to submit reports? The model of success I offer is Waze, a GPS-based geographical navigation application program for smart phones with GPS support that incorporates crowd sourcing and social gaming to gather travel times and route details. Founded in 2008, by 2013, Waze had grown to 50 million users and was acquired by Google for a reported US$1.3 billion. "It is free to download and use. People can report accidents, traffic jams, speed and police traps, and can update roads, landmarks, house numbers, etc. Waze also identifies the cheapest fuel station near a user or along their route. As of January 2012, the app had been downloaded 12 million times worldwide...In addition to turn-by-turn voice navigation, real-time traffic, and other location-specific alerts, Waze simultaneously sends anonymous information, including users' speed and location, back to its database to improve the service as a whole. This crowdsourcing allows the Waze community to report navigation and mapping errors and traffic accidents simply by running the app while driving. Waze uses gaming conventions to engage users and encourage them to provide more information, allowing them to "drive over" icons of cupcakes and other things to earn points. Waze also offers points for traffic or road hazard reports, which can be used to change the user's avatar, and to increase their status in the community." 7 The water NGO community could easily use the Waze platform as a model for a free-to-download social gaming mobile application that provided real-time and predictive data on water quality and flow and encouraged individual users to provide timely updates. As with Waze, if the app provided value it could rapidly proliferate across borders. Build a trust system that allows a market for collaborative consumption The initial benefits of such an app are obvious. It would put data in the hands of individual citizens, researchers, and watchdog organizations on a scale never-before imagined with a far lower latency than we've ever had. This would create information to inform governance, innovation, markets, and hazard response. It would create a transparency in which it would be difficult for nearly any actor to cheat. But it would enable much more. Consider that simple on-line evaluations showcase good actors and shame bad actors. A simple map showing what areas are providing data and sharing creates an automatic pressure on people to share. This also creates the pre-cursors for a system that encourages "reputation capital"8 where trust can be built. Trust becomes important when a system also allows for transactions. A system that could track flows in near-real time could also form the basis of a system of exchange....a market. If you and your downstream neighbor knew your allowance and usage of water, and your relative need, it might be worth it for him to barter or pay you to release more or less water at particular times. A citizen based "cap and trade" system could develop if the underlying data-system created both the transparency as well as the reputation capital to allow it. Such an app then could move the presently opaque system of water usage into the new space called "Collaborative Consumption," a class of economic arrangements enabled by technology and peer communities in which participants share access to products or services, rather than having individual ownership.9 If we are creative enough, we can create a system that (like eBay or Craiglist) creates a peer-to-peer market that allows the sharing of a scarce resource (like is already happening with car sharing (such as Uber, ZipCar). And a system that incorporates a metric of transaction feedback satisfaction and reputation capital (like eBay's "powerseller" status) that allows individual actors to trust people they have never met. The lesson of XPRIZE: Use competition where there are market failures Often it is less about creating, than "causing to be created." If we want to see innovation in the water space—whether we be concerned security strategists, well-meaning governments, NGOs, IGOs, or philanthropists—we should incentivize the creation of this innovation with a prize. In fact, it may turn out that States are not the most powerful actors in this aspect of interstate affairs. Such prizes could be done by governments, as evidenced by the DARPA Grand Challenge, NASA's Space Elevator Games. Many are still not aware of WWW.CHALLENGE.GOV, a single-source portal of challenges and prize competitions by more than 50 agencies across federal government administered by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)10 , or the recent expansion of Federal Prize Authority to America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, granting all agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.11 But prizes can also be done with spectacular success outside of government. The model is XPRIZE. "In 1996, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered a $10 million prize to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. The contest, later titled the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, motivated 26 teams from seven nations to invest more than $100 million in pursuit of the $10 million purse. On October 4, 2004, the Ansari XPRIZE was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, who successfully completed the contest in their spacecraft SpaceShipOne."12 Since then the XPRIZE Foundation, a non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind, continues sponsor contests to bring about "radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity" through incentivized competition. XPRIZE has held three additional competitions, the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPRIZE (to design, build and race super-efficient vehicles that achieve 100 MPGe), the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE (a $1 million prize to inspire innovative solutions to speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms & tankers), and Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X CHALLENGE (a competition (co-hosted by NASA) to build precise, efficient small rocket systems).13 XPRIZE continues its tradition of high-profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity's progress. At present, they have announced the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for creating a mobile device that can "diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians", the $2.25 million Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE goal is accelerating the use of sensors and sensing technology to tackle health care problems and find ways for people to monitor and maintain their personal well-being, the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE is a competition to improve our understanding of ocean acidification, and a forthcoming Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation XPRIZE to develop a better tuberculosis diagnostic tool.14 Crowd-source the funding Funding such a prize can be crowd-sourced as well. New ways to advertise proposed innovations and organize capital have created an entirely new space. The largest crowd-funding website, Kickstarter, has shown the ability to raise over $10M for a single project and as much as $3M in under 24 hours. A global water app is most like the Qualcom Tricorder challenge. Certainly the scale of an XPRIZE for a global water app is in range of an NGO to crowd-source. Join the crowd/Start the Flash (Flood) Mob Ultimately, the technology already exists for third parties (sub-national or transnational) actors to end-run the log-jam experienced by states in water data sharing. In today's world, the platforms exist that virtually anyone—a company, an NGO, a motivated individual—could set in motion a process that could make the global flows of water transparent and revolutionize the global water situation. It could even be you. 1.    The mission of the Skoll Global Threats Fund (SGTH) is to confront global threats imperiling humanity by seeking solutions, strengthening alliances, and spurring the actions needed to safeguard the future. Started by former eBay President Jeff SKoll, SGTF focuses on threats that have the potential to kill or debilitate very large numbers of people or cause significant economic or social dislocation or paralysis throughout the world. Global threats cannot be solved by any one country; they require some sort of a collective response. Current SGTF areas include: climate change, water security, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and Middle Eastern conflict. Skoll focuses on cross cutting areas of risk communication, governance, engagement, access and transparency of information, and innovation. See more at: http://www.skollglobalthreats.org/about-us/mission-and-approach/#sthash.AgiXVr8L.dpuf 2.    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/20/ecology-drones-endangered-wildlife see also http://news.lternet.edu/Article2816.html and Lian Pin Koh's excellent talk at TEDGlobal 2013 http://blog.ted.com/2013/06/11/conservation-drones-in-the-field-lian-pin-koh-at-tedglobal-2013/ 3.    http://conservationdrones.org/ 4.    http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Global_Village_Construction_Set 5.    Massimo Banzi, How Arduino is open-sourcing imagination, TEDTalk, http://www.ted.com/talks/massimo_banzi_how_arduino_is_open_sourcing_imagination.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arduino 6.    Joel Selanikio, The surprising seeds of a big-data revolution in healthcare, TEDTalk, http://www.ted.com/talks/joel_selanikio_the_surprising_seeds_of_a_big_data_revolution_in_healthcare.html 7.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waze 8.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reputation_capital see this terrific TED talk: Rachel Botsman: The currency of the new economy is trust, http://www.ted.com/talks/rachel_botsman_the_currency_of_the_new_economy_is_trust.html 9.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_consumptionsee this terrific TED talk: Rachel Botsman: The case for collaborative consumption http://www.ted.com/talks/rachel_botsman_the_case_for_collaborative_consumption.html 10.    https://www.challenge.gov/p/about 11.    http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/competes_report_on_prizes_final.pdf 12.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Prize_Foundation#Future_XPRIZEs 13.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Prize_Foundation#Future_XPRIZEs 14.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Prize_Foundation#Future_XPRIZEs (Lt. Col Garretson is a transformational strategist at Headquarters US Air Force, Pentagon, Washington, DC. He serves as the division chief, Irregular Warfare Strategy, Plans, and Policy. ) "
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