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2011 News Release



Four teams with CEE members win awards in the IDEAS/Global Challenge competitions

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By Alice C. Waugh
Civil & Environmental Engineering

A reality-based smartphone game that lets users help a village in Tanzania and a portable, low-cost water quality testing kit are two of the four projects involving CEE students or alumni that won awards in the MIT IDEAS and Global Challenge Competitions May 2. Eighty-six teams entered the contests, which aim to foster innovative and practical public service inventions for the developing world.

Project AQUA won a $5,000 Community Choice award in the inaugural MIT Global Challenge. AQUA users play on their smartphone or on Facebook by selecting a character based on a real person in a target community that faces ongoing water and sanitation problems. The first target community is Kiwilani, Tanzania, so the game setting incorporates Kiwilani’s actual streets and homes.

“The goal is to earn as many points as possible by playing a variety of ‘game challenges’ related to water and sanitation issues, such as a water-collection game or a well-building game,” explained team member Peter K. Kang S.M. ’10, a doctoral student in CEE.

Kang was inspired after taking 1.851, Water and Sanitation Infrastructure in Developing Countries (taught by CEE Senior Lecturer Susan Murcott) and later visiting Tanzania and seeing the problems firsthand. He soon realized that there are two potential barriers for potential donors that Project AQUA aims to address. “There isn’t a way for people from developed countries to really understand the realities of these people’s living conditions, and there isn’t a way for donors to get feedback on how their contributions make a difference,” he said.

Players donate money as part of playing the game, and those funds are directly invested in the target community to support sustainable development projects related to water and sanitation problems, Kang said. Players then receive periodic game updates in the form of video clips, pictures, status reports and messages from the target community.

In Kiwilani, funds will support the growth of a local women’s organization that wants to oversee installation and maintenance of biosand filter technology introduced by Project AQUA to provide the community with affordable clean water.

In doctoral research supervised by CEE Professor Ruben Juanes, Kang is developing a stochastic model to describe contaminant transport through fractured subsurface rock. Though his doctoral research is not directly related to Project AQUA, he plans to continue working on water and sanitation problems in developing countries. His groundwater hydrology knowledge has been useful for the project, and he hopes to apply his model to understand contaminant transport in communities like Kiwilani.

Project AQUA has attracted interest from potential sponsors, and the team expects to release its game on Facebook and smartphones in 2012.

Safe Water World

The Safe Water World team won $5,000 in the IDEAS Competition for developing a kit that can be used in the field to test drinking water for harmful bacteria. The kit includes pre-made growth medium to culture potentially harmful microbes such as E. coli and enterococci. It also includes a test for the presence of hydrogen sulfide, which is produced by potentially harmful bacteria found in sewers and swamps that break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen.

“When used together, these tests produce results that are just as accurate as industry-standard lab methods, but at a fraction of the cost,” said CEE graduate student Samantha O’Keefe ’09. The kits, which require no electricity or knowledge of laboratory techniques, can also test water turbidity and pH. Everything is included, even pens and notebooks.

The current test kit available to these groups is prohibitively expensive and complicated to execute and includes incubators that require electricity, which is often not available in the field. International agencies, NGOs and student groups can use the kits to gather data about water quality as part of education and outreach programs, or to monitor the effectiveness of recently implemented treatment methods, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe is working toward an M.Eng. in water quality and a master’s degree in the Technology and Policy Program. After graduation, she plans to continue developing Safe Water World while working at an international agency such as UNICEF or the Red Cross. Her thesis research on microbial testing in the developing world, which builds on the earlier work of Stephanie Trottier M.Eng. ’10, is being supervised by Murcott, who advised three of the four winning teams in the water/sanitation category in this year’s IDEAS/Global Challenge competitions.

Other winners

Other IDEAS/Global Challenge winners with CEE team members were Kosim Water Keg, a water filtration system, and HydroHarvest, a rainwater harvesting system. In northern Ghana, rainwater is often collected in exposed muddy holes that also contain tiny clay particles and bacteria. Though many families have clay filters, the filters are slow and need to be refilled every few hours, so they are not widely used. Also, the filtered water is stored in clear plastic buckets, which heat the water and break.

The Kosim Water Keg, developed by a team including M.Eng. student Joanna Cummings, is simply two clay filters combined to form a sealed keg, which is then stored in a clay storage vessel traditionally used by most Ghanaians. Because the filtered water is stored in a clay vessel, it stays cool, and with twice the filter area, it filters water more quickly. The project won a $10,000 Global Challenge award.

HydroHarvest, which won a $5,000 IDEAS Competition award, was developed by a team including Jean Pierre Nshimyimana S.M. ’10. Data gathered from a pilot project at Maranyundo Girls School in Nshimyimana’s native Rwanda showed that the rainwater harvesting system would save the school an estimated $200 per month in water bills and firewood purchases. The team hopes to extend the system to other schools, health clinics and institutions in Rwanda.

Nshimyimana’s teammate, Peter Bojo, a graduate student in biological engineering, also won a $5,000 Service and Engineering Fellowship from the MIT chapter of Tau Beta Pi for HydroHarvest. The fellowship is awarded to MIT students doing service engineering projects during the summer.

Doctoral student Peter Kang collects a water sample in Kiwilani, Tanzania.
Photos / Courtesy Peter Kang

Collecting water in Kiwilani.

The AQUA game on a smartphone.

M.Eng. student Samantha O’Keefe, her teammate Philip Wolfe and President Hockfield at the IDEAS Awards Ceremony. Photo / Rachna Pande

Jean-Pierre Nshimyimana installing part of a rainwater harvesting system in Rwanda. Watch a video about Hydroharvest. Photos / Courtesy Jean-Pierre Nshimyimana

Diagram of the HydroHarvest rainwater harvesting system.