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TEDGlobal 2011

Sonaar Luthra: Meet the Water Canary

July 14, 2011

After a crisis, how can we tell if water is safe to drink? Current tests are slow and complex, and the delay can be deadly, as in the cholera outbreak after Haiti's earthquake in 2010. TED Fellow Sonaar Luthra previews his design for a simple tool that quickly tests water for safety -- the Water Canary.

Sonaar Luthra -
Sonaar Luthra is the creator of Water Canary, a water-testing device that collects real-time water-quality data from the field. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Cholera was reported in Haiti
00:15
for the first time in over 50 years
00:17
last October.
00:19
There was no way to predict
00:21
how far it would spread through water supplies
00:23
and how bad the situation would get.
00:26
And not knowing where help was needed
00:29
always ensured that help was in short supply
00:31
in the areas that needed it most.
00:34
We've gotten good at predicting and preparing for storms
00:37
before they take innocent lives
00:40
and cause irreversible damage,
00:42
but we still can't do that with water,
00:44
and here's why.
00:46
Right now, if you want to test water in the field,
00:48
you need a trained technician,
00:50
expensive equipment like this,
00:52
and you have to wait about a day
00:54
for chemical reactions to take place and provide results.
00:56
It's too slow
00:59
to get a picture of conditions on the ground
01:01
before they change,
01:03
too expensive to implement
01:05
in all the places that require testing.
01:07
And it ignores the fact that, in the meanwhile,
01:09
people still need to drink water.
01:11
Most of the information that we collected on the cholera outbreak
01:13
didn't come from testing water;
01:16
it came from forms like this,
01:18
which documented all the people
01:20
we failed to help.
01:22
Countless lives have been saved
01:24
by canaries in coalmines --
01:26
a simple and invaluable way
01:28
for miners to know whether they're safe.
01:30
I've been inspired by that simplicity as I've been working on this problem
01:32
with some of the most hardworking and brilliant people I've ever known.
01:35
We think there's a simpler solution to this problem --
01:38
one that can be used
01:40
by people who face conditions like this everyday.
01:42
It's in its early stages,
01:44
but this is what it looks like right now.
01:46
We call it the Water Canary.
01:49
It's a fast, cheap device
01:51
that answers an important question:
01:54
Is this water contaminated?
01:56
It doesn't require any special training.
01:58
And instead of waiting for chemical reactions to take place,
02:01
it uses light.
02:04
That means there's no waiting
02:06
for chemical reactions to take place,
02:08
no need to use reagents that can run out
02:10
and no need to be an expert
02:12
to get actionable information.
02:14
To test water, you simply insert a sample
02:17
and, within seconds,
02:19
it either displays a red light, indicating contaminated water,
02:21
or a green light, indicating the sample is safe.
02:24
This will make it possible
02:26
for anyone to collect life-saving information
02:28
and to monitor water quality conditions as they unfold.
02:31
We're also, on top of that,
02:34
integrating wireless networking
02:37
into an affordable device
02:40
with GPS and GSM.
02:42
What that means is that each reading can be automatically transmitted to servers
02:44
to be mapped in real time.
02:47
With enough users,
02:49
maps like this will make it possible
02:51
to take preventive action,
02:53
containing hazards before they turn into emergencies
02:55
that take years to recover from.
02:58
And then, instead of taking days
03:00
to disseminate this information to the people who need it most,
03:02
it can happen automatically.
03:04
We've seen how distributed networks,
03:07
big data and information
03:09
can transform society.
03:11
I think it's time for us to apply them to water.
03:13
Our goal over the next year is to get Water Canary ready for the field
03:16
and to open-source the hardware
03:18
so that anyone can contribute to the development and the evaluation,
03:20
so we can tackle this problem together.
03:23
Thank you.
03:25
(Applause)
03:27

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Sonaar Luthra -
Sonaar Luthra is the creator of Water Canary, a water-testing device that collects real-time water-quality data from the field.

Why you should listen

Sonaar Luthra was a writer and educator when he enrolled in NYU's famed  Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) -- a breeding ground for cross-disciplinary thinking. He tells the TED Blog what happened next:

"I wanted to come up with some way of becoming what I was calling an 'urban planner for the global village.' And ... I fell in love with circuitry and with making tangible objects that had real functionality. Next thing I knew, I found myself in a class called Design for UNICEF, taught by Clay Shirky in association with UNICEF’s Innovations Lab.

"I wanted to see what was possible with water, and I was lucky to have an incredible team and the support of faculty that were willing to take on such a huge challenge. We started off as novices but we all became water experts in the process."

Read the TED Blog's full Q&A with Sonaar Luthra, "Waterwise" >>

The original video is available on TED.com
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