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Seattle Brainiacs Harness Sunshine for Clean Water

By Wendy K. Leigh

Smart solar water purifiers” in far-flung destinations may seem a bit far-fetched – especially coming from a group of Pacific Northwest engineers who rarely see that ball of orange hanging in their own rainy skies. But make no mistake: these folks in Seattle are literally changing the way life-saving clean water saturates distressed communities across the globe, using Mother Nature, advanced technology, and data mining to increase effectiveness.

The crew at PotaVida, the Seattle company that creates hardware and software solutions to bring data-driven decision making to aid and disaster relief, harnesses sunshine in a process called “solar disinfection.” They then create devices for people in vulnerable communities, and capture data from current users in Haiti and Somaliland.

Charlie Matlock with team in the field. All photos courtesy of PotoVida.

Charlie Matlock with team in the field. All photos courtesy of PotaVida.

More than 700 million people in the world today lack access to safe drinking water, according to Tyler Blake Davis, cofounder of PotaVida, He further explains that about 65 million of these people are currently refugees from political or environmental disasters, resulting in up to 2.4 million preventable deaths from waterborne disease in children under the age of five. PotaVida’s first product to address this troubling statistic is the aptly named Smart Solar Water Purifier.

The prevailing rule of thumb is that a disposable PET plastic bottle left out in full sun for about 6 hours kills contaminants that make a person sick. PotaVida makes the 10-liter plastic containers and distributes them to aid organizations at a fraction of the cost of other products – and the device has a shelf life of up to five years. What makes PotaVida devices really stand out, however, is the incorporated technology that tracks usage, similar to how a Fitbit works for athletes. The data is then downloaded to mobile devices and synced to the Cloud for analysis.

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure,” explains Davis. “At PotaVida we understand the need to know if people are using the water disinfection product, not just if the product has been distributed. For this reason, we capture usage data, complete with GPS location. We analyze the data, and then create reports for our partners to show opportunities for increases in effectiveness, and examples of success to scale.”

Family in Haiti with PotoVida solar water purifier.

Family in Haiti with PotaVida solar water purifier.

With doctorate degrees in fields like electrical engineering and bioengineering, the co-founders of PotaVida can sometimes seem a bit intimidating to the average person. But leveling comes pretty quickly when boots hit the ground and they interact with people actually using the purifiers to sustain their very lives. Charlie Matlack, another co-founder of PotaVida and technical architect of the Smart Solar Purifier, conducted the field trial in Uganda, leading to the current projects in Haiti and Somaliland.

Working with nonprofits such as World Concern, Matlack, and his own team get purifiers in the hands of end users such as Charles, a 57-year-old lady living with her family outside Jacmel, Haiti. Charles states that prior to receiving the solar purifier, her family often had no choice but to drink potentially contaminated water, fearing for her family’s health on a daily basis. Toussaint, a 75-year-old woman in Haiti explains that the simple, easy-to-use features of the purifier means that her 10 children and extended family members can all have access to clean water and a healthier lifestyle.

In PotaVida’s most recent report to Somaliland, they identified the individuals who had the highest usage rate in their communities, stressing how crucial it is to recognize high-performing individuals from literally across the world.

Co-founders Tyler Davis and Charlie Matlack with aid workers.

Co-founders Tyler Davis and Charlie Matlack with aid workers.

“To turn the data into information that our partner can use to replicate outstanding performance is one of the things that makes PotaVida unique,” notes Davis. “We’ve confirmed correct usage by over 50 percent of 825 households in two existing deployments in Haiti and Somaliland.”

With a new shipment of 500 Smart Solar Purifiers to World Concern in Hargeisa, Somaliland, these innovators are just getting started. They’ve now doubled the size of the program that began just months ago in November 2016. From brainiacs whose Ph.D dissertations included things such as novel interfaces enabling individuals to control prosthetics and computers using individual neurons in the brain, the seemingly simple act of providing clean drinking water to vulnerable communities may be the smartest thing to pierce the Seattle tech-ceiling in years.