By Julie Mollins
STOCKHOLM, Sept 3 When environmental engineer
John Feighery got an internship at NASA in the 1990s, he wanted
to be an astronaut but he was given a job working with a team
designing the U.S. bathroom for the space station.
The small, closet-like space needed a toilet and room for
hand washing, bathing and a place to keep toiletries. Feighery
also worked on a project to fix equipment designed for
monitoring crew health, which included testing water and air
After the Columbia Space Shuttle accident in 2003 left seven
crew members dead, the Space Shuttle programme was suspended and
further work on the International Space Station was delayed.
Feighery turned his focus from managing water, sanitation
and health problems in space to those on Earth.
"I'd been working on supplying clean water to three or four
people in space, and meanwhile there are a billion here on earth
that don't have it," Feighery said in an interview with
AlertNet, the global humanitarian news service. "The world that
my kids are going to grow up in has this huge problem that I
felt like I could work on."
WORK ON THE GROUND
After he left the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space
Administration Feighery tested well water in Bangladesh for a
job funded by the National Institutes of Health, part of the
U.S. Health and Human Services department.
He felt the work, which involved using heavy equipment,
charting notes and locations by hand and transporting samples in
incubators to a distant laboratory could be simpler and less
That's how he came up with the idea to use inexpensive
testing equipment available online, and mWater - an Android app
that records the data results of water quality tests and maps
The application allows people to track water quality tests
at any given water source over time, providing instant results
which are put in context with other tests.
The app, which is available in the Google Play Store, also
allows users to leave notes for other users about the appearance
of the water, its scent, and how the water is flowing from the
source, building up an archive of information over time.
A photograph of the water source can be uploaded and
location details are registered automatically using a GPS
reading from the mobile device.
U.N. Habitat funded a study in Tanzania to test mWater's
capacity to provide local health officers with a simple way to
see the quality of water using a mobile phone with an Android
"It's a very novel approach to water quality monitoring,"
said Lars Onsager Stordal, who works for U.N. Habitat's water,
sanitation and infrastructure department. "It makes it possible,
affordable and manageable at the local level."
Health workers can use the data or even go with a sick
patient and easily test the water where they live.
"Anybody can look at it and see what's going on to see if
anyone else might get infected," Feighery said. "When fecal
contamination occurs somewhere it is the first precursor of
disease in water systems. Before cholera spreads there's usually
some failure in the sanitation system."
Giving poor people proper access to safe water and
sanitation would save 2.5 million people a year from dying from
diarrhoea and other diseases spread by a lack of hygiene,
according to the charity WaterAid.
Next, Feighery will be working with U.N. Habitat and
Rwanda's ministry of health to help equip health workers to use
(AlertNet is run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit
(Editing by Patricia Reaney)