So what do what do toilets text when they are all alone?

Two and half billion people – around half the people in the developing world – do not use an improved sanitation facility according to the United Nations. This doesn’t just refer to the inside toilet we are used to but also includes facilities as basic as a pit latrine covered by a slab! It remains a major problem with a wide-ranging impact on health, environment and livelihoods.

Cody Finke, project leader, Seva Sustainable Sanitation, winner of Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project 2015, joined a project to tackle a problem to create a low cost, solar-powered wastewater treatment and recycling system in developing countries. The project received support as a result of winning the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2012 ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’, which enabled the project to field test the technology in India.

However, the field tests identified a significant challenge that the team hadn’t anticipated. How would they fix the toilets when they break? And who would fix them?

It became clear that there were not enough people with the skills needed to diagnose and repair problems with the unit in the areas needing them, even if the spare parts were provided. In the early days, when one of the units developed even a minor issue (which happens about once every six months) it required one of the team to fly from California to fix it.

They thought about whether using mobile in some way could help solve the problem, since ironically more people have access to mobile devices than proper toilets. However, the team had no money to explore this idea.

So they entered and then won, the Vodafone Americas Foundation 2015 Wireless Innovation Project. The US$300,000 prize money has given the team the funding over three years to develop a self-diagnosis system for the toilet and to test it. 

Seva (which means service in Hindi) combines software and low cost sensors so that the toilet can tell when and how it is broken. When it identifies a problem it texts a local technician. A video display on the treatment system then provides the technician with step-by-step pictorial instructions, showing them how to replace the broken part.

The cool thing is that everything on the installed toilets can be fixed using a very basic toolkit. So, in the future anyone with a mobile phone could receive the instructions and fix a SEVA toilet.

Once repaired, the technician uploads the repair log, which is then backed up to the cloud. This ensures an archive of reliable and comparable data to measure against as the project progresses.

Now tested in India, China and locally in the USA, the Seva system may soon be helping billions of people enjoy better sanitation

So not only does can the toilet text a technician, it can also contact known users to suggest they use different facilities until it is repaired!