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Ammonia gas detectors could be used to detect sites of open defecation

Approximately 1bn people around the world practice open defecation. Last month, on World Toilet Day, the UN announced that 1 in 6 people in developing countries are not using toilets.

The problem is often overlooked; yet it’s known to result in cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, polio, reduced physical growth, hepatitis, worm infestation and impaired cognitive function. It has other implications, too: women faced increased risk of sexual harassment for women; children are forced to drop out of schools at an early age due to lack of toilet access.

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that open defecation rates in developing countries have actually almost halved in just over 20 years: from 31 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2012. Of the 1bn that do practice open defecation, 82 per cent are present in just 10 countries. Nonetheless, in Sub Saharan Africa, diarrhoea remains the third biggest killer of children under five.

It’s clear is that peoples’ attitudes needs to be changed – but how can governments go about monitoring peoples’ toilet habits? Brurce Muhammad Mecca, an engineer from the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, thinks he may have the answer.

There are more people in Indonesia who practice open defecation than in any other Asian country except India: approximately 21 per cent of the Indonesian population, a whopping 54m people. So Mecca and his colleagues have designed Open Defecation Eyes, or ODEYES. These will capture information about the open defecation activities taking place by using gas detectors to measure how much ammonia, a gas found in human faeces, is present in different villages.

Mecca and colleagues aim to place the detectors in different locations within Indonesian villages, so the amount of open defecation taking place in different areas can be mapped out accordingly. But because open defection doesn’t only take place in villages, the project is also looking into placing the gas detectors in strategic areas such as the riverside or corn and paddy fields. This mapping activity should make it possible to compare the attitudes of people within cities to those in rural areas, too.

The ODEYES project also aims to develop electronic maps that would ultimately be present inside governmental offices: whenever there are significant levels of ammonia present, an indicator would light up, informing officials that high levels of open defecation are taking place in that particular area, so that they can take action.

Mecca and colleagues have recently submitted the ODEYES project to the UNICEF Global Design Challenge to get advice on how to refine the project further. Mecca says the project should begin developing its first prototypes after approximately six months, when enough funding has been obtained, further changes have been implemented and designs have been finalised.

Although ODEYES is currently in its initial stages, the problem it targets is essential and the solution it proposes has potential; one can also imagine similar initiatives being executed in other developing countries in the near future. 
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