A short program ran on NPR a couple of weeks ago that illustrated the social and economic disadvantages faced by farmers in Ethiopia, unable to get frequent and reliable weather forecasts. The reason – the network of weather sensors is not nearly as granular as is available to forecasters in industrialized nations (West Africa 16 countries, 28 stations, UK 1 country, 31 stations). Common wisdom has it that, as a result, the forecasts are no more reliable than looking out the window. Listen to the report 'Developing countries and weather forecasts’ (it's only 4 minutes).
The World Technology Environment Center produced a report in 2006 called Sensors for Environmental Observatories. It is a comprehensive review of the application of networks and sensing devices to monitor environmental activity from water levels in river beds to pollution. “Sensor networks will produce a revolution in our understanding of the environment by providing observations at temporal and spatial scales that are not currently possible”.
To make more extensive use of these devices both to support farmers in a developing nations and scientists trying to make more sense of climate change patterns, we need to look towards the development of very low cost wireless devices that can be distributed widely, last indefinitely and run independently of the electricity grid. We also need a widely accessible mechanism of networking, that will allow a sensor anywhere to communicate – even if only intermittently. Symbiotic networks is one conceptual solution. If we can receive weather reports from Mars, we must be able to find a way to receive them from Central Africa.
I am exploring a couple of real life solutions for a future post. Please describe any you are aware of.