The 21st-century charity that puts Google and VR to good use

Making a difference in the world doesn't have to feel so impersonal.

Charity: water

How do you get people to care about the world's problems? More important, how do you get them to care enough to take action? Some nonprofits, like the ASPCA, are fortunate enough to have the perfect mix of cute animals in distress and a sappy Sarah McLachlan song to get the tears running and the donations flowing. But what if your charity lacks the glamour of a pop icon and the heartstrings pull of a wounded puppy? What if your charity's cause is as mundane as bringing clean water to those who don't have it? In a world where we have the luxury of opting for a $3 bottle of Fiji Water over Pellegrino, how do you drive home the point that some people have no other choice but to drink water infested with leeches? For an organization like Charity: Water, the answer to that question was a technological one: Take people to the Third World in a virtual reality documentary and show them how their dollars are being spent with real-time data from a Google-funded water sensor.

Founded in 2006, Charity: Water has unconventional roots to match its unconventional fundraising methods. It's the brainchild of Scott Harrison, a former New York nightclub promoter who, in the early aughts, traded in his luxe partying lifestyle for a volunteer stint in Africa. Since its inception, Charity: Water has raised over $200 million for clean-water projects in 24 countries, the majority of which are concentrated in Africa.

It's a cause with considerable gravitas. According to recent numbers provided by the World Health Organization, 663 million people around the world rely on unclean sources of drinking water. What's more sobering is the fatality rate: Of the 1.6 million people who die from diarrheal disease as a result of this water, about 90 percent are children under the age of five. To date, the nonprofit claims to have brought potable water to five million–plus people through 17,000 donor-funded projects. These range from the installation of wells (both hand-dug and drilled) to piped systems, latrines and filtration systems.

For the organization's chief global water officer, Christoph Gorder, the cause is a personal one. The son of Lutheran missionaries, he was raised until the age of 18 in Nigeria and the Central African Republic, where he experienced, firsthand, life without sanitary water. "We had a hand-dug well in my backyard, and dirty water was just a fact of life," he says. It was this experience that led Gorder to seek a career in nonprofits and, eventually, a role at Charity: Water, where he's tasked with figuring out the logistics of upcoming projects and the technologies used to implement them.

"As we were growing up as an organization ... one of the challenges that we realized the industry faces was that after you build a water project and you train the local community on how to maintain it, there was very little information available on what happened afterwards," says Gorder. "How long did it work? How much clean water did it provide? What was the impact on people's lives?"

That line of thinking, and that need for accountability, stems from the organization's commitment to transparency. It's an ethos the young, attractive and well-groomed staff is quick to highlight, whether that's through its pledge to "prove every completed water project on Google Maps with photos and GPS coordinates," funneling 100 percent of public donations to field projects or hiring a data scientist to make its fundraising efforts more efficient.

It's also what led Charity: Water to win a $5 million "Impact Award" grant from in 2012 to develop and deploy a hand-pump sensor that would monitor and relay data on water flow. As Gorder explains, not only is this useful as a tool to ensure the pumps remain operational, but it can also help speed up response times for repairs.

"These villages are so far away that when their well breaks sometimes, it can be days, weeks, months before they get it fixed," he says. "And that's a huge opportunity for us and for all those people."

For now, only the Charity: Water team and its local project partners can access the sensor data, through a software interface called Dispatch Monitor. But eventually the plan is to make that information available to donors as well, although it's not yet clear how Charity: Water intends to package it. There is talk of building an app, but first the initial batch of sensors must be fully deployed.

Since the project's official launch last November, 1,000 of a planned 3,500 sensors have been installed on Afridev hand pumps -- the most common pump in Africa, according to Gorder -- in rural communities in Ethiopia. Of that number, 700 are actively transmitting hourly water-flow data to the cloud, thanks to an embedded virtual SIM card and "pre-existing roaming agreements with every telecom company in the world." The other 300 sensors are located in areas with no cell service, a circumstance Gorder says is hard for Charity: Water to plan around. Though the team does conduct surveys via mobile phones to determine a community's walking distance to a clean-water source before installing a well, there's still an element of chance in determining wireless coverage.

"We'll need to move those. We installed them without knowing whether there's coverage there or not," says Gorder of the hit-or-miss sensor deployment. The problem stems mainly from unreliable testing conditions in Africa. Anything from a temporarily offline cell tower to unfavorable atmospheric conditions can affect sensor transmission. Then there's the possibility that cell coverage, which is rapidly growing on the continent, could expand in these very remote locations. Which is why some of these offline sensors may wind up staying put.

Though it's the product of three years' work, Charity: Water's sensor, a massive chunk of black plastic, is visually unremarkable, and that's by design -- the less visually interesting the sensor, the less likely it is to be tampered with. It's food-grade, meaning it won't contaminate the water as it passes through, and it's super-durable -- as in bombproof. "You could drive a truck over it and nothing would happen," says Gorder. The sensor also houses a lithium battery rated to last 12 years. There were plans to adopt a solar-powered solution, but ultimately the team opted for an internal battery, as it was deemed more reliable.

"There's a precedent for a marketplace to be created out of an open-source technology, which may be one avenue for the sensors."
Christoph Gorder, Charity: Water

The sensor design and firmware are open source, so anyone interested can visit Charity: Water's site and download the schematics. And as the team completes further iterations of the sensor's designs, Gorder says that those, too, will be made freely available. How the project will proceed once the funds run out, however, is unclear. Gorder says he's exploring two options. One would be mostly a continuation of Charity: Water's current model -- namely, donor contributions. The other would see an outside firm take over the fabrication and deployment of the sensors, and even potentially commercialize it.

To Gorder's point, the Afridev pump, created in the 1980s as part of a collaboration between the Malawi government, UNICEF, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, is public domain, so anyone can access the designs and manufacture them. Today, the majority of these are manufactured in Pakistan and India. "There's a precedent there for a marketplace to be created out of an open-source technology, which may be one avenue for the sensors," he says.

While Charity: Water's sensor project is a nice incentive for donors who've already contributed and want to check on the progress of the wells they've helped fund, it lacks a certain emotional immediacy. Which is why the team has another technological ace up its sleeve that's sure to increase donations: a VR documentary entitled The Source.

A lot of fuss is made, by technologists, artists and the tech press, about virtual reality's potential as an empathy generator. Namely, that by virtue of transporting you to another environment and putting you within somebody else's shoes, you can actually "feel" what life is like outside of your own head. Whether that's following a tribe of nomads in Africa or experiencing both perspectives of date rape, the medium has extreme potential to effect change. And to Charity: Water's credit, The Source is perhaps the best representation to date of that transformative power.

"We had a donor come into the office and we showed him the film. And after taking [the headset] off, he gave a substantial amount of money we weren't expecting."
Melissa Burmester, Charity: Water

Filmed on location in Ethiopia last May, The Source has a simple story arc: It's a before-and-after look at the effect Charity: Water's efforts have on local communities when a clean-water well is installed. It follows Selam, a 13-year-old girl who goes about her daily life. As a voice-over (done by an English-speaking Ethiopian girl) narrates each scene, we see her collecting leech-infested water from the same reservoir where animals drink and bathe. We see her taking care of her brothers and sisters in the bare-bones hut they call home. We see her eagerly participating at school. We see the drilling rig and crew arrive. And most crucially, we witness the powerful moment when the drill hits water and she and her community get their first taste of clean drinking water.

"We had a donor come into the office who's already given to us and we showed him the film," says Melissa Burmester, the VR doc's director of production. "And after taking [the headset] off, he gave a substantial amount of money that we weren't expecting. So just little pieces like that continue to reinforce that this is a tool. And it is evoking that response from people that's causing them to take action, which is the most important part."

For Burmester, The Source served as a kind of crash course in VR filmmaking; she'd had no prior interest in the medium. As she tells it, Harrison was inspired after seeing Clouds over Sidra, a VR doc that follows a 12-year-old Syrian refugee living in Jordan. "When Scott brought it up, we all looked at him like he was a little bit crazy," she says of that initial pitch meeting.

Given that Clouds over Sidra, a collaboration between VR studio Vrse and the United Nations, was the impetus for Charity: Water's own project, Burmester turned to the studio for guidance.

"We had about two days chatting with Vrse, and that was really just pulling together the camera rig," she says.

But despite Vrse's expertise in the field, Harrison opted to send an inexperienced crew of four, including Burmester, to Ethiopia for the shoot. His thinking, Burmester explains, was that their passion for the project would surmount any production difficulties they might encounter and translate into authenticity.

"We didn't want to go in and be like: 'This is the script, and this is the story, and we're gonna shoot around it.' We really wanted to just let it be real, good or bad," Burmester says.

The shoot, however, was not without its challenges. Burmester says the intense heat would cause the VR camera rig to overheat, forcing the crew to shoot for five minutes at a time and then rush to cool it with battery-powered fans. The logistics of shooting in VR also proved difficult, since the 360-degree filming meant the crew had to constantly find a place to hide. Then there was the matter of water -- an integral part of The Source's story -- being hazardous to the rig. Or the potential for the abundant flies to land on a lens and obstruct a shot; or, more comically, the threat of a cow kicking the rig over.

Once filming completed in May of last year, Burmester and her editor Jamie Pent spent months learning how to "stitch" the footage, a term used to describe the blending of the various images captured by a VR rig. Much of this editing was done by trial and error (and heavy research on forums), since dedicated software hadn't yet become available. Eventually the pair took a rough draft of the film to an outside vendor for the final bout of fine stitching.

Charity: Water debuted the final cut of The Source this past December for an audience of about 400 donors during its annual gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It was just this flood of emotion that swept the crowd," says Burmester of the pivotal moment when the drill strikes water in the film. "And it was probably the most rewarding experience I've had."

Harrison even flew to Ethiopia to screen the film for its star, Selam, and her family. It's a moment the team captured on film.

"When she takes off the headset, she's got these giant eyes," Burmester says.

Beyond those private showings, Charity: Water plans to make The Source available for wide release as a free download on the Vrse application, as both a dedicated VR download and 360 video. It'll also be accessible on Samsung's Milk VR app, though the team is working on a few bug fixes first.

And it might not be the last VR doc the nonprofit produces. Internal conversations are ongoing to explore more projects, but nothing's been decided yet. Regardless, she says the team remains enthusiastic about the medium and its humanitarian potential.

"It's about empathy and sharing good rather than some of the skepticism of people thinking about how VR could possibly be used for bad."

Image credits: Charity: Water; Esther Havens; Jeremy Snell; Joey Lawrence