Making, with a capital “M,” is a new term used to describe an ancient act: creating physical things. Far from old-fashioned, a perfect storm of cultural and technological advances is fueling a revolution in Making.

3D printers, modular electronics, and online libraries of open-source designs empower tinkerers and inventors to bring their ideas to life with groundbreaking speed and creativity. Thousands of community hackerspaces (and Fab Labs and maker spaces) are opening their doors to Makers all over the world. Crowdfunding and low-barrier manufacturing turbocharge the innovation pipeline from invention to market.

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / Marco Zennaro

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / © Marco Zennaro

Today, the President celebrates a “Nation of Makers” as a powerful force of innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. And beyond the impressive promise of revitalizing American hardware manufacturing, the Maker movement offers a truly unprecedented resource: global creation.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. How many times in human history must inspiration have struck those who lacked the means to create a prototype? How many of our great ideas have gone unrealized? By democratizing the means to create, the Maker movement is poised to unlock humanity’s power of invention.

Recognizing this potential, USAID is challenging Makers around the world to create sensor technologies that can improve the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. Our U.S. Global Development Lab has launched a “Sensors for Global Development” Fab Award in partnership with the World Bank, Intel Corporation, and the Fab Foundation.

Sensors for Development

Sensor technology is an integral part of the Maker movement. Sensors allow homemade robots to navigate through physical space. Wearable sensors like Shine give you feedback on your personal health habits. Birdi monitors the quality of the air in your home – it’ll send an alert to your phone when you should open the window. Information about our physical world is increasingly detected, analyzed, and returned to us as useful insights that can improve our lives. The development of this so-called “Internet of Things” is owed in large part to hackers and makers.

There is a vast hole, however, in the Internet of Things. Much of the developing world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, is a sensors desert. Here, ironically, the world’s most vulnerable people stand to gain the most from improved access to critical information on essential issues like agricultural productivity and the availability of clean drinking water.

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world.  Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. /

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world. Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. /

Useful information streaming in from sensors in near real-time also may permit adaptive decision-making to maximize the effectiveness of USAID programs around the world.  Much in the way that the ubiquity of cell-phones has already transformed the global development enterprise, the promise of sensor networks presents a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog traditional methods of gathering important information and empowering individuals.

The Sensors for Global Development Fab Award challenges the Maker movement to get involved. We’ve called for Makers to focus their efforts on creating robust, low-cost sensor technologies that promise to help improve the livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable. By tapping into this pervasive cadre of solvers to take on society’s most fundamental challenges, we stand ready to bend the curve toward a more prosperous, resilient, and democratic global community.

Today, at the White House Maker Faire, we announced the six Fab Award finalists:

  • MoMo (mobile monitor) – a mobile device with a sensor that collects data to track infrastructure and improve accountability in the developing world. WellDone’s water MoMo identifies where village wells are broken and alerts repair teams to fix them.
  • Fresh Air in Benin – a network of air quality sensors being developed to monitor urban air pollution in Africa
  • GrowerBot – a smart sensor system for small-scale agriculture that monitors and tracks environmental conditions, providing customized guidance to help growers optimize their productivity.
  • Nano Plasmonics Biosensor – a nano-scale optical sensor for identifying organic molecules with a wide range of applications from medical diagnostics to detecting water contamination.
  • KdUINO – a low cost DIY sensor buoy system that empowers students and citizen scientists to monitor the environmental conditions of seas and rivers
  • Safecast – an open source vehicle-mounted sensor network system to empower citizens to collect and publish data, with a focus on mapping radiation levels

The finalists will compete for a $10,000 prize at the Fab10 Conference in July.


Eric King is an Innovation Specialist with the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Data & Analytics Team. Follow him @eric_m_king