Being Boring in the Water Sector Pays Off
A portion of this blog was originally published on WASHfunders.org
Data isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have the emotional appeal of water flowing from a hand pump for the first time into a child’s waiting hands. Nor does it have the “going viral” potential of Matt Damon refusing to use the toilet for a year.
But data is a valuable commodity for the organizations working to deliver clean water and sanitation to people who lack those basic resources. Having the right data can drive smarter decision-making and make water and sanitation projects more efficient, more effective, and more appealing to funders.
But in parts of the world where clean water is the scarcest, data is often the hardest to gather. Internet connections can be limited or nonexistent in remote parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This makes it difficult to gather data that can be analyzed and shared in a timely way. By the time you’ve gone home, entered your notes into a spreadsheet, compared it to other reports, and shared your findings with colleagues, the situation in the Malawian village you visited might have changed significantly.
Enter tools like Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), a smartphone-based system designed to collect, manage, analyze and display geographically-referenced data. FLOW users create surveys that can include text, photos, video, and GPS coordinates. They can use smartphones to store hundreds of surveys and collect data even where there is no cellular connection. The data automatically gets transmitted once the user has a mobile connection.
Water For People has collected nearly 40,000 surveys in 10 countries through the tool since 2010. FLOW supports data-driven decision-making and visual reporting, which in turn creates transparency and fosters confidence among funders. And more funding ultimately means more people will have access to clean water.
The Challenges of Achieving Scale
Leveraging funding from Cisco, Water For People began developing FLOW in 2010 to revolutionize its monitoring efforts. In 2012, Water For People partnered with Akvo Foundation to develop FLOW into an open source tool that could be adapted for other uses by other WASH organizations. It has already been used by 26 organizations in 20 countries.
A couple of things were key for taking FLOW to scale. First, Akvo focused on stabilizing the system and improving its usability, which allowed organizations to more quickly use the data to help improve their approach. Second, Akvo created regional hubs for support and training, which allowed them to improve customer service and response times at a lower cost.
Akvo had to overcome a major challenge to scale: There was a huge demand for the platform, but it was not yet robust enough to serve so many organizations with diverse needs. The Akvo team had to invest a lot of time in reframing expectations while also hiring staff to quickly improve the platform’s usability.
But despite the challenges, Akvo has a clear vision for FLOW that Cisco is proud to support: Giving governments and organizations an open, easy-to-use, affordable way to collet and understand data.
Keri Kugler of Water For People described how FLOW has significantly changed the way her organization monitors water projects and tracks progress in the Huffington Post.
“Using the survey tools, we speak with community members, find out if water service is reliable, whether someone can fix problems, and better understand ongoing issues,” Kugler wrote. “This kind of monitoring is a cornerstone to sustainable water solutions across the developing world.”
Learning from Data
Cisco supports other data-driven tools such as Blue Planet Network’s WASH Technology Platform. This award-winning global, Internet-based platform allows funders, NGOs, and other agencies to collaborate, share data, and form water “ecosystems” at lower costs than traditionally possible.
The Platform is a significant online project data warehouse in the sector. Users can capture information on all stages of water projects in an easy-to-access, transparent way so that all parties can learn and improve their own efforts. Such information exchanges eliminate competition and enable participants to learn what approaches are most likely to have significant impact. Since 2006, Blue Planet Network’s Technology Platform has helped its 105 WASH members to improve the effectiveness of over 1,850 water and sanitation programs in 2,600 communities, totaling $52.8 million in project funding, and empowering 1.38 million people with sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation.
For example, East Meets West, which will soon merge with BPN, is using the platform to report on its efforts to bring clean drinking water and sanitation to 12,775 underserved people in Cambodia, including more than 4,000 school children. East Meets West is tracking four WASH project on the platform in Cambodia and over 226 projects in Vietnam. One project at the Soramarith Secondary School in Cambodia sources clean water from a well and uses a solar-powered filtration system to distribute drinking water to the local high school and nearby secondary school via an underground pipe. Field notes tracked on the platform provide a history of activity at the project site, including, amid the data, such colorful details as, “During the testing a group of students started singing a handwashing song that they had learnt. Some students demonstrated good handwashing techniques, and East Meets West explained about the importance of good hygiene, sanitation and clean water.”
Some pretty shocking statistics have informed the evolution of the WASH technology Platform: More than 50 percent of water and sanitation programs fail, and there are more cell phones in the world than toilets. Building the well or the toilet is the easy part. Ensuring that it continues to work, day in and day out is the difficult, but vital part.
Mobile, the New Frontier
To better understand the challenges people and communities face in sustaining water projects, BPN has also developed a text-based monitoring tool that enables people working in remote areas to send in field project status reports from their cell phones. This simple solution allows Blue Planet Network to track progress and address project-related challenges in a new way. Instantaneous text reports from the field have proved to significantly increase the success, sustainability and long-term impact of the project.
This mobile reporting tool is being deployed in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where arsenic and pesticide-laden drinking water threatens the health of migrant workers. BPN and a local partner are providing alternate water filtration solutions, sustainable support, and financing for low-income communities. When this program is implemented, over 1,000 low-income families will be able to send in text messages about the status of their safe drinking water, a service never before provided in the region.
As an IT company, Cisco’s approach logically is to support technology-driven projects in the water sector. But with a specific, strategic focus on data collection through web-based technologies, we can help organizations build capacity and enhance the transparency, effectiveness, and sustainability of their water services. It’s not sexy, but it is working.
Read more about Cisco’s funding strategy for Critical Human Needs, and let us know how you’ve used data to improve your products and services for social good.