Simple smartphone technology in water, sanitation and hygiene program lifecycle monitoring

WaterAid Australia Performance and Impact Monitoring Advisor Tim Davis discusses how technology can ensure the sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene projects into the future.


6 Oct 2015 | AU

What if we could use a simple, free and open source tool to create a globally appropriate rapid data collection, management and analysis system? A system that can be used by anyone working within the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector to gather snapshot information of rural WASH coverage.

The agreement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) - universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030 requires a fundamental change in the way we in the WASH sector work.

Current globally recognised figures indicate that 650 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and a staggering 2.3 billion people lack access to sanitation – 1 in 3 people in the world. It is clear that achieving sustainable and equitable access to everyone, everywhere is a complex task. With the enormity of the challenging and ambitious task ahead, we must ask ourselves, how can we harness innovation and technology to improve the way we operate?

Today information and communications technology (ICT) is rapidly changing the way we communicate with each other. People residing in areas once considered remote and challenging environments are gaining access to mobile phone technology for the first time. This access to technology is bringing with it increased opportunity for the WASH sector.

WASH monitoring data can be gathered with the use of mobile technology in a usable format and timely manner. This increased access to information can be used by decision makers and others to improve the sustainability of our work.

WaterAid has been collaborating with mWater since 2014 for the collection of post-implementation monitoring data. mWater is a simple, intuitive and free digital monitoring platform that uses mobile data technology to map, monitor and analyse water, sanitation and hygiene access.

mWater was created through the notion that “paper is where data goes to die”. Indeed we cannot measure what we do not know, and the image of small mountains of paper building up in remote government offices has never been truer.

mWater has created a system designed for use in challenging and remote areas with weak and unreliable internet connections. Data can be collected through the Android-based smartphone app both on and offline. When an internet connection is reached, data is automatically uploaded to the cloud-based data management and analysis portal in a usable format. Eliminating costly and time demanding data entry and backend analysis.

Use of mWater is free too, made possible by co-investment by WaterAid and other organisations. Funds are used to develop mutually beneficial platform features that can be used by all.

Uptake of mWater is high. There are now more than 4,000 mWater users in 59 countries all using the system to map, monitor, conduct mobile surveys, and collaborate with real-time data to greater global data sharing initiatives.

This isn’t just about data collection. Getting high-quality data, using it in a meaningful way and keeping it relevant through regular updates is essential if we are to change the way we work and improve sustainability. At any one time almost a third of all rural water points are not functional or partially functional due to operations and maintenance problems. If we are to reach the target of SGD6, we must use our data to map and understand logical WASH lifecycles. Using this information to provide support to government, community and utility management structures and in the process increase independence and upward sustainability. In short, the WASH sector needs to move away from the notion of providing coverage and move towards more sustainable models.

WaterAid Australia recently gained the opportunity to expand further our exciting partnership with mWater after receiving funding through the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). WaterAid was the successful recipient of the Civil Society Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (CS WASH) Innovation and Impact Fund Sub-Grant (I&I Fund).

The I&I Fund encourages organisations within CS WASH to trial new models and approaches that could have catalytic efforts within the WASH sector.

WaterAid has partnered with mWater to develop a “rapid WASH assessment tool”, incorporating the functionality of the previously developed Water Point Mapper and a globally appropriate WASH service level framework. WaterAid has supported mWater for the development of new software features such as increased mapping, graphing and analysis functionality. mWater is not just a data collection mechanism, but a powerful, visual and interactive decision making tool.

The tool incorporates simple and globally appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene questions within electronic survey format for both household level and community level data. Questions are aligned to the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), meaning anyone within any region who wants to conduct an assessment of WASH coverage can do so with basic capacity and minimal resourcing.

The questionnaires have been designed to be short, while gathering information that will be used for informed decision making. Each of the questions aligns with a service level framework, allowing WASH practitioners to track changes to WASH services over time, from the pre WASH baseline assessment to the endline point and beyond. Access to this simple but useful information means the impact WASH intervention has had on specific households and communities can be understood in terms of quantity, quality, access and reliability, allowing informed long term strategic plans to be formulated.

The mWater system automates complex back-end analysis previously conducted by WASH specialists. The result is a simple, interactive and usable system that can be used for project planning, advocacy and above all increasing sustainability. Decisions once considered complex can become simple and routine. Increasing upward accountability to government, utilities and service providers and allowing greater opportunity for water users while making the WASH sector more accountable for the services delivered to target populations and donors.

Though this process, we can gain a better understanding of user satisfaction, behaviour practices, water usage, management and financing structures and operations and maintenance. This information can be used to inform WASH service design, planning, budgeting and advocacy.

As we transition to this new stage of international development it is evident that people everywhere have the desire to improve their WASH service levels and climb the water, sanitation and hygiene ladders. In 2015 use of ICT has never been more active and is continuing to grow at an exponential rate. Could ICT be an essential piece of the puzzle to help us reach SDG6?

People using smart phone technology in the forest