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The Cellphone that Keeps the Water, and Data, Flowing

NGOs don’t always have the best reputation in the developing world. Sometimes they come into a community, install complex systems to fix a problem, and then leave – abandoning technology that can break down, become unsustainable or simply not help the people it’s supposed to. Water for People is different. They’re an NGO committed to their own accountability – to working with communities to find creative, collaborative solutions to the problem of clean water and sanitation access.

In this edition of Digital Diversity, Water for People’s Senior Manager of Programmatic Data, Keri Kugler, explains how they use a mobile phone-based technology called FLOW – Field Level Operations Watch, that is – to maintain this accountability and allow communities to monitor their own water and sanitation. By providing an easy way to collect data and photos, conduct surveys and communicate information, FLOW keeps track of water access in the most simple, adaptable ways.

This isn’t just useful for involving the whole community in monitoring and contributing to Water for People’s work. When you have information, you can challenge what you’re being told. Records on the state of water and sanitation access provide “proof that cannot be ignored” to governments and agencies who otherwise might be unaccountable for their people’s wellbeing. It’s an instant feedback tool, for people who need it most. This way it’s a critical part of Water for People’s mission – to provide clean water and sanitation for everyone, forever.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Keri Kugler

Tiraque is a remote region in the mountains of central Bolivia about two hours drive from the nearest major city, Cochabamba. Villages in Tiraque are small communities –  a few dozen homes nestled in the high desert where families are supported largely by subsistence farming. Many of these villages have no safe reliable water systems and very few families have latrines. Such small communities  are often overlooked by NGOs because of the high investment needed to reach just a few families.

 

A typical community in the Tiraque region. Photo: Water for People

 

In May of 2011, I was visiting Kayarani, a small village in Tiraque where Water For People is building a water system and latrines in collaboration with the community and the local government. Kayarani had just recently broken ground on a gravity-fed water system that would serve all 50 families in the community.  At the time the village was getting its water from two unprotected springs, including one that was often unavailable because it was on land that belongs to a neighboring community.  The water from the springs made its way to the community over several kilometres through patched sections of a plastic hose and the springs are open to the elements and not protected from contamination.

 

Women digging a trench for a community water system. Photo: Water for People

 

In Kayarani, I met Mariel Lazcano, who works for the Tirarque Department of Sanitation and plays a critical role in providing latrines and hygiene education. Part of her role involves meeting regularly with every household in the community and collecting data throughout the different phases of the water and sanitation project.  I was in Tiraque to show our partners FLOW, a mobile phone-based system designed by Water For People that collects data, photos and GPS coordinates and then transforms that information into visual data that makes it easier to digest.

FLOW supports our efforts to monitor water and sanitation projects for ten years to ensure that everyone in the areas where we work have water and adequate sanitation forever. FLOW allows us to collect data using any Android cell phone, and the results can be accessed in near real time by people everywhere. This facilitates better collaboration between many partners and allows stakeholders to quickly react to data and make programmatic changes. It also supports long term project monitoring, which Water For People values above all else.

When I showed Mariel a phone with the FLOW program she was ecstatic. She explained to me that she currently has to drive to Cochabamba three times a week, two hours in each direction, to submit the data she collects on an ongoing basis. “I am supposed to be in the field everyday but I have to travel to Cochabamba three days a week to fill out paperwork. With a FLOW phone I can be in the field every day,” she told me. FLOW was designed to be easy to use, and within minutes Mariel was using it to interview a family in the community. She thinks this will encourage more accountability in the government and within NGOs, providing “proof that could not be ignored” about the state of water and sanitation projects.  She immediately started to think about different kinds of data she could collect.

 

Mariel using FLOW to interview a community member. Photo: Water for People

 

FLOW was designed to let users create surveys on any topic, and the diversity of the surveys is endless – they can be simple or complex; they can include photos, videos and audio clips – giving the user total flexibility to collect the information that will make an impact on their project. Phones can store hundreds of surveys and data can be collected in areas where there is no mobile connection – it automatically transmits the data once a connection is detected, so the system can be used anywhere in the world.

Water For People uses FLOW in eleven countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and it’s operated by a diverse group of users. Independent volunteers use FLOW to verify that our projects are sustainable long after we have completed them. Water For People staff in the countries where we work use FLOW to monitor their work and use the data from FLOW to make nimble programmatic changes in response to what works and what doesn’t work. Our partners, like Mariel, use FLOW to support construction of water and sanitation systems and in hygiene education.  FLOW is also being used by other NGOs in Africa and Asia including the Water and Sanitation Programme of the World Bank, A Child’s Right, and Water and Sanitation for Africa.  In 2012, Water For People will be partnering with the Dutch organization Akvo, with the goal of making FLOW accessible to many other development organisations.

To continue following FLOW projects, visit Water for People’s website.

Keri Kugler is the Senior Manager of Programmatic Data at Water For People. She has been with Water For People for four years and supports the development, use and dissemination of FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch), Water For People’s on-the-ground remote technology to record data, monitor their work, and evaluate their programs.  Keri functions as the research manager for all the programmatic data Water For People collects and supports other organisations in their use of FLOW. Prior to working at Water For People she supported a variety of local non-profits in research and data management.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. […] an example, check out how Water for People is using a mobile phone-based technology called FLOW – Field Level Operations Watch – to maintain accountability and allow communities to monitor their own water and […]

  2. USAID Presentation « BetterEvaluation
    August 3, 2012, 4:59 am

    […] Water for People is using a mobile phone-based technology called FLOW – Field Level Operations Watch – to maintain accountability and allow communities to monitor their own water and sanitation. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/01/24/the-cellphone-that-keeps-the-water-and-data-flowi… […]

  3. Using Akvo FLOW in Bolivia | Akvo blog
    April 16, 2012, 3:31 pm

    […] Following is a personal account by Keri Kugler, Water For People’s Senior Manager of Programmatic Data, of the introduction of FLOW in one particular village (also published in National Geographic). […]

  4. Keri Kugler
    Denver, CO
    February 21, 2012, 11:28 am

    Hi Woody,

    I received your email as well and I am happy to send you more information there as well but for a short answer, FLOW is not yet publicly available. We have not developed it to the point where it is easy to download and use so the organizations that are currently using FLOW need substantial technical support. We are a small organization and just don’t have the resources to support FLOW use for more than a few organizations. We do want FLOW to become a tool that anyone can use though and so we are partnering with and organization called AKVO who will have the capacity to make FLOW easy to download and use and will be able to provide tech support. We are at the very early stages of this partnership but I am happy to put you on the list of people interested in using FLOW and we will let you know when it is available.

    Thanks!

  5. Woody Collins
    Kananga, DR Congo
    February 21, 2012, 8:02 am

    How can I obtain a copy of FLOW? We want to start mapping water points (wells, cisterns, spring boxed, etc) . Please contact me.

  6. Woody Collins
    Kananga, DR Congo
    February 21, 2012, 7:58 am

    I would like to get a copy of FLOW. We want to start map water points (wells,, cisterns, spring boxes, etc) in July 2012. How Can I start to use FLOW?

  7. […] The Cellphone that Keeps the Water, and Data, Flowing. Share this:TwitterTumblrPrintPinterestFacebookLinkedInDiggStumbleUponRedditEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  8. Keri Kugler
    Denver, Colorado
    February 17, 2012, 11:38 am

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your great feedback on the blog. I am hoping I can answer some of your questions.

    FLOW was designed to collect lots of different kinds of information and can be customized by each organization using it to collect the types of data they need. The starting point of FLOW is a survey which can be created with any questions an organization wants to ask, the survey also can collect GPS coordinates, photos, video and scan bar codes. The surveys are transmitted wirelessly to an application that can be put on an android phone. The phones are used to collect data via the surveys and then the data collected its transmitted back to the server and the user can view results, maps and reports from the data in real time as the data comes in.

    In our case at Water For People we collect a lot of different types of information. In areas where we have implemented projects we monitor those projects for at least 10 years after implementation. For us that means we go to a community where we have a water or sanitation project and use FLOW to collect a wide range of data. We evaluate the project and its functionality, for example if it is a water project we look at things like: Is the water point functioning? Are there any current problems with the water point? Does it provide enough water for every one in the community every day? We test water quality and assess if it is within appropriate ranges. We also look the sustainability of the water point by assessing things like: Does the community have enough funds available to fix the water point if it breaks down? Is there someone in the community who can repair the water point if necessary? Are tariffs being collected for operation and maintenance? We look at a number of other metrics about the project and we also conduct surveys at random households in the communities to cross check some of our data and assess how the community feels the project is performing and what their level of satisfaction is.

    In Honduras where we work this monitoring using FLOW recently translated into programmatic change when data showed that in a number of communities where we had completed projects, tariffs were being collected but they were not enough to cover costs for maintenance and repairs. With that knowledge our field staff quickly organized a number of trainings that brought members of different communities together to achieve better financial management of water systems in the region.

    We also use FLOW to conduct baseline assessments in new areas and communities where we will be working. This allows us to do better planning because we can assess the water and sanitation situation in areas where we will work and more strategically plan interventions and it gives us a platform to share data quickly with our implementing partners in the field and the local governments we are working with. In the case of the communities in Tiraque I described this is the kind of activity we were doing, we were working with Mariel in the local government to plan for projects and document the project implementation and all the surrounding activities like community trainings and household level hygiene efforts.

    Water For People has been doing this kind of monitoring and baseline assessment since 2006 but before FLOW the data was collected on paper surveys that were then laboriously transcribed into excel and then data was analyzed. There were a number of problems with that method, it was slow and there was a long lag time between when data was collected and when reports were presented to the field staff where the work was being done. It was also very difficult to control the quality of the data, there were lots of errors and data could be difficult to transcribe. We collected GPS coordinates but the projects had to be entered one by one to create a map and the program we used to create maps was difficult to use. The advantage FLOW has is as soon as data is transmitted to the server that data is instantly available to our field staff and some basic statistical analysis is done for them. FLOW also contributes to our goal of transparency, we show every water point we monitor (with results good or bad) on a public facing map and the public can click on any of those water points and see a range of the data we collected on that project.

    I don’t believe the comments section will allow me to upload screen shots but if you have more questions or would like me to show you FLOW in more detail, please feel free to contact me at kkugler@waterforpeople.org.

  9. Eric White
    Washington
    February 16, 2012, 11:41 am

    Thanks for presenting the FLOW program. It sounds great, but I am left without a clear understanding of what the application actually does and the specifics of how Water for People uses it to improve their projects. How about some screen shots? How about telling us what specific information is collected using FLOW (and by whom)? Then, how is that specific information used to make “nimble programmatic changes,” and what sorts of changes are made? Perhaps you could have presented a more detailed description of the Tirarque case that illustrates Water for People’s operational model and how it is enhanced by using FLOW.

    I am a development worker and often find myself trying to convince aid agencies to invest more in enhancing their projects with mobile technologies. But many project managers who face hard decisions on how to spend their limited budgets are reluctant to do so because they don’t feel like there’s any real value add from mobile tools. So many people talk about the benefits of mobile technology for development in generic terms, and so few talk about them in specifics, that it creates the impression that we as an industry are all out marketing snake oil.

    The point is – If Water for People has a good, effective, tool in FLOW, tell me exactly how to use it and I will find a number of eager implementers. But tell me that it “collects data for communities to allow greater accountability of their projects” and the implementers I deal with will think that it’s just a sales pitch by an NGO looking for funding.

  10. Nazar Talibdjanov, Orlando Fl
    Orlando, USA
    January 25, 2012, 11:19 am

    “NGOs don’t always have the best reputation in the developing world. Sometimes they come into a community, install complex systems to fix a problem, and then leave – abandoning technology that can break down, become unsustainable or simply not help the people it’s supposed to” – big challenge for NGOs!

  11. Nicolas Dickinson
    The Netherlands / Ghana
    January 24, 2012, 9:42 am

    As part of a project aimed at improving the sustainability of rural water supplies, we recently helped setup FLOW as a pilot in three districts in Ghana.

    Today, January 24th, there are district staff in the Volta Region reviewing the results and deciding what to do to improve the management of rural water services and ensure they are sustainable. It is an exciting time and critical that we continue to collect this kind of information as it is only over time that decision can be reviewed and that the information can be made more reliable.

    FLOW is a good example of how the adoption of advanced information, communication and mapping technologies have the potential to improve the delivery of water and sanitation services.

    I am working for IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, http://www.irc.nl. The project website can be found here: http://www.waterservicesthatlast.org.