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Editor’s Note: This blog was authored by Susan Davis, executive director of Improve International, an organization focused on promoting and facilitating independent evaluations of WASH programs to help the sector improve. She has more than 13 years of experience in international development and has evaluated WASH and other programs in 16 developing countries. Her first career (8 years in environmental consulting) involved projects like combining databases across the 10 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional offices, which is where her respect for unique identifiers was born. A version of this post originally appeared here.

What is a unique identifier?

You probably don’t think of it, but you use unique identifiers every day. In the U.S., your social security number is your unique identifier for the government (which is why if someone has it they can steal your identity). Your bank account number helps the bank track all information associated with you.

What is a physical unique identifier?

Well, your house has one — in the form of an address. Your car has one — the vehicle identification number. (The license plate might count but it is too easy to remove.)  My dog has an identification chip embedded between her shoulder blades because her license tag could easily come off with her collar.  A physical unique identifier needs to be permanent — long lasting in tough conditions, and not easily removable.

Names of artisans and date of construction inscribed on a water point in S. Gondar, Ethiopia. Credit: Susan Davis

Names of artisans and date of construction inscribed on a water point in S. Gondar, Ethiopia. Credit: Susan Davis

What does this have to do with water supply points?

The good news is that many more governments and NGOs are working to create inventories and to monitor services more rigorously. While there are occasional, limited efforts to include unique identifiers on water points, this is not a widely spread practice in the sector. Most plaques I’ve seen simply identify the donor and perhaps the date of construction. Currently most water points are named in reports and databases by the village or town in which they are located. This is not a reliable way of identifying water points uniquely. First, many villages have multiple water points, installed, rehabilitated, and/or replaced as they fail. Secondly, community names are often spelled differently in the indigenous language, and especially in English. For example, in Ethiopia English place names are often spelled phonetically (e.g., Gonder, Gondar). In Central America several villages have the same saint names. Thirdly, water systems vary from simple hand dug wells to complex spring fed gravity systems with several shared water points to pumped and piped systems with household taps. GPS capability on handheld devices is becoming more and more available, and several tools use it to help with water point mapping. However, it is not exact. According to, specifications for many GPS receivers indicate their accuracy will be within about 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 meters), 95% of the time. This assumes the receiver has a clear view of the sky and has finished acquiring satellites. With consumer grade devices, we can usually expect to be within about 20 to 30 feet of the mark with most consumer grade receivers. The numbers can vary slightly and thus GPS-generated latitude & longitude can’t serve as unique identifiers in a database of water points. Others have suggested using photographs to uniquely identify water points. While a human might be able to match data that way, photos can’t be used by software programs to merge large amounts of data.

How will physical unique identifiers help improve sustainable services?

One of the most obvious ways is that a unique identifier on a water point would enable customers to report faults by calling or sending text messages to a mechanic or the responsible entity (M4water is trying this in Uganda; and Watertracker Ushahidi has a technical assistance system).

A rich database on water points would be a powerful and necessary tool to help governments, implementing organizations, and customers fully understand and address challenges to sustainable services. Currently, monitoring data on water points are collected by different groups, with different goals and indicators, and saved in different places. Data collected over time, even in the same area, only leads to unconnected snapshots and can’t be easily compiled into one database for analysis. Thus, water data are highly fragmented. Water quality, functionality, access, fee, and other data are collected from water points by different groups, including:

  • National government inventories (e.g., Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone)
  • NGO/UN organizations
  • Customers/users
  • Local governments
  • Researchers/volunteers

A unique identifier physically applied to each water point would allow:

  • Asset management at the national level
  • More efficient monitoring
  • Tracking of maintenance, repair, and replacements over time (along with associated costs)
  • Community reporting (without needing GPS or even cell phones)
  • Data layering for richer analysis — e.g., with health, population, income, water risk data
  • Data comparison over time

How should these identifiers be generated and applied?

Some smart people have been thinking about this: see Akvo FLOW on ways to update data over time and mWater on Globally-Unique, Human-Readable Identification of Water Sources. Some data collection tools can generate a unique identifier, and I’ve heard suggestions for bar codes, RFIDs, or QR codes. But I keep thinking about the customer, and the local government. Will they have smartphones with barcode readers handy? What about the local NGOs who might be working with these communities? Below I suggest a few overarching guiding principles (I will leave the technical principles to the data experts):

  • Keep customers in mind
  • Pilot this effort in countries where national water point inventories are already established or underway
  • In other countries, work with governments/national WASH networks to establish a scheme
  • Keep it simple

I recommend that physical unique identifier systems be budgeted into all future water grants. To label all existing water points, budgets should be included in all national and organizational water point mapping efforts.

Just imagine…

Imagine the data we could compile with physical unique identifiers. Credit: Susan Davis

Imagine the data we could compile with physical unique identifiers. Credit: Susan Davis

A community performs water quality tests monthly on a water point, a local government agency performs water quality tests on the water point annually, and an external organization verifies the results occasionally. All of that information can be easily compiled for the same water point. This would allow us to look at whether quality is improving or eroding over time, whether certain tests are more or less accurate, and so on.

Interested? Want more information? Join the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) discussion on unique identifiers. For further information, read about M4Water’s challenges and successes. 

Editor’s Note: This infographic illustrates the projected impact of the world's shrinking freshwater resources on the world’s population by 2025. It was created by Seametrics, a manufacturer of water flow meter technology that measures and conserves water. It originally appeared on the Seametrics blog. 

Editor’s Note: PSI and Unilever announced a new initiative with local governments in Kenya, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe to improve hand-washing behaviors in schools. A version of this story originally appeared here.

A mother washing her child’s hands in Benin. Credit: Ollivier Girard

A mother washing her child’s hands in Benin. Credit: Ollivier Girard

Although many people around the world wash their hands with water, very few wash their hands with soap at critical moments — such as after using the toilet, while cleaning a child, and before handling food. If hand-washing with soap became a standard practice, health experts estimate that deaths from diarrhea could be reduced by one half and that one in four deaths from acute respiratory infections would be averted.

This year, a new initiative launched between Lifebuoy (Unilever’s leading soap brand), PSI (one of the Unilever Foundation's global partners), and local governments is focusing on establishing behavior change programs in schools and communities across Kenya, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe — three countries where hand-washing with soap practices are low. In Kenya, for example, 28 percent of school children report washing their hands with water at key times during the day, yet only 1 percent report using soap.

The new Unilever-PSI initiative will help children get into a habit of correctly and consistently washing their hands with soap at critical times of the day. Using Lifebuoy soap products and communication materials, teachers and community health workers will work to change behaviors among school-aged kids through hand-washing programs and activities, such as song writing, comic books, and even hand-washing pledges. When children learn and understand healthy behaviors, they help pass life-saving information to their families at home and to future generations — setting off a powerful ripple effect.

Together PSI and Unilever aim to reach more than 250,000 school-aged children and their families in Kenya, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe over the next year. Through these three pilot programs, Lifebuoy, the Unilever Foundation, and PSI hope to prove the efficacy of this approach, and replicate the program at scale across a number of countries.

PSI joined Unilever and CSRWire for a Twitter chat to discuss the importance of hand-washing. Check out the highlights from the conversation, including questions and discussion from the audience. Continue the conversation with Unilever, PSI, and its partners at #IWashMyHands and become part of a worldwide dialogue to push hand-washing up the global health agenda. 

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Trupthi Basavaraj and Rachel Findlay of the charity think tank and consultancy NPC, which provides strategic support to the Stone Family Foundation and has coordinated the Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water. Here they share some of the key lessons that NPC has learnt from running the Prize. A version of this story also appeared in Alliance magazine.

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Prizes have long been successful at inspiring technological innovation, from determining a ship’s longitude to creating a toilet that costs less than five cents per user per day to operate. What is less common is using a prize as a tool to stimulate innovation in service delivery. So when the Stone Family Foundation set up the Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water, it was all about doing just that.

As a part of our wider strategy to support entrepreneurial initiatives in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, we launched the £100,000 Stone Prize earlier this year. After an extensive eight-month process of identifying and short-listing candidates, we finally found our Prize winner — Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW) in Kenya — and four other organisations that we hope to support outside of the Prize.     

The Prize came about as a way to identify early stage water initiatives that the Foundation could support, and eventually help scale up. The search was for innovative approaches to delivering safe water in a sustainable and cost-effective manner to those without access in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. For the Foundation, running the Prize has been an exciting process, and one that has taught us several key lessons, three of which we have highlighted here.

Firstly, to attract the right type of initiatives and ultimately short-list candidates, it was important to set clear criteria — without being overly prescriptive. We identified six criteria for the Prize, but with a particular emphasis on two areas: a) innovation in technology or service delivery, typically in response to a specific need, and b) innovation in financial model, looking to harness the power of the private sector.

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

DSW meets both of these requirements. It addresses a clear need in rural Kenya: its water purification technology, a simple dispenser, is filled with chlorine and placed near a communal water source, allowing individuals to treat their water free of cost with the correct dose of chlorine. (To learn more about DSW's work, read this post.) But what makes this initiative truly exciting are two innovative financial models. First, the dispensers generate carbon credits by reducing the demand for boiling water using firewood, which DSW will eventually be able to sell. Second, DSW is able to bundle the dispenser as part of a wider package of agricultural goods sold by its partner, One Acre Fund. If successful, both models offer new ways of making water purification accessible and sustainable for low-income communities. It will also allow DSW to expand the Kenya Chlorine Dispenser System program into other countries.

Secondly, running a prize scheme is not just about funding. It’s also about generating publicity in a way that reactive grants programmes cannot. Getting publicity right is important not only for attracting applicants, but also for promoting the winning candidate and its approach. Our strategy was to identify the right partners and to leverage their extensive networks, reaching out to organisations both within the WASH sector and outside it. At the end of the first round, the Foundation received 179 applications from 39 different countries. We hope the Prize will not only help DSW gain recognition and attract further support from other funders, but also stimulate wider discussion on what innovation means for the water sector.

Finally, we also learnt that it was important to have the right reward in place. The promise of £100,000 for scaling up the winning initiative attracted a pool of strong applications, but as we narrowed down the candidates, it became clear that the level and type of funding offered through the Prize was not necessarily appropriate for all. As a result, the Foundation is now looking at the best way to support four highly commended candidates outside the Prize framework — this could be through providing investment or smaller grants to further test an aspect of the approach, or simply by helping to identify partners to move an initiative from pilot to scale.

For the Stone Family Foundation, the Prize has been a successful endeavour. It has enabled us to find some exceptionally strong grantees for the Foundation that we might not otherwise have discovered. It has also given us a sense of the wide range of innovations within the WASH sector, especially in countries such as Kenya, India, and Cambodia where the local environment has led to a growth in entrepreneurial initiatives. Much depends on what a funder is looking for and how a prize is structured, but we feel prizes can be an incredibly powerful tool for identifying and driving innovation.

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