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Editor's Note: This guest blog was authored by Khanh Russo, public benefit investment manager of the Critical Human Needs portfolio at Cisco. Khanh discusses the importance of using data to inform decision-making and increase impact by offering insights into how a smartphone-based system was brought to scale and why Cisco has supported its development.

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.

Village in Malawi. Credit: Water For People

Village in Malawi. Credit: Water For People

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.  

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.

FLOW, an open source tool developed by Water for People and Akvo to collect and manage WASH data

FLOW, an open source tool developed by Water for People and Akvo to collect and manage WASH data

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 collect 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.”

Other data-driven tools that Cisco supports include the Blue Planet Network technology platform and its SMS-based reporting tool. Read more about Cisco’s funding strategy for Critical Human Needs, and let us know how you’ve used WASH data to inform your work in the comments below.

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new “5 Questions for…” series, where we pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector. In this post, Water For People’s CEO, Ned Breslin, discusses FLOW, tariff systems, sensors, and more in response to our questions.   

If you are interested in participating in this series, send us an e-mail at: WASHfunders@foundationcenter.org.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

That, as a sector, if we continue to muddle through with small-scale projects, and with programs that have no chance of scale or replication, and if we continue complaining about a lack of finance and poor political will, we won’t solve the water and sanitation crisis. We need to have the courage of a comprehensive polio eradication-type campaign and movement. We are ready to make a bolder move. All investments in water and sanitation need to last, because we can no longer accept girls walking back to polluted water sources past broken handpumps and taps. It’s time we begin to think seriously about creative financial models to replace water and sanitation facilities over time. As a sector, we need to lead the world in issues of transparency with longer-term monitoring that helps us understand what works and why. We are ready for this leap, we just need to take it.   

2. Tell us about a collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

I am extremely excited about our new partnership with Akvo on the future development of FLOW. As many know, Water For People developed FLOW as a way to meet our commitment to 10 years post-implementation monitoring. FLOW is great but we were overwhelmed by the demand for FLOW by other agencies. So we decided Akvo will take this process forward. Through the process of creating a partnership, the thing I learned the most is that alignment around values, organizational culture, and vision is vital to a partnership moving forward. Challenges will emerge but we can always move forward if aligned with a bigger vision in mind.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

We focus on payment and tariffs. The days of sweat equity alone being sufficient for ownership are gone, thankfully. The challenge is to develop tariff systems that finance operations and maintenance (O&M), and also contribute in part to the eventual replacement of these systems over time while ensuring that all have access to water regardless of economic capacity. But someone has to pay, and ownership and sustainability will be elusive unless we embrace the fact that payment matters. We can debate who pays all we want, but someone has to pay — someone actually has to own that responsibility. Water For People works very hard at this issue. It’s not easy but it’s vital to all real discussions on ownership and sustainability.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

I love the potential of sensors in the water and sanitation sector. The ability to truly understand issues related to consumption patterns and, most importantly, functionality will be a big game changer. If sensors tell us when water systems are down, when they are repaired, and what is happening with water resources, we will be in a much stronger position to understand and respond to sustainability challenges. The one group I am watching now is SWEETLab — really good work there!

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The one resource I am inspired by is A Child's Right program called “Proving It” (discussed in detail in this WASHfunders post). It’s early stages but it is a really nice attempt to track actual users over time. The web page will show you what is working and highlight when a system is down (leading to a reduction in the number of beneficiaries). This is a big step and should be supported when talking about aid transparency and all. 

We are launching something called “Re-Imagining Reporting” in August at Stockholm Water Week. May be of interest for people as well. To follow the progress, keep track of our tweets via @NedBreslin and @waterforpeople.

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