Editor’s Note: In this guest post, charity: water announces the receipt of Google’s Global Impact Award. The $5 million award will enable charity: water to develop and pilot a remote sensor technology to determine which water points are working and which need repairs in real time. A version of this post originally appeared here.
We’re proud to announce that charity: water is a recipient of a Global Impact Award from Google.
The first projects we ever built were six wells in a refugee camp in Uganda. We wanted to prove to our donors that their money was spent exactly how we said it would be, and where it went.
So we walked into an electronics store and bought a handheld GPS device for $100. We took it to Uganda, went to each project and plotted six points on Google Maps™. Then we made the information public on our web site along with the photos for everyone to see. We’ve been doing that ever since.
Fast forward six years later, and we’ve now funded over 6,994 water projects in 20 countries that will serve more than 2.5 million people. And although we’ve continued to map every single water project, we don’t think knowing their location is good enough anymore. We want to know whether each one of them is working right now, in real time.
Today, we’re excited to announce that we’re launching a $5 million pilot project with Google to develop remote sensor technology that will tell us whether water is flowing at any of our projects, at any given time, anywhere in the world. Google has funded this entire initiative through the new Global Impact Awards. This award will help charity: water further advance transparency and sustainability in the water sector.
Although our staff and local partners visit our programs frequently, it’s simply not possible to visit every project often enough to ensure that water is flowing all the time. Thanks to this Global Impact Award from Google, we’ll be able to go from hoping that projects function over time, to knowing that they are.
Over the next few years, we’ll develop and install 4,000 low-cost remote sensors in our existing and new water projects in several countries. These sensors will transmit real-time data to us and our partners, and eventually to you, the donor.
But just knowing the status of projects isn’t good enough. If a breakdown occurs, there needs to be a system in place to ensure that it gets fixed quickly. That’s why an important part of this pilot will be to continue training and establishing local mechanic programs all over the world who can dispatch to communities within their reach and make repairs. This will create new jobs and small business entrepreneurs in places where they don’t exist today.
We know the data will uncover new challenges, but we’re excited and committed to meet them head on. We’ve used Google Maps™ to innovate over the last six years, and today we’re incredibly excited to work with Google on remote sensor technology, this time to further increase transparency for our donors, and to deliver water more reliably than ever before, to the people who need it most.
Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Harold Lockwood, director of Aguaconsult, shares his thoughts on the changing nature of aid, project ownership as a flawed concept, and more in response to our questions. Find him on Twitter: @haroldlockwood.
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?
Undoubtedly this is the challenge of changing the way we work. For decades ‘aid’ to the sector — most especially the rural sub-sector — has been delivered largely through the provision of infrastructure in short-term, cyclical interventions which solve an immediate problem, but leave many others unanswered. NGOs, charities, foundations, and even large donor grant programs and loans have delivered a lot of hand pumps, tapstands, and toilets, but have been much less successful at delivering permanent water or sanitation services. If national WASH sectors in the South are to truly move forward, our support must address the entire ‘eco-system’ of service delivery. This is particularly true as the donor world becomes more complex, as lower income countries move to be lower-middle income countries, and as expectations for services rise — as they rightly should. The challenge of ‘tomorrow’ for many in the developing economies is going to be household level piped supplies, not yesterday’s point source handpumps, and we should be ready to meet this.
2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.
As part of the sustainable services at scale initiative in Ghana managed by IRC of the Netherlands, we have been working with the government’s Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA) to address some of these systemic weaknesses and gaps in the rural water sector. This has involved intensive work to better understand the structural problems behind poor functionality of water supply systems and really attacking some of the most pressing solutions: a new legal instrument for CWSA, improved policy and implementation guidelines, better monitoring, and a truly comprehensive vision of what rural (water) services should provide. This has meant working with a range of institutions and organizations, including donors, many with vested interests in the current arrangements. After three years of intensive work at national, regional, and district levels, we are starting to see a growing consensus and demand for real change which is very encouraging.
The lessons I take from this experience are that this is a process that takes time; there are no quick fixes. Secondly, sector dynamics are often messy, but if the space can be created to reflect on what is going wrong and where the solutions might lie, it is possible to bring diverse stakeholders with competing agendas on board. Finally, we know that this process is not cheap, but compared to the relatively huge scale of resources being channeled into sector investments, it is affordable and absolutely necessary.
3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?
I believe that ‘project ownership’ by communities is a flawed concept. Much of what has been promoted as ‘community management’ by projects in the past has often been based on a very shaky understanding of national sector policy and legislation. It assumes firstly that communities are legally able to take on the ‘project’ assets (the pumps, concrete, and tapstands, latrines, etc.), but this is often not the case, is unclear, or is contested. Secondly there is the assumption that (rural) communities have the wherewithal, capacity, and desire to manage their own systems. Twenty years of experience have shown us that this works for some, but that for many communities these two assumptions are wildly optimistic and deeply flawed.
Sustainability of services can only be ensured by having competent operators (community, public, or private — I am agnostic on the modality, but it must be relevant to the context), good long-term support and monitoring, clear legislation, and financing frameworks to address regular short-term and longer-term capital maintenance costs. This is where we need to put our efforts.
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?
Unfortunately I am a bit of a Luddite and still have a ‘dumb phone’, but even I can see that telemetry, in aspects such as system monitoring with data flows either by SMS or internet enabled phone systems, is a game changer. These technologies can result in reduced travel and costs and empower users to monitor their own services and demand improvements. I am, however, concerned that all the noise and fuss created by these very clever technologies can at times detract from some of the fundamental principles behind their use — who has access to this information? How is it used? And, ultimately, will it result in improved performance and better, more sustainable services? We should not lose sight of these issues in all the techno-hype and flashy maps.
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)?
What I like are several interesting sites, including the newly revised Sustainable WASH, which includes a great resource database, Water For People’s Everyone Forever campaign, as well as our own site at Water Services That Last. But beyond these new places, we shouldn’t forget some of the Golden Oldies like USAID’s old Environmental Health Project and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, both of which have a lot of great in-depth reports and analysis. We should always try to avoid reinventing the wheel!
Editor’s Note: This post highlights an interview with John Anner of the East Meets West Foundation on how a technology platform and online collaborative network can solve barriers to growth, and scale the impact of their WASH programs. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.
How do you see technology scaling your Clean Water and Sanitation Program to provide more people in impoverished, rural areas with greater access to safe water and improved sanitation?
East Meets West Foundation (EMW) has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2006 to plan, manage, and track over 40 WASH projects. We needed to find a partner whose technology services could help us scale and be more effective. We have uploaded nearly $1,000,000 worth of WASH projects on Blue Planet Network’s technology platform, increasing the impact of our projects for nearly 60,000 people in Cambodia and Vietnam. Blue Planet Network programs and services allows us to spend less time inputting our project data and more time planning and implementing sustainable projects and learning from other NGOs doing similar work. Through the technology platform, we track our projects to make them even more scalable.
Can you provide an example of one of your WASH projects and how a tracking and management system is helping to scale your work even further?
One project in particular that we piloted in Cambodia was our Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project in the Kampong Chhnang Province, located 90 km east of Phnom Penh and one of the poorest provinces in the country. This is the first EMW clean water and sanitation project in Cambodia. We were able to secure funding for this pilot project and to expand our work further in Cambodia. The project enhanced the quality of life for 4,175 people in this area by increasing their access to clean water and improving hygienic and sanitary conditions. Today, we have four Cambodia projects helping approximately 12,000 people gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Being able to plan and track this project on an online technology platform that both our head office and our field offices could access improved communication and sped up our expansion plans without increasing cost.
Uploading the majority of our project data on an open-access system allows us to easily share the impact of our work and critical information on how we are improving WASH practices with international agencies, foundations, and state, federal, and local governments.
How do you see the use of technology helping you launch new initiatives?
Recently, we were awarded a $10.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant will enable us to improve sanitation and hygiene practices among the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia. The right technology support is critical to our output-based approach and the success of our program. Since our expertise lies in program design and field work, and we don’t have the capacity, know-how, or resources to build our own WASH technology system, we use Blue Planet Network’s tools and services to help us plan, implement, and monitor our international programs.
How exactly will monitoring and reporting help you achieve your Gates Foundation grant goals?
Using a project tracking and management system will help us increase the effectiveness and impact of our Gates Foundation $10.9 million program. We need to be able to track 1.7 million people in 344,000 households and 290 communes in Vietnam and Cambodia on the platform. We need a technology system that focuses on the full life of a project — from planning to implementation, and post implementation/monitoring — not just the final well or toilet. Other data we plan to track includes: region and time period, project challenges and successes, diversity and quantity of people impacted (women, children, low income), water volume and quality, water and sanitation usage, and more. And, we need to deliver ongoing project progress, data, and long-term monitoring reports online for easy access and full transparency to all our funders. This is invaluable data that we can share with stakeholders, and share with other NGOs so they can learn what worked best for us and the challenges we faced. We can even show funders or other NGOs how the communities are actively involved from the start, and empowered to manage everything from maintenance to financing to ensuring all community members live up to their commitments. The ability to customize the platform to meet all these needs will enable us to achieve greater results.
Going forward, we also want to use Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting service to enable our cell phone-equipped communities, partners, and personnel to monitor and report on all our safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, we will be able to quickly see the reported texts and to provide immediate advice to remedy a challenge. SMS is a practical technology for us because most of our projects are located in very rural and marginalized communities of Cambodia and Vietnam. This service will scale the sustainability of our programs by reaching thousands of children and families living in some of the most high-need villages and empowering them to monitor and sustain their own community-led WASH systems.
How would collaborating with other NGOs benefit your work and increase accountability?
As a member of Blue Planet Network, we participate actively in a semi-annual peer review process to share best practices with other implementing organizations working on similar programs around the world. We have reviewed 34 WASH applications since we joined the network in 2006. This has been a valuable learning experience for us. Additionally, 11 of our applications have been peer reviewed by other NGO members on the platform. These WASH organizations and leaders have included Dr. Meera Smith of Project Well, Lynn Roberts of Agua Para La Salud, and Carolyn Meub of Pure Water for the World. In order to complete the peer review process, we have to answer very technical and in-depth questions about our projects.
During our 2011 Cambodia project peer review, Lynn Roberts noted, “The Andoung Snay and Andoung Chrey Clean Water Project systems seem dependent on electricity. How reliable is the supply and is the cost included in the maintenance?” That discussion made us think more about contingencies on many levels. We welcome questions from fellow experts who aren't too close to our work. They help us make sure our project plans are designed for sustainability and have the full potential of addressing the WASH challenges in rural communities throughout Cambodia and Vietnam.
Our former Water, Sanitation, & Environment Specialist with over 25 years of experience in planning, managing, and evaluating rural development projects, Rick McGowan believes that, “People who have more experience in the water development business have an obligation to help tutor and encourage those who have less experience...” And we couldn't agree more! We know that together — as one network, made up of many minds and sharing one purpose — we can collaborate and share learning to better plan, implement, and monitor sustainable water programs globally.
Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s technology, tools, and services, along with learning from successful pilot projects among Blue Planet Network’s global WASH members. It was authored by Silke Knebel, development director of Blue Planet Network.
SMS texting is today’s most widely used mobile data service, especially in some of the most rural and marginalized communities around the world. SMS traffic reached 7.8 trillion messages in 2011 globally. As text messaging has grown ubiquitous, so too has its potential as a simple, inexpensive way for NGOs to reach rural communities and address the global water crisis.
Professionals in the WASH sector understand that there are more mobile phones in the global South than toilets. The need for utilizing mobile technologies in designing sustainable water and sanitation systems is clear.
Blue Planet Network created its SMS-based reporting tool to scale the global efforts of its members. Operating across 27 countries, we connect NGOs, funders, academics, and community members to plan, implement, monitor, and collaborate on safe drinking water projects. We do this through our online technology platform, SMS reporting services, and peer review process. Our technology solutions empower NGOs to increase the impact, efficiency, and sustainability of their water projects.
Earlier this year, Blue Planet Network began a pilot of its simple SMS-based monitoring system in India. India’s population of 1.2 billion is made up of 929 million mobile phone users — a colossal 77% of the population. Blue Planet Network’s service enables communities, and our NGO member organizations equipped with cell phones, to monitor and report on safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, our network members can provide immediate assistance in the form of expert advice to remedy a challenge. Since deployment, 5 of our members: Ekoventure, Gram Vikas, Palmyra, Project Well and Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) have utilized the tool to increase the impact and sustainability of more than 13 water and sanitation projects across India.
Blue Planet Network CEO Lisa Nash explains that, “The challenge in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is that a great deal of attention is paid to project implementation — the new ecosan toilet, the new hand-washing station, or the new arsenic-free well. But unfortunately up to half of these projects can fail within the first five years — not because of poor implementation, but because there wasn’t enough thought about sustainability at the outset.”
Palmyra, a WASH implementer in the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu, India, has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2010 and uses our platform and SMS mobile texting services to improve their water program monitoring and analysis. Palmyra’s program managers send in weekly field status project reports via SMS texting. These messages are captured and uploaded onto our platform for peers, funders, and WASH implementers to view and monitor project effectiveness and impact.
Blue Planet Network has dedicated a staff person to work with each SMS pilot participant. We have learned that reinforcing communication has to be ongoing or it’s easy to see a decline in participation. We also had to ensure that our service could be viewed in English (so the entire network could learn) and in the local language (so that field staff and community members can add value and input).
“The power of SMS is the power to let anyone participate,” says Lisa. “We've already seen text messaging in fundraising, but now we’re seeing how it is enabling communities to take charge of the sustainability of projects and increase transparency across the sector. And this can happen anywhere in the world. Simplicity is power.”
Our SMS-based reporting tool will soon be deployed in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where arsenic and pesticide-laden drinking water threatens the health of migrant workers.
One million people in California lack reliable access to clean water; and 1 out of every 10 people living in California's agricultural areas is at risk of exposure to harmful levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a report released in March 2012 by the University of California, Davis.
In partnership with our member, Community Water Center, we seek to create a community-driven water solution to mitigate the threat of high levels of nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination. The program will provide alternative water filtration solutions, sustainable support, and financing for low-income communities in San Joaquin Valley.
The San Joaquin communities receiving access to clean water through this program will utilize our SMS-based mobile texting service to ensure that their clean water system is delivered and used accurately, and is sustainable and economic to operate. When this program is implemented, over a thousand low-income San Joaquin 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. We are thrilled to provide a simple, yet powerful service that could drastically change how communities engage in their water solution.
Blue Planet Network’s SMS-based texting service empowers communities to take charge of their water systems and allows entire organizations to learn and share efficiently. SMS reporting is scaling our efforts to impact greater numbers of communities with measurable need. We have much to learn to make this service even more valuable. In the next few years, we hope to launch our SMS texting service in all 27 countries so that all of our members can increase the long-term impact of their water programs.
Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter who is the communication specialist for the Project WET Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana, and active in more than 65 countries. Nicole discusses Project WET’s evaluation work, including its innovative use of mobile technology and collaboration with Engineers Without Borders. All of the WASH education materials referenced are available for free download on the Project WET web site, including formal reports regarding the northern Uganda evaluation process.
The Lake Victoria Primary School (LVS) in Uganda offers an object lesson for anyone curious about the importance of WASH education. As part of a water provision project, gutters and downspouts were constructed and a water tank was provided to LVS to allow the school to harvest rainwater. What wasn’t provided as part of the project was education — either about the benefits of rainwater harvesting or the way such a system would be set up. As a result, the water tank ended up unused and in storage with small, potentially contaminated containers capturing only a tiny fraction of the usable water. Meanwhile the school was shelling out US$600 per month for municipal water that was available from only one tap.
Enter Aggrey Oluka, LVS’s head science teacher. Fed up with high rates of waterborne illness and unsustainable water bills, Oluka went looking for solutions. He found the Project WET Foundation, which was launching a new program in Africa with USAID to create culturally appropriate WASH-related educator guides, children’s books, and classroom posters, and to train teachers to use them. He participated in writing workshops for the materials and enthusiastically adopted them for use at LVS. Applying the knowledge he and his students had gained, Aggrey was able to finally get the rainwater harvesting system implemented — to the benefit of the students’ health and the school’s budget. The municipal water bill dropped to just US$30 per month, and students had increased access to clean water for healthy habits such as hand-washing.
Thanks to experiences like this one, the value of WASH education is finally being recognized. The WASH Sustainability Charter gives WASH education top billing, with the preamble singling out “the lasting provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene education” as a “leading development priority of our time.” (For more information on the Charter, read this WASHfunders guest post.)
Given the growing influence of WASH education, finding ways to measure and evaluate educational programs and projects is also increasingly important and challenging. While it stands to reason that a populace educated in the basics of water, sanitation, and hygiene will be better able and more likely to actively participate in sustaining water provision projects, the evidence surrounding WASH education’s impact on behavior remains in early stages.
As a longtime proponent and provider of WASH education, the Project WET Foundation is exploring new and innovative ways to evaluate the results of its WASH education materials implementation. Targeting youth through school and community educators, Project WET materials, including educator guides and lesson plans, colorful children’s activity booklets, and durable classroom posters, teach children, parents, teachers, administrators, and government officials about WASH using games, songs, role-plays, whole-body learning, subject integration, and other interactive pedagogical methods. Educators learn to use the materials through a train-the-trainer process, and students share the lessons they learn at home and in the community. Materials have been translated and localized on three continents, reaching millions of children.
So what happens after the intervention? Getting to that answer is critical for all WASH education actors, but it is not easy. Partnerships and novel approaches can help.
Following implementation in rural northern Uganda in 2009, Project WET used traditional site visit and survey techniques to evaluate results in 2010. However, recognizing the limitations of those techniques — particularly the lack of reliable internet connectivity for e-mail follow-up, the prevalence of teacher transfer, and the time constraints for staff — Project WET teamed up with Adam Lerer, a PhD candidate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lerer’s thesis work focused on using the Open Data Kit voice system, a web-based interactive voice response technology that allows the user to design and record survey calls to be received on any kind of mobile phone.
The innovative combination of mobile phone technology plus traditional techniques, allowed successful follow-up with 92 of the 500 schools where educational materials were implemented at a cost of US$5.90 per teacher and US$.06 per student. The mobile phone surveys allowed teachers and schools to respond quickly and easily, boosting return rates. The data collected showed that of the schools who responded to the follow-up, 90 percent were still using WASH education materials with their students a year after implementation, and 92 percent reported positive changes in student behavior related to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Increased hand-washing behavior and facilities were most often reported, as well as healthy behaviors relating to water storage, cleaning of the latrine, and water sources. At least 25 percent of users reported that the materials had also been shared with the wider community, supporting the notion of schools as gardens where ideas can grow and be shared.
While mobile phone surveys provide a promising, low-cost evaluation technique, extended on-the-ground monitoring is likely to remain the gold standard for independent assessment. However, many nonprofit organizations cannot afford to carry out such programs on their own. By partnering with the Montana State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Project WET has been able to both wrap education around water provision projects EWB has underway in Kenya and tap EWB student leaders to carry out year-by-year site evaluations in areas where Project WET materials have been implemented. The results of this three-year study — due out in 2015 — should shed light on the effects of WASH education on water provision projects and communities.
By partnering inside and outside the WASH sector, experimenting with innovative techniques, and — most importantly — sharing lessons learned, WASH education practitioners can improve the work being done and secure education’s place at the center of WASH sustainability.
Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s long-standing peer review and crowd-sourcing platform, along with examples of collaboration and knowledge sharing among BPN’s members. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.
What if there was a way for the WASH sector to unlock the hidden knowledge of sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation programs?
Blue Planet Network (BPN), an online global platform and network of 90+ WASH funders and implementing organizations, is designed to encourage collaboration, increase impact, and promote a cross-sector focus on project results and lessons learned. This is complemented by an expert crowd-sourcing process — the heart of BPN. Members “peer review” other organizations seeking feedback on their project implementation plans. Utilized collaboratively in a safe space, the peer review process is aimed at unlocking the tremendous knowledge of the global WASH sector. After five years of peer reviewing and crowd-sourcing, we have seen an increase in member standards, discussion, and accountability.
BPN’s WASH community began in 2006 when five WASH NGOs — recognized for their innovation and impact — came together to build a collaborative online forum to improve each other’s programs. Introducing the peer review concept was a new challenge; we knew it would take time to build a large community of NGOs and funders committed to sharing their valuable project knowledge for the good of the sector. Over time, however, these efforts paid off. Our members have shown us so many ways to use our platform.
The BPN member stories below show how the WASH sector — empowered by technology — can collaborate, share learning lessons, and continually help improve WASH sector program impact.
Community Water Center (CWC) and BPN are developing a program in San Joaquin Valley, CA, to help 2,600 people living with nitrate and arsenic-contaminated drinking water. The groundwater has been contaminated with nitrates from the heavy agricultural pesticides used, and from naturally occurring arsenic. Project Well, a BPN member working on arsenic-free wells in West Bengal, India, will support CWC’s efforts by sharing their experience.
- Aguayuda, from Colombia, changed their local staffing plans after applying for membership and discussing staffing options with BPN members Agua Para La Vida, El Porvenir (Nicaragua), and Agua Para La Salud (Guatemala).
- East Meets West (Vietnam, Cambodia) suggested improvements to hygiene practices of a project by Indian BPN member, Ekoventure, that reduced overall costs and improved project sustainability.
- The Chagrin Valley, Ohio Rotary Club, a BPN funding member, facilitated the independent monitoring of projects implemented by member Aqua Clara International in Kenya by local Kenyan Rotarians.
- “Peer visits” in 2011 were launched to empower members from a common region to connect with others in the field, suggest improvements, and train together. The Samburu Project hosted fellow members, Tanzania Mission to the Poor and Disabled (PADI), Aqua Clara International, Sabore Oyie in Kenya and Rajesh Shah of BPN to review their work in northern Kenya, suggest ways to improve sustainability, and share field experiences.
- Gram Vikas and WOTR, Indian BPN members — and the first two recipients of the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize — have advised members on their MANTRA and participatory watershed development programs. The 2012 Kyoto World Water Grand Prize winner, Katosi Women Development Trust (Uganda), is connected to BPN through a long-time member, Global Women’s Water Initiative, and we hope to promote collaboration among these grassroots leaders.
We have seen a significant increase of funder interest in WASH projects because BPN directly connects funders to NGOs and project communities. Although funders may be continents away, they still have an up-close look and hands-on tool to monitor and track project planning, implementation, and impact through our platform. This transparent process increases funder engagement and builds confidence in future funding and investment.
Funding ongoing monitoring efforts is also a cost-effective way to ensure investment dollars continue to have the impact funders seek. Currently, approximately 30 funders, WASH experts and observers, and over 60 international agencies track WASH projects on BPN’s online platform.
Through our close work with WASH funders, NGOs, and communities, we have come to understand that there is no “one size fits all” solution to address the global WASH crisis. Each community and culture is unique, reinforcing the need for an innovative community-owned strategy. By bringing people together to transfer and share knowledge, we enable them to learn what’s been tried, what works, and what doesn't, and then to apply that knowledge to their own unique context. Establishing a culture of learning within and among organizations is vital to improve project outcomes, lower costs, and increase accountability.
Building upon experience and member input, BPN is launching its next generation online platform, “BPN 2.0,” in late 2012. With the growing demand for BPN’s WASH platform, there also comes the need for expanded reporting and analytics, more funder-focused services, project post-implementation tracking, and simplified user experience. BPN will be sharing its work in the coming months with members and other interested organizations in the WASH sector. We look forward to learning from the experience of others to make our offering as valuable as it can be in our common effort to enable sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation for all.
Editor’s Note: This guest post chronicles one organization’s commitment to transparency and accountability through the development of an exciting new platform. Eric Stowe, founder and executive director of a child’s right, shares the story of Proving It and the lessons learned along the way.
In recent years a voice has become increasingly audible within the WASH sector — a voice calling for honesty about failure, transparency in reporting, and sustainability of solutions. It didn't emerge because failure swiftly became popular, but because failure appropriately became relevant.
When water interventions fail, they fail people. While we can and do discuss failure rates, we’re really not talking about “rates” at all; we’re talking about children and adults whom we have failed, collectively.
In the work of A Child’s Right — cleaning contaminated water to make it safe for drinking, for kids — we take failure as seriously as we take success. Our gold standard is this: we will not serve a glass of water to any child that we wouldn’t serve to our own children. If it isn’t water we would like to drink, then it isn’t water we should be serving to others. For this reason, we simply must have the technical tools — and the organizational culture — to support identification of failure and effective responses.
We therefore aspire to vigilance in monitoring, maintenance, and success. To these ends, we set about devising a means to monitor progress at every site where we work. We envisioned a day when every project we undertook could be tracked online — starting with a GPS point on a map, continuing with recurring verification that safe water is flowing, and culminating in the display of all monitoring and maintenance activity, as well as of updated photos and field notes. In short, we came to view “the big day” when water first flowed clean as the beginning of our work — not the end of it.
We realized our vision in October 2011, when we rolled out the first iteration of this new online platform called Proving It. (To learn more about Proving It, read the overview here.) It allows donors, and the public, to see systematically updated water quality test results, service records, comments from beneficiary communities, and more. In one place, interested parties can now track well over five hundred sites, a number that is growing steadily. With operations projected in sixteen countries, on two continents, within eight years, such tracking is both an urgent priority and a distinct challenge. We are proud of where Proving It stands, currently, but it is only a start. We are actively ideating on 2.0, and beyond.
Proving It was first developed for internal management purposes — to allow us to monitor, evaluate, and measure our own performance. Midstream in development, we asked ourselves: “What would happen if we made our internal database fully viewable to the public?” which then led us to consider: “What if donors learned of problems or failures at the same time we did?”
These questions stayed with us, and forged our commitment to rigorous honesty. If a project fails, the donor now learns at the same time we do. And if a water system goes down, it stops issuing water that a “beneficiary” could unknowingly drink. We have found this to fundamentally reframe conversations with donors — and even our shared view of philanthropy itself. Now that donors can track their gift over time (i.e., minimum ten years) and learn of the challenges we face in real time, they can participate in the act of insisting that water solutions are only solutions if they continue to work over time.
It is our vision that Proving It will be created in open source, and ultimately be white-labeled for use by anyone in the sector who shares a rigorous commitment to transparency. We are currently working on plans to make it so. Ultimately, we see Proving It as bearing promise for both the WASH sector and for many charitable aims.
It sounds a little funny, but we don’t want to fail at failure. We’d like to get failure right. To us this means being open to learning, as well as being rigorous in our honesty, transparency, and mutual accountability. To that effect, we welcome feedback, as well as long-range partners who would like to have conversations about Proving It and its potential for the sector.