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Editor's Note: In this post, Pratibha Mistry, Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist at the World Bank, explores the opportunities and challenges around a water quality crowdsourcing initiative. This post originally appeared on the World Bank's Water Blog, to view the original post please click here

The recently released Contextual Framework for Crowdsourcing Water Quality Data lays out a strategy for citizen engagement in decentralized water quality monitoring, enabled by the “mobile revolution.”

According to the WHO, 1.8 billion people lack access to safe drinking water worldwide. Poor source water quality, non-existent or insufficient treatment, and defects in water distribution systems and storage mean these consumers use water that often doesn’t meet the WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality.

The crowdsourcing framework develops a strategy to engage citizens in measuring and learning about the quality of their own drinking water. Through their participation, citizens provide utilities and water supply agencies with cost-effective water quality data in near-real time. Following a typical crowdsourcing model: consumers use their mobile phones to report water quality information to a central service. That service receives the information, then repackages and shares it via mobile phone messages, websites, dashboards, and social media. Individual citizens can thus be educated about their water quality, and water management agencies and other stakeholders can use the data to improve water management; it’s a win-win.

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Source: Figure modified from Hutchings, M., Dev, A., Palaniappan, M., Srinivasan, V., Ramanathan, N., Taylor, J. 2012.“mWASH: Mobile Phone Applications for the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Sector.” Pacific Institute, Oakland, California. 114 p.

Several groups, from the private sector to academia to non-profits, have taken a recent interest in developing a variety of so-called mWASH apps (mobile phone applications for the water, sanitation, and hygiene WASH sector).  A recent academic study analyzed how mobile phones might facilitate the flow of water quality data between water suppliers and public health agencies in Africa. USAID has invested in piloting a mobile application in Tanzania to help consumers test their water for E. coli.

What makes the crowdsourcing framework unique is its focus on developing a more holistic strategy for crowdsourcing. Here are six factors to consider when developing a water quality crowdsourcing initiative:

  • You’ll need an understanding of the local context (social, political, and environmental) if you’re going to meet community needs, win the buy-in of key partners, and conduct good environmental science. Project planning with the “Theory of Change” works backwards from the desired outcome and an understanding of the local context to identify the inputs that will help a project succeed.
  • collaborative approach to citizen science empowers participants and builds a sense of ownership.  Everyday people join a project out of curiosity or in the hope of personal gain. But their ongoing involvement hinges on the feeling that they are making a difference for themselves or for their communities.  Projects that recognize volunteers’ contributions, provide feedback, let people see the impacts of their work, and encourage a sense of community involvement are more likely to be sustainable. Distrust, particularly between scientists and project volunteers, undermines citizen science.
  • Participants want mobile applications that are not only useful but also easy to use, reliable, responsive, and trustworthy. Data dissemination – via the app or through other channels – should be developed to meet the needs of the various end users.  Of course, it’s also important to keep project goals in mind. App development for developing world markets is often hyper-local, because of the control that mobile network operators exert over systems and content.  This can limit scalability.
  • Don’t forget performance evaluation!  From spatial distribution of sampling to water managers’ response times after contamination events, the crowdsourcing framework includes guidance on indicators for measuring both the process and the outcome at every stage.
  • Good project design is the sum of social design, technical design, and program design.  Social design focuses on relevance and benefit to key actors in a socio-cultural context. This includes an awareness of user perceptions, collaboration, transparency, data privacy, and the like.  Technical design focuses on technologies and software, from data collection to data dissemination. Program design considers supporting political/agency infrastructure, performance metrics, and the project’s financial model.
  • Which water quality parameters will your project monitor? Available testing technologies, current water quality conditions, and local regulations will all affect your decision.  So will the current and future factors that might influence local water quality. These influences may be natural (geology, hydrology, etc.) or anthropogenic (sewage, urban runoff, industrial effluent, agrochemicals, mining waste, etc.). Citizen education about water quality is a major goal, so it’s also important to select parameters that are meaningful and relevant for local users.

Crowdsourced water quality monitoring offers a tantalizing promise of scale, spatial resolution, cost effectiveness, and local engagement, but it’s no simple task.  The conceptual framework underscores just how much thoughtful planning is needed for such a project to have a chance of sustaining.

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This flow chart highlights the social dynamics of a collaborative citizen science project. Source: Figure adapted from Rotman, D., Preece, J., Hammock, J., Procita, K., Hansen, D., Parr, C., Lewis, D., Jacobs, D. "Dynamic Changes in Motivation in Collaborative Citizen-Science Projects." Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. pgs. 217-226.

Editor's Note: In this post, Ammar Fawzi, Global WASH Advisor with GOAL, discusses the prospect of using smell-cancelling technology to combat global sanitation challenges in the future.

I recently attended the Global Toilet Business Innovation Summit hosted by The Toilet Board Coalition in Mumbai, India. The summit brought together key players from across the sanitation sector, but what was especially refreshing to see was the significant presence of the private sector – a sector often spoken of as the key to achieving success at scale, yet rarely actually in attendance at such summits. The range of the private sector attendees was broad, including large multi-nationals such as Unilever, Kimberly Clark Corporation, LIXIL and Firmenich, and over 75 small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs and businesses.

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Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the three days was a talk from Firmenich on Eliminating the “yuck factor” with smell science. You might have already seen the video that they premiered at the event, or read about it on Bill Gates’ Blog. Essentially, Firmenich is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle latrine malodour with “smell-cancelling” technology. The argument is that too often toilets don’t get used because they smell bad, and to combat this, Firmenich researchers are working on developing fragrances that block certain receptors in our noses, making us unable to register certain malodours. Think of noise cancelling headphones for example, but using your nose instead of your ears. As Bill Gates himself puts it, “The question now is whether this technology is good enough to make a difference in communities with poor sanitation.”

Innovative solutions to tackling global water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues are often a cause of much excitement, especially when a large multi-national company is seen to be working on something as exciting as this and is backed by the Gates Foundation. There is, after all, plenty of depressing statistics and indicators on access to sanitation in our sector, so why not afford ourselves the opportunity to get excited by something as pioneering and potentially as game changing as this? I would agree, however, perhaps the question that needs to be asked is not whether this technology is good enough to make a difference, but instead how can it make a positive difference?

Although smell-cancelling technology is still a long way from being usable and available, let’s just assume that it is ready to roll out and let me play devil’s advocate for a moment to pose some key questions about the potential impacts of this innovation:

  • Would you still be keen on using a latrine if there was poop all around the toilet even if there was no smell? This technology could be seen as a substitute for Operation and Maintenance (O&M) which will be required, perhaps more than ever, if a latrine has more users. Caretakers might feel that they no longer need to keep up hygiene standards - there is no smell, so it must be clean! Effective O&M from caretakers is often needed (but not always) to manage the emptying of pits, ensure there is access to water and soap, maintain hygiene, and collect user fees where relevant. Can we expect them to do all of this if they can’t keep a latrine clean and smelling decent without the use of this technology? Are we addressing a simple problem with a complex technical solution? Should we also be concentrating on behaviour change (people are embarrassed to be seen going to a latrine), increasing capacity, and promoting adequate monitoring with suitable incentives?
  • How will this technology be rolled out and integrated into existing supply chains so that it is accessible in hard-to-reach places in sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Public latrines aren’t always used as latrines. I’ve seen them used as homes, storage, and even a pigeon breeding home. What will happen if we make them smell too nice?
     
  • Flies are attracted to strong smells and there is a direct correlation between smell and presence of flies. I wonder, would this technology also work on pathogen vectors? It would be fantastic if it did, but if it didn’t, people might think their toilet is lovely when really there are many vectors spreading disease. Our overall target as professionals is to improve public health – not to increase latrine use. There is a case to be made that there is a logical and evolutionary reason for smell. In 2003, researchers at the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine carried out a study on smell and our association with disease. One of the researchers on the team, Val Curtis, echoes a suggestion that goes back as far as Charles Darwin: that we think poop stinks for our own good. Our disgust towards certain sights and smells, said Curtis, is a “behavioural immune system”: an adaptation—biologically rooted, but tweaked by culture and social conditioning—that evolved to keep us from coming into contact with infection and disease. Perhaps we shouldn’t be playing with this formula.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. One area where this technology could really have an impact is in container-based sanitation. Many of the enterprises like Clean Team, Sanivation, SOIL or Mosan working in and pioneering this approach, rely on business models where the collection of waste from households is every two or three days. This is how long it takes it starts to smell and it doesn’t become something you want in your house. But what if this technology could be used here? Collection time could be increased to perhaps five days or more and this could be a successful method for scaling up access to sanitation by making business models more attractive and cost neutral.

Refugee camps and those for internally displaced people might also provide a great opportunity to trial this technology. The O&M works differently in this setting, there is a reliable supply of international products making their way to the camp from the implementing partners, and the focus here is less on behaviour change and more on public health impact.

I congratulate Firmenich and the Gates Foundation on this project and their early results. Let’s hope that if the opportunity comes, we as a sector can utilise it in the most beneficial way possible.

Editor's Note: In this post, Anh-Thi Le,  Program Coordinator at Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California-Berkeley, discusses how mobile technology has been harnessed to improve water access. This post originally appeared on USAID's website, to view the original post click here.

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NextDrop’s real-time data and messaging system uses SMS to inform subscribers about when they’ll be receiving water, when there’s a delay, when pipe damage is likely to affect them, and when someone in the community has updates to share. / NextDrop

Although nearly half of the world’s population now has water piped into their homes and there have been significant improvements to water access in recent decades, many people living in urban areas of developing countries still do not have easy access to this most basic resource. And even where pipes do reach the urban poor, water sometimes does not.

“Literally, people wait around their house until the water comes on,” said Anu Sridharan, a founder of a social enterprise called NextDrop. “We’ve met people who’ve missed weddings, funerals and meetings.”

If customers miss a water supply window, then they may have to wait two to 10 days for their next chance. Unreliable water supply is a serious impediment to health and economic development. In India, 250 million people rely on unreliable water systems.

Sridharan created the phone-based program NextDrop to notify people when water will be available. In 2010, NextDrop won the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, allowing Sridharan — a University of California-Berkeley civil engineering graduate — and her team of fellow UC Berkeley graduates to begin acting on their vision.

The service has reached 75,000 registered users in Bangalore, India. Now, the Development Impact Lab at Berkeley, with USAID funding from the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network, is evaluating the effects of the text message-based notification system. The evaluation has reached 1,500 households so far.

This May, Big Ideas celebrates its 10 year anniversary at UC Berkeley. Since its founding in 2006, the year-long contest has provided funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students who have innovative solutions for addressing global challenges.

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Emily Kumpel, representing the NextDrop team, accepts an award in 2011 to scale up the team’s pilot study in Hubli-Dharwad. / Big Ideas Contest

Big Ideas is an example of how a university can be a catalyst for high-impact social innovation and research in international development, helping achieve an end to extreme poverty. The story of Big Ideas winner NextDrop demonstrates how a project that began on a college campus is now building evidence to reach scale.

From Classroom Idea to Reality

The seed funding that Sridharan and her team won from the Big Ideas Contest helped them to develop their simple but innovative idea: using text messages and crowd-sourced information to alert residents one hour before water will be heading down municipal pipes and into their homes.

NextDrop’s system involves collecting water flow information from valvemen — the individuals responsible for opening and closing the valves controlling water flow into particular districts — and notifying NextDrop customers.

This allows households not only to have accurate and timely information but also enables water utilities to access real-time information about the status of their systems.

The student team partnered with an NGO in Hubli, India for a pilot study of 200 households. Preliminary results were positive and the group was able to continue and refine their technology.

With funding from the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative University, and the Knight Foundation, they began scaling their services beyond Hubli to the Indian cities of Bangalore and Mysore.

Building an Evidence Base for Scale

The evaluation of the rollout of NextDrop’s services will demonstrate whether receiving text message notifications of when water is flowing improves a family’s quality of life, so they don’t have to spend as much time waiting — time that could’ve been spent working or at school.

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Each year, a household in India loses an estimated seven days waiting for intermittent water. NextDrop seeks to reduce consumers’ coping costs in developing countries. / NextDrop

The research team is also using survey data from the household impact evaluation to assess the accuracy of valvemen reports to NextDrop. The end goal is to provide NextDrop and the utility with a low-cost system for verifying and adjusting data provided by the valvemen, so that the utility has more accurate information about water flows to be able to manage limited water supplies.  

If NextDrop’s services are shown to be valuable in Bangalore, they will be able to scale their approach across other major cities in developing countries.

From early stage funding and support through the Big Ideas contest to evidence-based decision making and scale-up through the Development Impact Lab, projects like NextDrop have shown how the university has become a powerful space for inspiring, launching, developing and scaling big ideas.

As Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas shares, “University-based programs like Big Ideas provide the perfect ecosystem for early-stage entrepreneurs by providing the resources, funding and ultimately the validation that allows ideas like NextDrop to thrive.”

Editor's Note: In this post, Agha Ali Akram of Evidence Action, explores why despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. Ali Akram conducted this work independently and the following does not reflect the views/opinions of Evidence Action. This post originally appeared on DefeatDD's website, to view the original post click here.   

Despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, it was an unpleasant surprise for me to learn that it kills more than half a million children a year, predominantly in the developing world. More troubling still, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. This got me curious: why is this the case?

What I Did: The Experiment

In a randomized controlled trial in Karachi, Pakistan, I test the hypothesis that perhaps families need tools that clearly demonstrate the impact of health interventions – in this case, chlorine tablets for water purification.

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Figure 1
Info-Tool required weekly recording of diarrheal incidence and monthly comparison to a reference level.

I provided households with a simple visual tool (called Info-Tool) to help them assess the efficacy of using tablets. Info-Tool allowed households to record incidences of diarrhea using simple bar charts. Additionally, at the end of each month, I provided them a bar chart of the normal rates of diarrhea they could expect for that month. Diarrhea varies with season, so the norm I provided was a moving monthly reference (related to the number of children under five in the household) and Info-Tool allowed households to visually compare their bar charts to the reference level.

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Figure 2
Form of the experiment: control group in blue and treatment in green.

The experiment had a control group and treatment group, and rolled out in three phases. In Phase 1, which lasted three months, the treatment group used Info-Tool and built up a pre-tablet record of diarrhea prevalence. Info-Tool allowed them to understand where their levels tracked in comparison to the provided reference. In Phase 2, which also lasted three months, the treatment group continued to use Info-Tool but both groups were offered the option of accepting free chlorine tablets. In Phase 3, I discontinued the treatment group’s use of Info-Tool but both groups continued to receive freely provided chlorine tablets.

What I Found: Remarkable Results

Chlorine tablet use was significantly and persistently higher in the treatment group. At 74 weeks from the start of tablet delivery (beginning of Phase 2), the treatment group was almost twice as likely as the control group to accept the tablets, with the control group acceptance rate at 26% and the treatment group at almost 60% (see Figure 3).

Two results really struck me. First, my data show that as we enter the subsequent summer season (near the 46 week mark), both groups demonstrated higher tablet acceptance. Significantly, the treatment group’s summer increase in uptake was higher than the control group. To me, this suggests an impact of Info-Tool on households’ fundamental understanding of disease seasonality i.e. households seemingly better understood the “dynamics” of diarrhea.

A more striking result to me, however, was the fact that children in treatment households tended to measure significantly better than control households on health outcomes such as weight (22% gain), height (6% gain), and mid-upper arm circumference (3.5% gain). This suggests that the use of tablets had real measurable health impacts.

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Figure 3
Predicted probability of accepting offered chlorine tablets by treatment arm. The x-axis has time (weeks) while the y-axis shows predicted probability of uptake in a given week. The control group is shown in blue while the treatment group is shown in red. Dotted vertical lines indicate specific dates and phases of the experiment.

The results suggest that allowing households to track and reference their disease prevalence increased their ability to detect the efficacy of chlorine tablets, thus making the intervention far more successful. More specifically, I believe that households were able to better learn about the effectiveness of tablets because Info-Tool provided a more precise signal about tablet effectiveness. It is also apparent that households possess a general sense of the seasonality of the problem but with the augmented learning from the Info-Tool, treatment households show a higher likelihood to accept offered tablets as the “danger” (summer) season started.

What this Means: Policy Recommendations

I believe this study points the way forward in two important ways. First, it demonstrates a powerful new way to address a major global health challenge i.e. under-five diarrhea with its associated health costs. I found that the intervention had strong and persistent effects a year after it began, inducing people to adopt chlorine tablets when they otherwise would not have.

Second, it confirmed to me that people can and do make beneficial health decisions – we’ve just got to help them “see” that those decisions have real benefits. Giving people clearer signals on how they benefit from their use of supposedly beneficial technology sparks greater participation. Moreover, I can imagine analogues to this technique being applied to other domains where health technology adoption is critical such as adoption of anti-malarial bed-nets and drug regimens for diseases like TB and HIV. 

Editor's Note: In this post, Heloise Greeff Marais, Doctoral Researcher in the Water Programme, Computational Health Informatics Lab and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, discusses the opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration in the WASH sector.

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Oxford’s REACH Water global consortium involves partners from many countries and organisations. Credit: REACH2016

I’m a robotics engineer from South Africa. I like technology, control theory, and data science – mostly things that don’t  (and can’t) get wet!  I know very little, if anything, about marine governance science, watershed management, or international water law. So why am I in a two-week intensive research course focussing on water, climate, and society?

Over the last decade, the need for multidisciplinary teams has been widely published, however, this approach remains poorly applied outside of the healthcare sector.  Collaboration is too often treated like a minor add-on to a project; considered an inconvenience that only causes delays in decision points.

It can be uncomfortable to leave the familiarity of our professional scope. Sometimes rather unpleasant. Like being an adult at kindergarten. It’s scary.

Relationship building is a two-way street. More specifically, capacity building of professionals should begin at an individual level through personal development before we can expect changes at an institutional and societal level. 

So, who invited the mechatronics engineer to the water event? No one. Her curiosity and compassion led her here. 

To ensure universal drinking water access by 2030, we need to not only invest in capacity building of the local communities we engage, but also the professionals we rely on. Proposed integrated approaches for water interventions focus on breaking down the silos that exist between governments, donors, and local communities, yet, often overlook their own expert role.

The people (like me) who help develop the technologies, models, and infrastructure needed to achieve water security, may not always have in-depth knowledge of climate change impact factors or socio-economic dynamics related to water.

The water sector is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. Although the impacts will be felt by developing and developed countries alike, unfortunately, it is the most marginalised who will be particularly vulnerable to the uncertainties in future weather patterns.

Recognising the pivotal role of water in climate change adaptation presents many opportunities for sustainable development. Innovative technologies and suitable implementation strategies for adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed. And with them will come the engineers, the techies, and the geeks who design them.

The Oxford Smart Handpump, which I work on, is a brilliant example of the potential impact of a social innovation emerging from successful cross-functional collaboration towards a common goal: universal drinking water security. Open communication and continuous feedback between engineers and geographers ensure a more robust technology while maximising social impact.

A two-week course on water and society by no means makes me an expert in the field of climate change or water security. But it does do something much more powerful: it begins to break down the silos that exist between different professional fields that evidently share a passion.

Social and natural scientists think, argue and view the world differently than engineers. But by entering a world in which I am considered an “outsider” and acknowledging that I lack speciality skills and insights, I make room for other people’s gifts. Making ourselves vulnerable is not easy and some may consider it a liability. But I recognise that technical expertise alone will not enable me to deliver the most impactful innovation.

In short, collaboration is not only a good investment, but also a necessity.

Water is pure. It cleans, renews, and gives life. But water is complex, water policy is messy and global water laws are murky. Impactful innovations require multi-dimensional approaches and unconventional expertise. It needs multidisciplinary teams.

So, who will invite the mechatronics engineer to the next water event? Everyone. I hope.

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Editor's Note: In this post, Rob Goodier, Engineering for Change News Editor, discusses the new Solutions Library and how it can be used to increase effectiveness in the WASH sector. 

Reinvention of the wheel is a common mistake in global development, and the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is not immune. There must be hundreds of prototypes languishing on closet floors and hard drives after failing to reach the market while proven, off-the-shelf filters, chlorinators and so on may be acceptable for the job.

The same goes for choosing the right product for each context. We have to start with what’s meeting (and not meeting) the users’ needs in order to avoid wasted investment. And we have to do it throughout the value chain.

That’s why Engineering for Change has built a new Solutions Library of hundreds of products that meet basic needs. The products cover nearly every aspect of global development, including dozens in the water and sanitation sector.

The layout makes it easy to compare biosand filters by Bushproof, Ideas at Work and Hydraid, for example, or to examine the CRAPPER alongside the EkoLakay and the Blue Box Toilets.

The Solutions Library is a due diligence resource, a living database of neutral, performance-based information. The entries help answer three important questions for global development technology:

  • Which solution is appropriate for the context and constraints?
  • What has scaled and what has stalled?
  • Does the solution perform as expected?

We have heard from engineers and others in global development that answering those three questions has been difficult. Practitioners are starved for high-quality information. Another thing we’ve heard often from global development professionals is that new, unproven gadgets get as much, if not more, attention as proven products.

Repeated mistakes can slow global development efforts. It has been hard to find information about so-called “prior art,” the wheels that have already been invented. That leads to undeveloped prototypes or, worse, the rusted-out bones of dead projects that were delivered and then failed.

The reasons for failure can be technical, cultural, financial or a combination thereof, but the end result is the same: wasted investment. Our answer is normalized, objective data that is rigorously harvested and reviewed by experts. Practitioners can reduce the risk of failure and spend their money wisely with our side-by-side comparisons of the products that can meet their goals.

That’s why we did this. We believe the Solutions Library is the first stop in the decision for which technology will be the best fit in any given context. It is a work in a constant state of flux, with periodic updates that incorporate suggestions from our network of development engineers and other professionals. As you explore the resource, please share your ideas and tips based on your experience. We hope to include the advice of the WASH community in our improvements. 

Please visit the Solutions Library, share it with colleagues and collaborators and contribute. Real working solutions start here: solutions.engineeringforchange.org.

Bio-toilets: Transforming Indian Sanitation

Editor’s Note: This post is authored by Sanjay Banka, Director at Banka BioLoo, an Indian company that manufactures and promotes biodigester toilets for use in parts of the country where the lack of infrastructure prevents the use of more conventional sanitation facilities. In the piece, Sanjay discusses the development of the biotechnology used in the toilets and describes the successes and challenges that the company has experienced while working to improve sanitation in India.

Sanitation facilities in India are alarmingly poor with over 600 million people (half of India's population) having no access to toilets. This lack of access, coupled with other inadequacies in waste disposal, such as the Indian Railways’s open-chute toilet system wherein human waste drops on the rail tracks, poses health hazards, raises environmental concerns, and leads to water contamination.

To address India’s sanitation problems, the government, NGOs, non-profit organizations, donor agencies, development bodies, and the private sector have been working in their own way, often with very little concerted effort. The partnership between India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Banka BioLoo, however, provides one example of how cross-sector collaboration can work to provide sanitation solutions. Using technology developed and licensed by the DRDO, the R&D arm of the Indian Ministry of Defence, Banka BioLoo is working to meet the need for basic, easy-to-install and hygienic human waste disposal mechanisms in areas without sewerage and other sanitation infrastructure.

The DRDO had been grappling with the challenge of managing and treating the fecal matter of its defence personnel. After several years of research, the Organization developed a set of bacteria that “eat away” at human waste. Having successfully used these bacteria to treat the night soil of soldiers guarding the Indian borders, in 2010, the DRDO decided to extend the benefits of the technology to the civilian population by licensing the bio-technology to commercial firms. A host of businesses, including Banka BioLoo, signed the transfer of technology. Since then, Banka BioLoo has developed the necessary infrastructure to inoculate the bacteria and has built a business model that positions bio-toilets as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly sanitation solution.

Bio-digester technology treats human waste at the source. A collection of anaerobic bacteria that has been adapted to work at temperatures as low as -5°C and as high as 50°C act as inocula (seed material) to the bio-digesters and convert the organic human waste into water, methane, and carbon-dioxide. The anaerobic process inactivates the pathogens responsible for water-borne diseases and treats the fecal matter without the use of an external energy source.

The only by-products of the waste treatment process are pathogen-free water, which is good for gardening, and biogas, which can be used for cooking. Bio-toilets do not require sewage connectivity and because the process is self-contained, bio-toilets are also maintenance-free. While we explain the functioning of the system to users, no specific training is required.

A bio-tank, which is placed beneath the toilet structure and holds the bio-digester bacteria, is installed in Hyderabad. Credit: Banka BioLoo

A bio-tank, which is placed beneath the toilet structure and holds the bio-digester bacteria, is installed in Hyderabad. Credit: Banka BioLoo

Banka BioLoo employs a for-profit model in distributing its bio-toilets. This approach is consistent with the thinking that came up in discussion recently at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum in Amsterdam, where it was recognized that many households are able and willing to pay for good quality sanitation services. Unfortunately, many are being offered cheap and possibly sub-standard systems. As solution providers, we need to be wary of poor quality “solutions” and instead appeal to the aesthetic and aspirational needs of society. While affordability is certainly an issue, it should not come at the cost of developing a sub-par product.

While we strongly believe in the for-profit model to help ensure sustainability, we are also looking for alternate financing options for households that are unable to pay for the toilet outright. We are in discussion with government agencies and microfinance institutions to develop programs that would provide subsidies or microloans to consumers.

Banka BioLoo has also worked with charities and other development organizations to provide bio-toilets in underserved areas. In March 2013, some members of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), studying in Gitam University, decided to undertake a project to help provide sanitation facilities in Rudraram village, at the outskirts of Hyderabad in southern India. Using a combination of student efforts, input from family members, sponsored funds, and contributions from user families, Banka BioLoo, in partnership with EWB, installed five bio-toilets. In 2014, the project provided bio-toilets to 20 additional families. The student community is keen to develop a 10-kilometer radius around the university as an open defecation free area.

One remaining challenge in promoting the use of the toilets involves the perception among some Indians that sanitation is not worth paying for. Many are comfortable with defecating in the open. In promoting the bio-toilets, we explain the negative effects on the health and well-being of society -- particularly women and children -- that are associated with open defecation. As this understanding continues to develop in India, the demand for sanitation products, such as the bio-toilets, will grow. We are actively working in this direction, trying to provide economical and eco-friendly sanitation systems for all -- from the most marginalized populations to large institutions and corporations across various states in India -- while building up the good reputation of the latrine.

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor for WaterAid America, who has recently returned from visiting WaterAid’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. 

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Mariam is the only child of 22-year-old single mom Rehema. On the way to and from the local spring, near the Rubaga slum in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, she toddles behind her mother. It’s a journey they make four times a day to bring home enough water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Even little Mariam carries a jerry can of water: while Mom struggles under the weight of two 22 pound (10-liter) yellow jerry cans, Mariam follows behind carrying a bright red 11 pound (five-liter) jerry can – quite a feat for such a young child.

Rehema knows the quality of the spring water is questionable and could be risky for her daughter’s health. Kampala’s poorly constructed pit latrines and a high water table are a lethal combination as feces can easily contaminate the water supply. It’s not just water quality that is an issue. Accessibility is also a major challenge. With hundreds of people relying on the spring for water, crowds build up, with long waits common in the morning and evening when the heat of the sun is not so fierce. 

Rehema commented: “It’s very difficult to collect water from there. At 8 or 9 p.m. it is so crowded that it can take more than 30 minutes.”

Tensions often flare at the spring. Alongside women and children collecting water for their own domestic use are water vendors, usually men, who come to the spring to fill four or more jerry cans with water that they attach to bicycles and take to customers who pay for delivery service. Women and children are often pushed out of the way by vendors forcing their way to the front of the line. 

The need for safe, affordable, accessible water services in Rubaga is clear, but there are challenges inherent in extending piped water services into low-income neighborhoods. 

In other areas of the city where the National Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC) has granted water connections, it is common for landlords to sell water to their tenants for four to eight times the official rate. Poor families who are unable to afford the inflated rate continue to use polluted springs, even where there’s a tap right next to their home. 

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

A pilot program of pre-paid water meters being rolled out by NWSC and donors aims to tackle this problem. The meters are operated by an electronic key, known as a token, that is pre-loaded with credit. Anyone, landlord or tenant, can buy a key and refill it with credit. As water is dispensed, the meter deducts credit from the token at the official rate.  In this way, consumers deal directly with NWSC and there is no scope for middlemen to inflate the price. Consumers benefit from safe, affordable water, while NWSC benefits from knowing that by paying upfront, consumers are unable to default on payment of water bills. 

The system is not perfect. Vandalism has been known to damage meters, causing them to malfunction. Another concern is whether all tenants, particularly newcomers to the area, are in the know about how to buy and use tokens. But it’s a system that shows promise and offers hope to areas like Rubaga that are still unserved with water. 

Farahilh Masane is a resident of the Kawempe Division, where prepaid meters have been installed by Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), with support and funding from the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation and WaterAid. She told us: “I walk across the road to the prepaid meter because it is cheaper there: 100 Shillings [4 US cents] for four jerry cans. There is a private tap right here but it is too expensive for me: 200 Shillings [8 US cents] per jerry can. Before the meter was installed I collected water from a spring, but so many people near it have pit latrines, the water was contaminated.”

Back in Rubaga, Rehema is hopeful that she will be able to benefit from piped water soon too. “It would change my life to have clean water and live in a better environment.” 

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by André Olschewski, water, sanitation and environmental management specialist at the Skat Foundation, a non-profit based in Switzerland. The post builds from a piece that André wrote for WASHfunders.org in June that described the EU-funded WASHTech project and its Technology Applicability Framework (TAF), a decision-making tool that helps users determine if a particular WASH technology will be sustainable in a given context. Here, André introduces the counterpart to the TAF, the Technology Introduction Process (TIP), that guides practitioners in introducing a technology once a determination of sustainability has been made.

The Technology Applicability Framework (TAF) is a tool to assess the applicability of a WASH technology in a particular context and its potential to be adopted on a large scale. Under the WASHTech project, the TAF has been tested in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Uganda on 13 different WASH technologies including the ventilated improved pit latrine, urine diverting dry toilet, rope pump, India Mark 2 Handpump, and solar powered pumps for small piped schemes or sand dams. Since then, it has been successfully applied outside the WASHTech project in Tanzania and in Nicaragua, even without any direct training. Potential users have also expressed an interest to adapt and apply the TAF to other technologies such as water point mapping tools.

WASHTech has produced a short video explaining what the TAF is and how it works. Using the example of a solar powered pump in Ghana, the animated video summarizes how the TAF captures the issues around sustainable service provision. It also features interviews with users of the TAF (such as local government officials) who offer perspectives on the added value that the framework provides.

 

But what are the next steps if a technology has passed the TAF testing and if you want to introduce the WASH technology for services on a larger scale? To support actors in the WASH sector in planning and management of the introduction of a WASH technology, the WASHTech project has developed a generic guide for technology introduction, the Technology Introduction Process (TIP). The TIP -- as with the TAF -- follows the spirit of the African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

For too long, efforts to introduce WASH technologies have been led by a few actors, mostly national governments and development partners, or a few isolated innovators. This often happened without proper involvement of other actors, such as the users, local political leaders, or the private sector. Increasingly, approaches such as Self Supply or Community-Led Total Sanitation are being promoted. These put more focus on user investments and the capacity of the local private sector to supply products and provide services. However, due to the limited financial capacities of households, some WASH technologies and services will still be subsidized.

The TIP guide supports the WASH sector in developing a specific process to introduce a WASH technology. At the core of the TIP, the tasks of key actors involved are defined for three phases of the introduction process:

  • the invention phase, which includes the development and testing of the technology and the preparation for the launch;
  • the tipping point phase; and
  • the uptake and use phase.
Technology Introduction Process (TIP)

For each of the phases, the TIP provides a generic set of tasks that should be carried out by specific actors. During the testing, the TAF can be used to develop the introduction process further and to monitor the technology and its performance.

In all three WASHTech pilot countries, government institutions have used the TIP to develop country specific guidelines for technology introduction. To aid this process, we’ve provided the generic TIP matrix, as well as examples of specific matrices that have been developed for two different cost models -- the market based approach (e.g. for Self Supply) and for a model where capital investments are subsidized. All relevant actors have been involved in developing the specific guidelines. The guidelines reflect the country specific policies on WASH service provision, subsidies, and decentralisation.

Our online resource base provides access to all documents on TAF, TIP and reports on results such as technology briefs. All documents are in the public domain. TAF and TIP users are invited to upload their case studies and to share their experiences on the user interface. For more information please contact me at andre.olschewski@skat.ch.

The TAF and TIP were developed under the WASHTech project. The WASHTech consortium comprises: Skat Foundation – Switzerland; IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre – Netherlands; WaterAid - UK, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Uganda; Cranfield University – UK; Water and Sanitation for Africa (WSA) – Burkina Faso; Network for Water and Sanitation (NETWAS) – Uganda; Training, Research and Networking for Development (TREND) – Ghana; Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) – Ghana.

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.

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