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Being Boring in the Water Sector Pays Off

Being Boring in the Water Sector Pays Off

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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