Last month, Safe Water Network’s Ghana-based Innovations Manager, Charles Yeboah, traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to participate in GSMA’s Mobile360 Africa conference, a convening of more than 1,000 professionals in the mobile, technology, and utility fields.
Conference attendees may have been wondering, how does Safe Water Network—a nonprofit advancing the potential for small water enterprises to ensure millions gain access to safe, affordable water—benefit from mobile technology? As part of our ongoing objective to optimize the enterprise approach and reduce operating costs to ensure financial and operational sustainability, Safe Water Network regularly explores new technologies that can increase efficiency. The successes and failures we encounter are shared with the broader safe water sector via our Field Insight series, in keeping with our objective of building an evidence base for the small water enterprise model through publications and engagement.
Safe Water Network faced specific challenges in identifying ways to improve the monitoring of water points and ensure timely responses to maintenance issues. The GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities Innovation Fund supported us in testing the potential for using mobile data collection and management systems to improve small water enterprise operations.
As the individual who oversees Safe Water Network Ghana’s support of field services, Charles Yeboah is responsible for supervising the implementation of the mobile monitoring system. During the various sessions, panel discussions, and working groups he participated in during the Mobile360 Africa conference, Yeboah spoke of this partnership with GSMA as an example of how mobile technology can advance utility services, and how the adoption of new technologies can lead to new and fruitful partnerships: “Through GSMA support,” Yeboah recalled, “Safe Water Network was able to initiate a plan with mWater—an organization that creates IT solutions for water, sanitation, and health services—to convert a time-consuming, paper-based reporting system into a tablet-enabled mobile data collection system.”
The data collected with this tablet-enabled system is quickly made available for Safe Water Network’s field services and office teams, to be analyzed and acted upon in real time. For example, we developed an issue-reporting tool that records the timing of breakdowns, so that maintenance and repair requests can be addressed quickly. This tool has helped to increase water enterprise efficiencies and minimize downtime. The water enterprise operators using this mobile monitoring system were eager to adopt the technology, and the initiative has resulted in improved data collection and reporting.
Since Safe Water Network began implementing this mobile monitoring system, a number of important observations have been made:
- We project that time spent by field teams on collecting and performing QA/QC on data will decrease by 50 percent.
- We have improved data collection and reporting from individual small water enterprises, resulting in stronger analysis.
- The use of mobile technology—tablet-enabled technology in particular—became very popular among water enterprise operators, resulting in the technology being extended to more users than initially planned.
- Though users can be enthusiastic about the new technology, training is crucial to ensure engagement and sustainable use of the product, and such trainings should be conducted in the local language and offered frequently in the period after implementation.
Expanding the Role of Mobile
We will continue to incorporate mobile monitoring technology into our operations. In the short term, we are focusing on:
- Improving user experience and redesigning an aspect of the system that allows supervisors and the field services team to review and approve data for reporting and analysis, thereby simplifying the overall data review and approval process and the real-time visualization of field data.
- Building on the system’s financial and operational metrics capabilities by developing an integrated data system that will improve the aggregating and filtering of data for specific management and analytics needs.
Beyond monitoring, Safe Water Network is exploring other ways that mobile technology can improve operations. “Through facilitation from GSMA,” Yeboah remarked, “We are partnering with Vodafone Ghana to pilot and demonstrate the potential for mobile money integration into our water sales in Ghana. This initiative is expected to: further improve the model’s financial viability by reducing water enterprises’ transaction costs through electronic bulk payments to staff, operators, and commissioned vendors; improve revenue mobilization at participating water enterprises; and increase participation in safe water services delivery.”
To ensure the financial and operational sustainability of the enterprise approach, Safe Water Network will continue to seek out efficiencies through new technologies. Given the success realized through the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities Innovation Fund, mobile technology will play an increasing role in Safe Water Network’s effort to ensure that millions gain access to safe, affordable water.