Can mobile technology revolutionise data use in the WASH sector?

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/Kate Holt

The proposed Sustainable Development Goal on water and sanitation is good news for global poverty – and presents a huge challenge. Erik Harvey, Head of Programme Support Unit at WaterAid, discusses the role mobile technologies such as mWater could have in ensuring we have the data we need to achieve it.

Proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation by 2030 – is an immense challenge. It will require a fundamental change in the way we work as a sector, and WaterAid has recently jointly committed to a common Agenda for Change to this end.

When you consider that more than 650 million people still don’t have access to safe water, and a staggering 2.3 billion – one in three people in the world – don’t have sanitation, getting sustainable access to everyone everywhere is a complex task. 

The power of data

Data will play an integral role in reaching this goal. WaterAid has a ten-year monitoring system in place for the programmes we support. This allows us and our partners to see what is and isn’t working, helping us adapt our strategies accordingly.

Since 2014, WaterAid has used mWater for this post-implementation monitoring. mWater is a simple digital monitoring platform that uses mobile technology to map and monitor water access. It enables us to conduct mobile surveys and share real-time data across organisations. The mobile apps work online and offline, designed for areas with unreliable internet. And it’s free to use, thanks to the co-investment that WaterAid and others are making in the platform.

This means that those in the WASH sector can map physical sites: water points, sanitation facilities, health centres, households and schools. Moreover, each site can be mapped by multiple surveys, facilitating a shared view of water and sanitation access over time.

mWater’s global reach

More than 4,000 non-governmental organisations, governments and research users are currently mapping and monitoring global water data with mWater. Over 350,000 sites have been mapped across some 59 countries.

But this isn’t just about data gathering. Getting quality information and making good use of it is what is important, along with an efficient updating mechanism to keep data relevant and useful. WaterAid is investing in mWater and helping to promote the use of common data standards and indicators, aligned with national government objectives.

Importantly, it is national and district governments that must lead the way, while external agencies, like WaterAid, must be on hand to support and help strengthen government capacity. National systems for monitoring and evaluation need to be supported and put in place, strengthened and used, with regular updating mechanisms. Put simply, governments need to know whether water points are producing sufficient and clean water, and when they breakdown.

Investment for expansion

WaterAid is collaboratively investing in mWater as a sector tool with other organisations such as Technological solutions could be a significant support for the SDG monitoring process, so getting this right is essential. We’re looking for more ways to share data through the programme; we are working on new features, including flexible and shareable analysis dashboards, and the transposition of WaterAid’s offline Water Point Mapper. This additional functionality is not just about data, it’s about improving the usefulness of mWater as a tool for analysis and advocacy.

In just one year, WaterAid has trained all our teams in the countries where we work to use mWater. It has proved easy for our staff members and partners to use this tool for large-scale data collection. In Bangladesh, for example, our post-implementation sustainability survey in December 2014 included visits to more than 1,200 communities, facilitated using mWater. Doing this survey using paper-based methods would have meant huge delays with costly manual and error-prone data processing.

There are still challenges to overcome. There are technical barriers to collaboration, because some systems can’t talk to each other, while some organisations or governments may be reluctant to share data. The key goal must be supporting governments in their data collection, and we are keen to contribute to developing the technology that could help support governments to achieve this.

Data is essential for sustainability

Improvements to water supply and sanitation services should deliver permanent benefits to their users. In many countries where WaterAid works, the systems and institutions needed to ensure sustainability are weak or non-existent. Communities can struggle to keep services working on their own. Permanent services will only be established if the systems and institutions required to manage and support them are created, strengthened and maintained. Quality data, up-to-date information and knowledge sharing will be central to this.

We therefore need investment in people and processes, and strong political will. Unless we give serious attention to the issue of information sharing and service sustainability, we will not achieve universal and lasting access to water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

Erik Harvey tweets as @harerik