How can Information and Communication Technologies successfully support water services provision?

7 min read
Mobile-based data collection on water point functionality.
Image: WaterAid - Mobile-based data collection on water point functionality.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can provide important support to increase WASH data availability and the accountability of service providers. However, successful initiatives in the WASH sector are limited, and outcomes from different trials have been mixed. Ellen Greggio, WaterAid’s Programme Advisor for Monitoring and Mapping, reflects on key lessons from new research by WaterAid and partners, and the factors leading to ICT initiatives’ success or failure.

ICTs are booming, and their use in development is growing exponentially (for example in agriculture and online banking services) together with the recognition of their potential role to increase transparency and accountability. In the WASH sector we are seeing a growing number of initiatives proposing citizens report on service problems, such as a water point breakdown, for example through SMS or missed calls alerts systems. Other initiatives promote use of mobile phones to increase regular water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) data collection by local government and NGOs, and others, to inform planning and resource allocation.

At WaterAid we benefit from accelerated data flow and improved data quality through our use of, for example, mWater  – a free mobile-based data collection and analysis platform. WaterAid’s teams have also led the development of some mobile-based data collection solutions suited to local needs, for example the mPMIS system in Bangladesh. We also introduced Water Point Mapping to support monitoring of water supply, facilitate data analysis, and inform evidence-based decision making for local governments or NGOs, and help civil society organisations (CSOs) hold service providers to account.

ICT-based solutions are indeed introduced as a way to accelerate the flow of data and information (for example on water point functionality), and a new avenue by which to increase citizens’ ability to hold service providers and governments to account for provision of water and sanitation services. However, too often we see initiatives focusing on the tools themselves and their detailed capacities, rather than understanding the actual capacity these tools have to improve the processes they are aiming to support. Applicability of the tools, use of the data and information derived is too often neglected in the discussion, leading to many ‘technology pilots’ but little sustainable process change.

To increase our understanding of the factors that enable or inhibit ICT reporting initiatives to successfully lead to improved water service delivery, WaterAid, in collaboration with IRC and Itad, recently completed the research project 'Testing the Waters', supported by the Making All Voices Count programme. The research reviewed different ICT initiatives aimed at supporting rural water services, to understand what aspects lead to success or failure, starting from the solution design to the broader context. The research aimed to answer the following question: ‘How can water fetchers – often women and children – use ICTs to receive better information on their water supply and report concerns and issues in a way that will lead to a service provider response and better service?’

Lessons from successes and failures

Some key lessons from the research include: 

1. Although many ICT initiatives advocate for increased citizens’ reporting on water 
services, ICT approaches based on crowdsourcing (citizens’ reporting) have 
actually struggled to mobilise citizens
 to take action and report problems linked 
to water services. This is because:

  • The information is too technical and not familiar to all citizens.
  • Citizens lack confidence in service providers’ response to the reports and in their capacity or willingness to solve issues (‘Why bother if nothing happens anyway?’).
  • The tool or mechanism for reporting (for example SMS or apps) is not accessible or familiar to all citizens.

For example, a crowdsourcing initiative ‘Maji Matone’, piloted in Tanzaniawas aimed at citizens’ reporting of water point non-functionality and also at increasing media attention of the problem. Radio journalists reported when maintenance was not undertaken, to pressure local governments and accelerate a response. Citizens did not engage as expected, because of fear of personal exposure and limited trust of politicians’ likelihood to respond to the reports. The pilot was declared a failure and closed.

2. Although many new innovations and ICT developments sound appealing, when 
implemented they need to be contextualised, adapted to be suitable for end 
users and to the
 local capacity (technically and financially, and so on).

The M4W initiative in Uganda aimed to accelerate communications between communities and handpump mechanics and local district staff when water points were failing, with simple SMS reporting. In some districts, the initiative received limited engagement from users who did not see the benefits compared to existing mechanisms to contact mechanics or district staff. Also, the system was based on SMS, not familiar to all users, who also preferred making phone calls to report water point breakdowns.

3. ICT-based water services reporting or monitoring initiatives should be embedded within 
the service delivery models and their existing or required information flows. 

This is necessary to ensure service providers’ responsiveness – i.e. the repair of a water point 
(from utilities, government or others) – and incentivise regular reporting.

In urban areas, where utilities are responsible for service provision, a number of ICT initiatives have been successful in improving services and client satisfaction, leading to increased citizens’ engagement in the initiative. For example, the 'NextDrop' initiative in India provides users with timely information on water availability in the network, reducing the time spent waiting for water supply at their taps. Information is collected by a valveman working on the water network who informs users while also providing valuable information to the utility for planning and management purposes. In this case, the ICT initiatives are aimed at supporting the information flow in the existing relationship between the service provider (utility) and users.

In other cases, ICTs have been introduced to support ongoing regular local and/or national government monitoring to accelerate information flow. In Timor-Leste the Water and Sanitation Information System (SIBS) regular monitoring system introduced SMS survey reports as part of local government staff’s ongoing water and sanitation data collection from rural communities. The data informs regular planning and resource allocation to priority interventions by local government.

Future initiatives: ICT to amplify existing information flow

A key reason for the slow uptake of ICT in the WASH sector is the difficulty of clearly demonstrating the improvement in WASH services or practices triggered by ICT initiatives. This often leads to users becoming disengaged. This happens when citizens report on water point breakdowns and do not receive a response (i.e. water point maintenance).

When implementing an ICT-based monitoring initiative, it is important to understand the key drivers for the initiative, how users will engage with it, and how this impacts existing systemsaccountability and relationships. Some important questions to address when introducing ICT-based monitoring in WASH include:

  • What information is actually needed?
  • Who will collect the information (and at what cost!) and who will use it?
  • Is the ICT initiative building on and supporting existent information flows or monitoring or reporting mechanisms?

And in particular if looking at crowdsourcing or citizen’s reporting initiatives, some further aspects to consider include:

  • Are citizens able and willing to report on service delivery problems?
  • Are service providers, utility or government officials willing to listen and do they have capacity to respond to citizens’ reports?
  • Can the final benefits of the ICT initiative be demonstrated, to build users’ trust and willingness to engage?

Other research funded by Making All Voices Count also looks at the use of ICT – in particular, one produced this useful digital tool selection support assistant which can further help in the design of new initiatives.

A means to an end

To conclude, ICT should be means to an end; it can be used to increase and accelerate information and data flow, amplify citizens’ or services providers’ voices, and respond to an actual need for information, with the final aim of improving relationships through increased accountability.

To ensure WASH services are delivered and maintained for all, providers and governmental institutions need to have more robust services monitoring systems and regular data, to inform planning and management. ICT can play an important role in supporting these processes. However, as we have seen, for community and local governments’ or service providers’ ICT use buy-in to be gained and sustained, the local capacity and context must be considered, and the end use of the data should inform and lead the design of the solution rather than the other way around. This is the approach we would like to take forward, particularly when working with local and national governments.

While we continue learning from our and others’ initiatives, we really need to remember that, as is true for many innovations, less focus should be placed on the technology itself, and more on which processes it could be supporting and how.

Ellen Greggio tweets as @EllenGreggio

Making All Voices Count aims to seize citizens’ capacity to monitor government performance and express their views on it in real time, and has the potential to harness new technologies to make governments more effective and accountable, to promote transparency, fight corruption, and empower citizens.