The Cellphone that Keeps the Water, and Data, Flowing

NGOs don’t always have the best reputation in the developing world. Sometimes they come into a community, install complex systems to fix a problem, and then leave – abandoning technology that can break down, become unsustainable or simply not help the people it’s supposed to. Water for People is different. They’re an NGO committed to their own accountability – to working with communities to find creative, collaborative solutions to the problem of clean water and sanitation access.

In this edition of Digital Diversity, Water for People’s Senior Manager of Programmatic Data, Keri Kugler, explains how they use a mobile phone-based technology called FLOW – Field Level Operations Watch, that is – to maintain this accountability and allow communities to monitor their own water and sanitation. By providing an easy way to collect data and photos, conduct surveys and communicate information, FLOW keeps track of water access in the most simple, adaptable ways.

This isn’t just useful for involving the whole community in monitoring and contributing to Water for People’s work. When you have information, you can challenge what you’re being told. Records on the state of water and sanitation access provide “proof that cannot be ignored” to governments and agencies who otherwise might be unaccountable for their people’s wellbeing. It’s an instant feedback tool, for people who need it most. This way it’s a critical part of Water for People’s mission – to provide clean water and sanitation for everyone, forever.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Keri Kugler

Tiraque is a remote region in the mountains of central Bolivia about two hours drive from the nearest major city, Cochabamba. Villages in Tiraque are small communities –  a few dozen homes nestled in the high desert where families are supported largely by subsistence farming. Many of these villages have no safe reliable water systems and very few families have latrines. Such small communities  are often overlooked by NGOs because of the high investment needed to reach just a few families.


A typical community in the Tiraque region. Photo: Water for People


In May of 2011, I was visiting Kayarani, a small village in Tiraque where Water For People is building a water system and latrines in collaboration with the community and the local government. Kayarani had just recently broken ground on a gravity-fed water system that would serve all 50 families in the community.  At the time the village was getting its water from two unprotected springs, including one that was often unavailable because it was on land that belongs to a neighboring community.  The water from the springs made its way to the community over several kilometres through patched sections of a plastic hose and the springs are open to the elements and not protected from contamination.


Women digging a trench for a community water system. Photo: Water for People


In Kayarani, I met Mariel Lazcano, who works for the Tirarque Department of Sanitation and plays a critical role in providing latrines and hygiene education. Part of her role involves meeting regularly with every household in the community and collecting data throughout the different phases of the water and sanitation project.  I was in Tiraque to show our partners FLOW, a mobile phone-based system designed by Water For People that collects data, photos and GPS coordinates and then transforms that information into visual data that makes it easier to digest.

FLOW supports our efforts to monitor water and sanitation projects for ten years to ensure that everyone in the areas where we work have water and adequate sanitation forever. FLOW allows us to collect data using any Android cell phone, and the results can be accessed in near real time by people everywhere. This facilitates better collaboration between many partners and allows stakeholders to quickly react to data and make programmatic changes. It also supports long term project monitoring, which Water For People values above all else.

When I showed Mariel a phone with the FLOW program she was ecstatic. She explained to me that she currently has to drive to Cochabamba three times a week, two hours in each direction, to submit the data she collects on an ongoing basis. “I am supposed to be in the field everyday but I have to travel to Cochabamba three days a week to fill out paperwork. With a FLOW phone I can be in the field every day,” she told me. FLOW was designed to be easy to use, and within minutes Mariel was using it to interview a family in the community. She thinks this will encourage more accountability in the government and within NGOs, providing “proof that could not be ignored” about the state of water and sanitation projects.  She immediately started to think about different kinds of data she could collect.


Mariel using FLOW to interview a community member. Photo: Water for People


FLOW was designed to let users create surveys on any topic, and the diversity of the surveys is endless – they can be simple or complex; they can include photos, videos and audio clips – giving the user total flexibility to collect the information that will make an impact on their project. Phones can store hundreds of surveys and data can be collected in areas where there is no mobile connection – it automatically transmits the data once a connection is detected, so the system can be used anywhere in the world.

Water For People uses FLOW in eleven countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and it’s operated by a diverse group of users. Independent volunteers use FLOW to verify that our projects are sustainable long after we have completed them. Water For People staff in the countries where we work use FLOW to monitor their work and use the data from FLOW to make nimble programmatic changes in response to what works and what doesn’t work. Our partners, like Mariel, use FLOW to support construction of water and sanitation systems and in hygiene education.  FLOW is also being used by other NGOs in Africa and Asia including the Water and Sanitation Programme of the World Bank, A Child’s Right, and Water and Sanitation for Africa.  In 2012, Water For People will be partnering with the Dutch organization Akvo, with the goal of making FLOW accessible to many other development organisations.

To continue following FLOW projects, visit Water for People’s website.

Keri Kugler is the Senior Manager of Programmatic Data at Water For People. She has been with Water For People for four years and supports the development, use and dissemination of FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch), Water For People’s on-the-ground remote technology to record data, monitor their work, and evaluate their programs.  Keri functions as the research manager for all the programmatic data Water For People collects and supports other organisations in their use of FLOW. Prior to working at Water For People she supported a variety of local non-profits in research and data management.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.