Mobile Data: How Phones Help Keep the Water Flowing

We often don’t associate the problem of water scarcity with mobile phones but, as Zarah Rahman of the Aquaya Institute explains, water is about much more than turning on a tap. Helping people in the developing world access safe water requires not just H2O but information – in order to monitor cleanliness, distribution, infrastructure – in short, everything about the way we manage our most precious resource. And it’s the humble mobile, as Zarah details below, which provides the network keeping the information, and the water, flowing.

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

By Zarah Rahman

Can mobile phones solve the world’s water crisis? This is a big question that my colleagues and I are exploring at the Aquaya Institute, a non-profit research and consulting organization that specialises in innovative safe water solutions for the developing world. The global water crisis affects all countries, rich and poor, and spans many issues that range from the availability and sustainability of water resources to their safety for public health. At Aquaya we focus on water and public health: infants and children are especially vulnerable to waterborne diseases like diarrhea, and according to the World Health Organisation unsafe water is responsible for approximately two million child deaths a year, more than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

In March this year the United Nations announced that, at a global level, the Millennium Development Goal for access to improved drinking water had been met. 89% of the world’s population, 6.1 billion people, now access improved drinking water sources. But thousands of these improved water systems don’t deliver safe drinking water and many more break down each year.


A rural water source in Malawi. Photo: Mobile Water.
A hand pump in a rural community in Malawi, a typical scene of rural water supply in Sub-Saharan Africa (Photo: Zarah Rahman)


How can we improve the reliability and safety of drinking water supplies? A lot of hard work and research by many people has taught us that more and better infrastructure is just not enough. Ongoing oversight of water systems by trained professionals is also important. But this support is hard to provide. Government institutions are often highly centralised, financially constrained and geographically overstretched. We need simple tools to improve communication between local community water managers and their support agencies in order to promote the efficient use of existing management resources.

This is where mobile phones come in to the picture. Mobile phones are cheap, easy to use and nearly ubiquitous in countries like Ecuador, Vietnam and Mozambique where we work. Most importantly, mobile phones can transmit multiple types of information – including images and GPS points – cheaply and quickly over long distances.

In October 2011 I traveled with colleagues from UNICEF to Chimoio, a mid-sized hill town in Southern Mozambique that is close to the border with Zimbabwe. UNICEF is collaborating with the Government of Mozambique to develop and maintain hand pumps, which are the primary water sources for rural villagers. We were there to show district health technicians how to use mobile phones to send information on pump status and water quality to their regional and national level supervisors. The mobile phone application (or “app”) that we used for sending this information is called Water Quality Reporter, and it was developed by the iComms Group at the University of Cape Town in South Africa as a reporting tool that runs on very basic mobile phones.

The district health technicians are on the road constantly, so much so that we had to travel between towns to try and catch them on the road. Each week they travel for hours on unpaved roads to communities of under a hundred people to inspect drinking water sources, provide technical support to community water system managers and provide health education lessons to the community.


District Health Technicians in Mozambique learn to use the Water Quality Reporter phone application. Photo: Zarah Rahman.
District Health Technicians in Mozambique learn to use the Water Quality Reporter mobile application (Photo: Zarah Rahman)


The district technicians have long had responsibility for monitoring drinking water sources, but the information they collect generally stays in their logbooks and is rarely reported to their superiors. However, the technicians need resources and technical support from their managers to fix broken pumps and treat contaminated water. We wanted to find out if instant reporting through the Water Quality Reporter would make everyone more responsive to water supply problems.

A few months after training the technicians to use the app we witnessed concrete changes. The Director of the Ministry of Health’s national laboratory issued formal memos to the local Government, asking them to respond to the high levels of contamination reported in a number of the district’s water supplies. In her letters, the Director noted that many rural supplies are ‘improper for human consumption’ and provided technical guidance on determining the source of the contaminants (mainly bacteria and nitrites) and how to take action. For local governments that are juggling competing priorities, this kind of guidance and accountability is critical.


Water quality reporting in Vietnam. Picture: Mobile Water.
A water treatment plant operator submits water quality data via the Water Quality Reporter mobile app (Photo: Zarah Rahman)


As in Mozambique, we have observed poor information flows between field staff and institutional managers in many other countries. For example, environmental health technicians in Ecuador regularly send water samples by bus to a Ministry of Health laboratory in Quito, but they rarely receive the test results. Without this feedback loop, the technicians can’t use the data to inform their health promotion activities – things like hygiene education in schools and delivery of chlorine to water system operators. A mobile phone based data sharing system would allow these technicians to efficiently share field information with managers and receive water quality test results.

Fortunately, a number of groups working in the water sector have caught on to the potential of mobile phones for improving the reliability and safety of water supplies. Some NGOs are now incorporating mobile data collection into their project monitoring surveys and creating dynamic websites to share results with donors and other stakeholders.

But it is also important to remember that implementing mobile phone solutions in low-resource settings is not without challenges. Though mobile phone coverage is rapidly growing, the networks are generally weakest in the places where information flows are the most critical. In addition, management procedures must be in place for things like lost or broken phones, the topping up of phone credit, network configuration and new user training.

At Aquaya we’re optimistic that although mobile phones may not address all aspects of the global water crisis, they will be important tools for managing the many challenges. We are exploring other exciting ways to use mobile technology to support safe water delivery including bulk SMS messages for public service announcements and customer alerts (like a boil alert when contamination is detected in a utility network), public submission of complaints and status reports, and automated, dynamic data analysis for managers.

Although the developing world is changing rapidly, particularly through urbanisation, much of the urban growth – especially in Africa – is in small and medium sized towns. As a result, strategies for linking geographically dispersed actors to support regulatory agencies remain critical. In his annual report last year, Engineer Robert Gakubia, the CEO of the Kenya Water Services Regulatory Board, summed it up when he said “There is no transparency without information, which means that information is key to good governance. Information helps water service providers and customers improve access to water services”.

zarahZarah Rahman is the Director of Programs at the Aquaya Institute, a non-profit research and consulting organisation specialising in innovative solutions for safe drinking water worldwide. At Aquaya, Zarah leads programs that improve local stakeholders’ ability to obtain and use data for better water and management. Though based in California, Zarah has traveled to over fifteen countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America for Aquaya’s programs. Zarah studied International Development at Brown University.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

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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.