Can mobile technology revolutionize data use in the WASH sector?

Mary Mbena, 22, carries dirty water she has collected from a river in Kaniche village, Malawi. How can we use today’s technology in achieving universal and lasting access to clean water and sanitation? Photo by: Kate Holt / WaterAid

Proposed sustainable development goal 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 we have recently committed with others to a common Agenda for Change to this end.

When you consider that over 650 million people still don’t have access to safe water, and a staggering 2.3 billion — 1 in 3 people in the world — don’t have sanitation, getting sustainable access to everyone, everywhere is a complex task.

Data will play an integral role in reaching this goal. WaterAid has a 10-year monitoring system in place for the programs we support, allowing 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 organizations. The mobile apps work on and offline, designed for areas with unreliable Internet. And it’s free to use, made possible through 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 centers, households and schools. Moreover, each site can be mapped by multiple surveys, facilitating a shared view of water and sanitation access over time.

More than 4,000 nongovernmental organizations, 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.

WaterAid is collaboratively investing in mWater as a sector tool with other organizations such as Technological solutions could potentially 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 program: 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 its country regions 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 over 1,200 communities, facilitated using mWater. Doing this 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, as some systems can’t talk to each other, while some organizations 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.

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 nonexistent. 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.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Erik Harvey

    Erik Harvey is head of the program support unit at WaterAid. He has worked for over 18 years in the WASH sector, at all levels, from community engagement to sector strategic planning and organizational management. Erik has worked in South Africa, Mozambique and the United Kingdom. In addition, he has carried out consultancies and supported countries in Africa and Asia.