28 Oct 2010

Monitoring rural water supplies - a job for experts or for citizens?

My attention was drawn yesterday (thanks to Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza) to FLOW, a recently-launched mobile phone app that can be used to monitor the functionality of rural water points. It was reported on recently by CNN. This tool, with the full name Field Level Operations Watch (hence FLOW), is the work of the US-based organisation Water for People. They describe it as
"a dynamic new ... baseline and monitoring tool that allows us to get a clear view of what’s working, what’s on the verge of disrepair, and what’s broken. Not only will Water For People use the data to make better programming decisions, but governments, partners, donors and the public can also easily monitor projects and take action when necessary. Plus, the data is easy to gather, share and understand allowing us to build better solutions for a lasting impact."

(click to see a larger version)
The app can be downloaded onto any Android phone (i.e. smart phones that use Google's operating system), and used by field staff to collect and enter data direct from the field. The data is then publicly displayed on the internet, where the site already has a fair amount of data uploaded from various places around the world including Malawi and Rwanda - see picture below.

It's a very interesting approach, which has a number of obvious similarities with what our own MajiMatone programme is trying to do here at Daraja. We're also creating a system for monitoring the functionality of rural waterpoints after they've been installed, and we're also using mobile phones as a way of collecting the information.

But there also some important differences. The most obvious is about who is collecting and sending the information. In the case of FLOW, the tool requires access to an Android smart-phone, which cost upwards of $200 in Tanzania, as well as a willingness to go to the trouble and cost of downloading the app. It's therefore most suited to professionals visiting the field, and perhaps could be adapted for use by local government for routine monitoring purposes. The FLOW website talks about community members being able to use the tool as well, but for the moment that seems a highly unrealistic prospect, at least in this part of the world.

Daraja's MajiMatone system, in contrast, is designed to be accessible by any type of phone, using only the SMS mechanism that's very familiar to most mobile phone users. It's therefore designed for use by citizens in large numbers, rather than by professionals.
You can argue about the merits of the two approaches, but I think they each have a place. FLOW can collect more detailed data, but MajiMatone can collect data from more people in more places.

If a professional is physically visiting each rural waterpoint regularly (which is what FLOW reauires), they would be able to complete a traditional paper form containing all the information they're now collecting on the phones. So we can see the FLOW system first and foremost as a step up from paper-based monitoring, using phones to massively speed up the process of entering data and presenting reports. It doesn't really change the roles of different actors, just saves the time and effort of professionals and therefore enables them to do a better job. In that way, it's a very useful tool.
MajiMatone is a more fundamental re-organisation of monitoring, going well beyond the physical limitations of field visits by professionals and giving opportunities to rural citizens to play a role and make their voice heard.

That's not to say that the two approaches won't converge. As smart-phone costs come down and spread to rural areas, the FLOW tool can become user-friendly for the citizen as well as for the professional. Daraja is keeping a close eye on the spread of smart-phones and will work out when it becomes appropriate for us to incorporate them into MajiMatone.

But for the moment, at least in rural Tanzania, Ken Banks's "long tail" is still very long (the idea that most people only have access to the simplest mobile phone technologies). The time's not yet right to use smart phones as a tool for citizen-monitoring, and putting opportuinities in the hands of citizens is something we see as critical.