mWASH: Mobile Phone Applications for the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Sector

Published: April 2012
Authors: Misha Hutchings, Anurupa Dev, Meena Palaniappan, Dr. Veena Srinivasan, Nithya Ramanathan, John Taylor
Pages: 115

Billions of the world’s poor still lack access to basic water and sanitation services, yet many of them can count mobile phones among their possessions. Water and sanitation practitioners have begun to tap the potential of these phones as tools to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. A new report from the Pacific Institute and Nexleaf Analytics assesses how these “mWASH” solutions can amass and disseminate information quickly and thoroughly – directly to or from the underserved populations most in need of service from water providers.

“The urban and rural poor often have no way to advocate for their basic needs for water and sanitation because their problems are invisible to higher levels of delivery, planning, and policymaking,” said Meena Palaniappan, director of the Pacific Institute International Water and Communities Initiative. “Information is powerful, yet scarce, when it does not have to be. A mobile phone WASH solution can fill information gaps by transforming the way data is generated, communicated, and shared – giving people a real and direct voice.”

Ms. Palaniappan released the report in a presentation at the International Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley on May 4, 2012. The new study, mWASH: Mobile Phone Applications for the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Sector, analyzes how mobile technology applications are already being tapped in many areas, such as health, agriculture, and disaster relief, as well as WASH.

“These mobile solutions demonstrate that gathering and analyzing data from remote regions and making the information available in a transparent way can help identify where investments are most urgently needed, improve long-term project monitoring, and contribute to better water resources planning,” said Misha Hutchings, research associate at the Pacific Institute and lead author of the report.

“We aimed to capture a snapshot of existing mobile phone platforms to assist in developing an effective solution to improve transparency and enhance communication for the global water, sanitation, and hygiene sector,” said co-author Nithya Ramanathan of Nexleaf Analytics. “Mobile phones are powerful mechanisms to serve the needs of the poorest, most vulnerable populations, because they represent a ubiquitous, relatively low-cost, and easy-to-use communication option for rapid information transfer and service facilitation.”

The ten case studies in the mWASH report call out lessons critical for developing robust mWASH applications. Most mobile phone solutions have great potential, fueled by desires to bring rapid and effective change, but their success will ultimately depend on program management planning for financial and technical sustainability, and measuring system effectiveness in the short and long-term.

The researchers conducted a global survey and identified more than forty mobile phone projects worldwide, selecting ten organizations for further study, including five in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector: FLOW, Human Sensor Web, Maji Matone, NextDrop, and Water Quality Reporter. Interviews with each organization revealed key decision points on technical, social, and program design, as well as principles for the success of mobile phone applications relevant to WASH. They concluded that for mWASH solutions to provide the underserved the information they need and a voice with water providers and government agencies, the developers must understand that:

- socio-cultural context is critical and user participation is driven by ease of use;
– mobile phone solutions can provide high-quality data, and users must have access to that data;
– responsiveness of government authority is necessary to ensure users’ long-term interest;
-securing a future for the system requires a plan for long-term sustainability right at the outset.

It is increasingly recognized that efforts to improve water supply, sanitation, and hygiene in the long term depend on addressing the underlying issue of inadequate governance in the WASH sector, which is exacerbated by poor information on water resources and the needs of the poor. Technology that innovates the ways in which data is generated can help in overcoming this challenge, allowing for direct and real-time data generation and collection from larger numbers of people, often at little cost.

Mobile phone technology is making it easier for people to access information – and it is spurring demand for information access and transparency. Technology is also enabling communities to coalesce around issues of concern and making communication between stakeholders more immediate. Governments can increase service provision to underserved and vulnerable communities, alert residents to service changes, and aggregate data on informal water services, unserviced areas, and aquifer levels, as well as assess and prepare for risks associated with climate variability and change. Using SMS, email, or the web, citizens and residents can remotely report conditions such as poor water quality and sewage backflow, register lack of infrastructure to aid in network expansion, and view information on the status of service provision and problem resolution.

The Pacific Institute, in collaboration with Nexleaf Analytics, is using this mWASH research in its project funded by USAID Development Grants Program (DGP) to build the open-source WASH SMS System, a highly accessible communication and monitoring system that relies on mobile phones and email to develop crowd-sourced map data to improve water and sanitation services for the urban poor. The system is being developed through a pilot project with Indonesian partner PATTIRO and serves two major metropolitan areas in Indonesia that are on the verge of water crises among their urban poor. The project includes extensive collaboration between Indonesian citizens, public and private water service providers, and government agencies.

This analysis was made possible through the generous support of USAID and the Cisco Foundation.

Download full report.

Download the Executive Summary.