Change in the Palms of Their Hands

At the event, residents of Lwebitakuli, Uganda, learned about the importance of sanitation in avoiding infectious disease.
At the event, residents of Lwebitakuli, Uganda, learned about the importance of sanitation in avoiding infectious disease.

In an age when people line up at dawn to replace their ‘old’ iPads with the latest model, it may seem that technology is first and foremost an indulgence for the elite. But declining costs of cellphones, the wide availability of the Internet, and a trend toward open data and open source software has extended the benefit of modern technology to a broad segment of society. USAID is applying this technology to engage communities, increase self-sufficiency, and boost livelihoods in an increasing number of cutting-edge programs across the globe.

Despite their might, cellular phones, social networks, and laptops cannot alone alleviate famines, improve public health, or provide disaster relief. Used innovatively, however, they present an opportunity to impact development in ways that traditional methods cannot. More than anything, technology enables the transfer of knowledge, empowering individuals and communities to make informed decisions to secure their health and livelihoods.

Harnessing Cellular Power

“Twenty years ago, no one thought the mobile phone would become one of the most important development tools in existence, but it has,” wrote USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in his annual letter in March. It is estimated that 6 billion cell phones are in operation worldwide. It is only natural that, as these mobile computers have become central to the lives of so many, they will become essential for the Agency’s work.

On a basic level, cell phones have provided a new way of rallying financial and societal support for development projects. Famine War Drought (FWD), which ran from September 2011 to May 2012, is a leader in the “text-to-donate” trend. FWD made it easy for cell phone users worldwide to punch a few keys to send small donations that, when combined, supported efforts to provide clean water for livestock in Kenya or sustain Somali refugees in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa. In return, donors got transparency — the ability to trace their dollars by accessing maps, infographics, and social media on the FWD website. FWD generated over 200 million “shares” through sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Meanwhile, a growing cadre of technology companies is tapping phones’ potential to both collect and disseminate information from areas that can be difficult to reach in other ways

A prime example is Ushahidi. In the wake of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi’s open source software, named after the Swahili word for ‘testimony,’ launched into action, attributing cohesive meaning to thousands of text messages (SMS), tweets, emails, and web postings, and providing real-time information to local and national communities and to the world.

Since then, the Ushahidi platform, traditionally used as event-based software in response to natural crises and times of civil unrest, has been taken up by dozens of organizations that seek a means of gathering data from disparate stakeholders, aggregating it, and displaying it in a meaningful way.

Watertracker, a component of USAID/Afghanistan's Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation (SWSS) project, is one program that has begun using Ushahidi’s platform to support sustainable development. Instead of relying on text messages to report information, as other deployments

of Ushahidi had done, the developers found another means of efficiently reaching their targets. “We realized that an integral part of a long-term program like this one is to determine the right vehicle to receive information,” said Rob Baker, an independent developer for Ushahidi. Because Watertracker is targeted to rural communities that might have limited literacy and access, using voice recognition technology turned out to be a more efficient and locally appropriate means of reporting malfunctioning wells, rather than relying on texts.

When trained community members call in, their responses to a voice-activated menu provide SWSS with structured information to report broken wells to the appropriate contractor for repair. While the software infrastructure for the voice-recognition system was time consuming to develop, Mr. Baker said, “By relying on structured information, taking literacy rates into account, and working with a local partner to understand their capacity to respond, overall it’s a more sustainable solution.” Because the project was so successful, Watertracker’s management will be transferred from SWSS to the Afghan Ministry of rural rehabilitation and Development and will ultimately incorporate nearly 100,000 wells throughout the country.

Information: Accessible and Customized

When it comes to exchanging knowledge in an efficient and relatively inexpensive way, however, text messaging is still difficult to top. even simple SMS-based programs can generate real impacts on health and livelihoods.

The Text to change program, for example, allows users to participate in game-style learning activities using SMS. Partnering with USAID and Unilever, Text to change hosted a Global handwashing Day celebration in October 2011 for the community of lwebitakuli in the Sembabule district of Uganda. Attendees sent texts pledging to wash their hands thoroughly with soap before and after certain activities. In response, they received texts with information on improving sanitation to reduce disease.

Texts can educate recipients not only about prevention, but also about productivity and access. As part of the Morocco economic competitiveness (MEC) program, USAID partner Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) installed nine automated weather stations, six of which are located in Morocco’s Oriental region, to collect information about rainfall, temperature, and evapotranspiration rates. Using that data, farmers are sent text messages relaying customized information, based on their crops and hyper-local weather conditions, about how much to water their crops. The program represents a significant improvement over the old system, known as tour-d’eau, whereby the Moroccan government delivered a pre-determined volume of water on certain days, and the farmers applied that water to their fields regardless of conditions. “They often ended up wasting time, money, and water in the process,” said MEC Chief of Party Andrew Watson. Now farmers can store water and use drip irrigation to apply water to their fields in a more judicious manner. “There’s no question that the farmers prefer to have full control over how much water they irrigate and when, rather than following the imposed schedule of the tourd’eau,” said Edgar Ariza-Nino, a monitoring and evaluation specialist with MEC. Currently 300 farmers participate, and the program will soon expand for the growing season this spring and summer.

Text messaging is also being adapted for use in an urban setting through the Indonesia WATER SMS program. With funding from the USAID Development Grants Program, the Pacific Institute is leading an effort to “give a voice to the voiceless: the urban poor,” according to Meena Palaniappan, Director of International and Water community Initiatives. rolling out as a three-year pilot project in the metropolitan areas of Malang and Makassar, WATER SMS will allow city residents, with a particular emphasis on women and the urban poor, to send texts and emails to report problems with water services. Their responses will populate a crowd sourced map that the government and local utility company can rely on to more effectively correct both acute and chronic issues of water access. The project is being conducted in partnership with PATTIrO Indonesia, a governance NGO, and Nexleaf Analytics, the technical lead.

Encouraging Innovation

Looking to the future, USAID is fostering innovation in the water sector, recognizing that today’s technologies could be obsolete ten years from now. Innovation is a common thread in Administrator Shah’s plans for the Agency, manifesting itself in many ways: from new partnerships with research universities; to a new emphasis on mobile banking to access water and other resources; to President Obama’s recently announced Broadband Partnership of the Americas, based on USAID’s Global Broadband Innovations program; to USAID and World Bank competitions like Development 2.0, the LAUNCH energy challenge, and Water Hackathons.

These competitions have yielded some great success; in 2009, one of the winning entries to Development 2.0 was Ushahidi. Similarly, LAUNCH—co-sponsored by NASA, Nike, and the U.S. Department of State—announced last October that a finalist was hydrovolts, a company that has invented a device able to harvest clean, renewable energy from currently untapped water sources such as canals, waterfalls, and rivers. Its potential to provide affordable electricity to people in rural and remote areas is vast.

As the 21st century progresses, technology will continue to permeate the water sector in the developing world. The next challenge is to ensure that these introductions of technology are wide reaching, egalitarian, and effective. Success, however, lies less in the technology itself than in its ability to create greater access to information and communication in underserved populations.

For technology, according to Julia Bucknall, Water Sector Manager at the World Bank, “is not magic. It’s not free. It’s not instant. But it’s a great way forward to make faster progress on some of our core issues.”

K. Unger-Baillie

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Last updated: November 26, 2013

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