This is a guest post from David Schaub-Jones who works with SeeSaw, a social venture that focuses on how technology can strengthen sanitation and water providers in developing countries. Follow SeeSaw on Twitter: @ontheseesaw.
In June, two organisations focussed on using ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in the water and sanitation sector joined forces in Cape Town. SeeSaw, a social enterprise that customises ICT to support sanitation and water providers and iComms, a University of Cape Town research unit (Information for Community Oriented Municipal Services) co-hosted a two day event to look at how ICT tools are changing the way that public services function in developing countries.
There are growing expectations that harnessing ICT intelligently can bring about radical improvements in the way that health, education and other sectors function, particularly in developing countries. SeeSaw and iComms wanted to look at this in more detail – and to build on the open sharing of experience to provide general principles to those planning to harness ICT for public service delivery. Their overarching goal is to help practitioners cut through much of the complexity and hype surrounding ICT usage and give them a robust set of guidelines with which to plan and negotiate partnerships and projects on the ground.
The event brought together 30+ practitioners – with water sector professionals from across Southern Africa joined by their colleagues from the health sector – a sector that has been quick to innovate, try different approaches and learn lessons. A full write-up of the event can be found here in the Water Information Network of South Africa’s October Newsletter. (See www.win-sa.org).
1) Putting in place an effective ICT system can make a visible impact on the ground. It can pay for itself quite quickly in terms of efficiency gains and even costs saved. Yet a fair amount of thought must go into designing the system to fit the local context – just transplanting a system that has worked in one place to a new environment is generally a recipe for trouble.
2) An important spin-off result of looking at how to use ICT is that the effort taken to design a responsive system forces stakeholders to reflect more closely on the existing structures, process and current information flows. This can have significant benefits even if no system is later built.
3) A recommendation is to spend due time and effort in understanding the system, asking direct stakeholders what information they currently get, what information they need and then seeing how and whether ICT systems can be used to gather data that can generate additional, better or faster information and get it to where it is needed (in a way that suits the working patterns of those individuals).
4) For impact at any significant scale it is crucial that ICT systems, whether in healthcare or water and sanitation, integrate with existing government systems. There is a great risk of fragmentation – too many organisations piloting new ICT systems put in place technologies or processes that cannot easily be absorbed into existing government systems (or worse still, undermine these).
5) A lot of initiatives, particularly in the healthcare system, have tried to harness ICT to get people to do what is good for them. And only that. For instance, cellphones used to gather field information can be restricted so that they can only do one thing and no longer function as a phone. Airtime and data bundles used for transmitting information can be isolated to only contribute to ‘the project’. The disadvantage is that this turns the device into something used only for work, something alien and otherwise ‘not useful’. Alternatives do exist though and can be productive. If frontline workers being asked to use phones and new ICT tools are permitted – sometimes on a limited basis – to use them for their own purposes (browsing the internet, accessing facebook, receiving SMS) then they are more likely to engage with the project, look after the equipment, etc. A balance is surely needed, but a quid pro quo arrangement can be a sensible approach. This was characterised as “give them pizza with their broccoli”!
6) ICT tools can be incredibly powerful at improving the flow of data and, from there, the flow of information. But what if the flow of information is not the real problem? There are many issues that undermine healthcare or water and sanitation systems – and a lot of them have little to do with information. Cultural conflicts, different worldviews, individual rivalries, dysfunctional facilities – all of these can be the ‘sand in the gearbox’. Don’t assume that a new ICT system is going to solve all problems – after all, these are tools, not a panacea to what are typically complex and entrenched challenges.
SeeSaw and iComms are now exploring how to take forward research into how to improve information flows and how incentives shape the behaviour of different stakeholders within any ICT system designed for the water and sanitation sector. A similar event is also planned for East Africa in early 2013.
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