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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.

(from SeeSaw’s website.)

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).

Key messages

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.

Next Steps

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.

If you are interested in hearing more about these topics, subscribe to SeeSaw’s newsletter for more details.

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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. “SeeSaw starts from the point that technology is no silver bullet, but when applied right, it can harness and strengthen the ‘business models’ of those that provide services. SeeSaw helps to focus on the sorts of institutional partnerships and relationships needed to support progress at scale. So SeeSaw is about empowering sanitation and water providers.” (Follow @ontheseesaw)

One of the early trends of this decade is how ICT (Information and Communications Technology) tools are changing the way that service delivery works – with radical improvements being hoped for in the way that health, education and other sectors function, particularly in developing countries.

The water sector has not been as quick as some others to take up these new tools, but as the field matures somewhat, interest is growing. The of cellphones to read meters, pay bills, report faults is of great interest to water utilities specifically – whilst regulators, governments, donors and NGOs are all interested in how it can help them better understand what is happening on the ground, react to changing situations and plan and invest better.

To look into this area SeeSaw, a social enterprise that customises technology to support sanitation and water providers has partnered with iComms, a University of Cape Town research unit (Information for Community Oriented Municipal Services).

Today marks the second day of the two-day workshop “But Does it Float?” where practitioners have been both enthusiastic and cautious. While the potential for ICTs in the water sector is fairly clear, it is also clear that there are hurdles to be jumped. Partly this is because getting water and sanitation up and running in poor communities is a very difficult challenge – and is not so much a technological challenge as it is an institutional challenge. It is the messy politics, the lack of voice and visibility, issues around land tenure and poverty, that make it ‘hard to do’, not the technology per se.

Yet practitioners also believe that new technology offers them a way to change some of these relationships for the better, particularly where systems are planned to take account of the different incentives and barriers that key stakeholders face in adopting them.

As Professor Rivett put it to a journalist covering the event, “We wanted to have a very real discussion about the possibilities – but also the challenges – in this area… Many people think using information technologies offers an easy – often even glamorous – solution to research problems. The reality, of course, is sometimes quite different. There are challenges to using mobile technology in everything from reception coverage and system failure to education barriers and municipal capacity to act on the information we gather. This workshop lets us share those challenges honestly and, hopefully, begin to find their solutions.”

In our work at SeeSaw, we’ve noted that one of the key opportunities is that in talking openly about how we can use cellphones to improve services, we are able to also discuss some of the visible and not-so-visible challenges that are currently blocking service delivery. Bringing cellphones into the equation – discussing how they enable us to build confidence, share information, reduce costs – means that we need to focus on practical improvements that can be rolled out widely and, importantly, sustained over time. So even if no cellphone-based system is eventually adopted, we still get valuable insights into what needs to be done.

Members of the media, academic community and public will join the practitioners today for the second day of discussions.

Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for another post where SeeSaw and iComms share the background paper and post-workshop summary. You will also be able to find links and video in the coming days on SeeSaw’s blog.

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One of the main programs I support is a youth arts, technology and media program called ‘YETAM‘.  The program supports youth to identify and raise issues that they consider important, and then helps them engage their communities to resolve the issues they’ve raised. The youth have talked a lot about water in most of the places where I’ve been working in the past couple years, probably because children and youth tend to be the ones responsible for carrying water.

As part of the project in Okola District in Cameroon last year, youth mapped their community and prioritized their issues. One of their top issues was water. They made this film together about the water problem and shared it with the community adults and local authorities.

Probleme d’eau Potable – The Potable Water Problem (for subtitles, click on the arrow on the bottom right hand side of the video player and then click on the red ‘cc’ button)

Spurred on by the project and the organized youth, a few months later the community got to work fixing one of their water sources. They put in some resources and so did our local office.

La quete d’eau potable – Lack of Potable Water part 2.

Here are a couple other videos about water filmed by youth….

The Community Water Tank from El Salvador about what happens when water sources are not kept up (click on link as it’s not available on YouTube yet)

Djiko: l’eau potable a song youth wrote to remind communities about water scarcity in Mali

Water – Amazi where youth interview a rural family about water scarcity in Rwanda

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