Thursday, April 14, 2011

Getting rid of my backpack: Reflections on the first five years of monitoring at Water For People

Five years ago, I sat down with Water For People colleagues Ned and Wende in the basement conference room of Water For People and we started to think about how we could develop a monitoring program at Water For People. We wanted something simple and applicable across the then five countries that we worked on.

After lots of discussion what we should be monitoring-do we do water quality? How do we do water quality? Are committees important? If water flow on the day of the visit, isn’t that good enough? –it was time to get on with it and do some field testing. Many organizations get bogged down in what to monitor, but we were keen to avoid this analysis by paralysis. So with support from Weston Solutions, ESRI, Trimble, OMNI Research and Training, and willing volunteers, we flew down to Honduras to test the program.

We visited 33 communities that first year and 31 of them had water flowing the day of the visit. Lots of interesting learning occurred that shaped our programming the region-precisely the point of monitoring!

  • · rehabilitation projects were 2/3 more likely to have operational problems than those where Water For People provided human resource training in addition to just finance-we know devote a considerable amount of time , money, and training to water committees themselves, association of water committees, and municipal water technicians
  • · we found many small system chlorinators not being used by communities and have since modified our approach to water quality in Honduras through piloting different types of technologies, encouraging supply chain strengthening by facilitating chlorine availability through the Association of Water Committees; and supporting human resource back-up support through the different support groups, like the Association and the municipality.

In addition to collecting the actual data, we were also interested in seeing if our methodology was feasible. As we sweated up and down hillsides, sidestepped snakes, and sipped fresh coffee some days and milk straight from the cow’s udder other days, my backpack literally included this list everyday:

· A backpack, to carry everything on this list
· A Tablet PC (the grand-daddy of the ipad)
· Car chargers for the Tablet PC
· Hundreds of pieces of paper interviews-interviews for community members, interviews for water committees, back up copies in case some got wet or needed to be used as emergency toilet paper
· Clipboards to organize the paper
· Paper clips to keep my surveys organized
· The most accurate GPS unit on the planet
· My SLR digital camera
· Close to 20 Colilert water quality tests (which would then be body incubated at night-if you are not familiar with the technique of body incubation-it means putting 10 ml tubes of sampled water and reagent down your pants, in your socks, or under your armpits to try to get them to reach the temperature necessary for the reagent to work!)
· Chlorine strips
· Tape to label the water quality tests
· Markers to write on the tape
· Pens (note the plural-we would have been out of luck to find ourselves at the end of those two hour hikes only to discover we left pens in the cars)
· My flip phone

Since that first trip, we have monitored arsenic filters in peri-urban India, improved toilets in rural Malawi, school handwashing stations in Guatemala, public taps in Rwanda, and rainwater harvest tanks in Bolivia. While the concept was right, we would often have significant delays in getting the information back to the field. When we mapped –collected baseline data on access to water and sanitation-in northern Peru in October of 2009, I was not able to return the data to partners until May of 2010. Seven months. Staff, partners, and volunteers just did the exact same exercise in Bolivia last month, and I saw the data the day they collected it. What a difference a Droid makes!

Yesterday –after years of collecting data the old school way-I gave a presentation to government, civil society, and private sector actors from all over Latin America and I whittled that list of equipment down to one thing-a smart phone. I didn’t even know what a Droid was five years ago, or if they even existed, but they have revolutionized how we collect, view, and manage data at Water For People. Multi-lingual, permission-based, simultaneous data collection and entry, GPS and camera-included, myself, our staff, our partners, government, community members themselves can now share with the world with the press of a button or the click of a box, the status of thousands of water systems and toilets the world round. The status of thousands of water points are now transparently available with the click of a mouse and summaries of strengths and weaknesses displayed on our website ( ).

If you give money to any organization, ask them how they know if what they do lasts; then ask them to prove it. If you work for an organization doing anything-public, private, or civil society-, ask yourself how you know what you are doing lasts; then push yourselves to prove it. Our institutional commitment to monitor has been strong for years. But few organizations were replicating the system. Once we got rid of everything in our backpacks-the backpack included-and began to use technology for good, the interest in FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch) took off. It’s now easier than ever to report back on the sustainability of investments-be they water pumps, school construction, or vaccine programs. Join the movement!

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