Advancing Data for Good with Benetech Labs: Improving Access to Clean Water in Latin America

By Benetech, posted on

In Latin America, 70 million people depend on vital services of community-based water and sanitation providers, locally known as OCSAS (Organizaciones Comunitarias del Agua y Saneamiento). There exists a great disparity between OCSAS: some of them run effectively, while others don’t. There is an urgent need for a platform that empowers water and sanitation community managers to share best practices and improve their services, and that also enables institutional funders to evaluate investments in the water and sanitation sector.

In Summer 2013, Benetech Labs set out to create just that platform. In order to address the most pressing needs of the stakeholder community, we partnered with Fundación Avina—a Latin American foundation that works with civil society organizations, entrepreneurs, researchers, and governmental institutions to improve sustainable development. Together, we began exploring the opportunity to improve and expand water and sanitation services in Latin America. We’ve made excellent progress with this project and built a diagnostic tool to improve OCSAS’ capacity to provide water and sanitation services to their communities.

I’m delighted to share that the Paraguayan government is now using our tool in a nationwide project that aims to advance access to clean water in the country. This is a major step forward in a collaborative effort to tackle the challenges that Latin American community water and sanitation organizations face.

Let me tell you a bit more about how we got to this point and about the Benetech Labs approach to this project.

We wanted to leverage the proliferation of mobile phones across Latin America to collect data from community members and to deliver educational information. Our proposed solution was to create mobile and web apps for collection, analysis, and mapping of data about the capacity of OCSAS. The apps will enable these local organizations to create national and regional networks for sharing innovation, technical knowledge, and best practices.

In the Benetech Labs’ spirit of rapid experimentation, we started prototyping a mobile diagnostic tool called Clean Water App to survey each OCSAS’ capacity to provide water and sanitation services to its community. The survey results are uploaded to a web app that generates a dashboard featuring a score for each organization and suggested educational content based off of the diagnostic results. Previously on this blog, I wrote about this initial work.

Last September, I traveled to San Carlos, Costa Rica, to attend Fundación Avina’s annual Encuentro Latinoamericano de Gestión Comunitaria del Agua conference. During the three-day event, community, government, and academic leaders from all across South and Central America gathered to discuss water and sanitation-related challenges. Avina and Benetech set up a booth, where we demonstrated our software along with Avina’s complimentary educational modules.

We also presented the Clean Water App to more than one hundred conference attendees and led an interactive workshop. During the workshop, we passed out Android tablets and had groups complete the diagnostic survey using the Clean Water App. We then presented them with the resulting dashboard and illustrated how our software makes it easy to quickly determine the organizational health of OCSAS. Based on the results, OCSA leaders were given the supporting educational materials in the areas they tested poorly in.

The response to our software solution was extremely positive. Many attendees requested that I install the software on their personal devices immediately and several university representatives expressed great interest in the data. Additionally, many community leaders were excited about finding out their community’s score and about participating in future pilots. We discussed Avina’s long term goal of using the Clean Water App and the educational modules as tools to create credit worthy OCSAS on a massive scale. Using the Clean Water App data, Avina, universities, and funders will have access to the data they need to make sound investment decisions.

During the conference, I collected plenty of constructive feedback, which has been critical in defining version 2.0 of our Clean Water App. The Benetech Labs team has been working on this next iteration of the app, with major improvements focused on connectivity, usability, better user interface, and seamless integration of reporting.

As I mentioned above, the Paraguayan government is now using our Clean Water App in a nationwide project that aims to advance access to clean water in the country. The Paraguay-based Fundación Moisés Bertoni, which is implementing this project with funding from USAID and, with Avina’s support, already trained more than one hundred water and sanitation community managers in the use of the Clean Water App. Equipped with our tool, they are starting to collect data on the status of and access to drinking water in Concepción, San Pedro, and Canindeyú, some of the poorest departments in Paraguay. The collected data will allow better use of resources in these and other departments with significant poverty rates, where it is the government’s priority to improve the services of OCSAS. More information about this project is available on Avina’s website (in Spanish).

We’re very excited to see our Clean Water App implemented by a government ministry as part of a national study in Latin America. We hope to build upon this model of collaboration in Paraguay to establish a replicable model for improving local water management in developing countries.

The Clean Water App is one in a suite of mobile data collection tools that we are prototyping in Benetech Labs. In this case, the app is benefitting the water and sanitation sector, but our Labs pipeline also includes additional data collection tools intended to empower other social sector stakeholders, such as social entrepreneurs and human rights groups. For example, one tool we are currently exploring is a secureApp Generator—a platform that enables human rights and civil society organizations to create custom mobile and desktop applications for secure data collection, using the strongly encrypted technology stack of Martus, our human rights information collection and management software. In all our Labs projects, we use open source technology and partner with communities of issue experts, stakeholders, and technologists.

You can view the complete Labs pipeline, and we invite you to check back this blog for updates about our Labs work.