Benetech Labs Explores Tech for Essential Community Services

By Benetech, posted on

A soldier in fatigues holding a large gun strolled the perimeter of the conference center, set against the backdrop of the still waters of Lake Ypacaraí. The heightened security was due to the imminent arrival of the President of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, who was set to deliver the opening remarks at the conference—Fundación Avina’s annual Encuentro Latinoamericano de Gestión Comunitaria del Agua.

Gerardo Capiel, Benetech’s VP of Engineering, and I were here in San Bernardino, Paraguay, as representatives of Benetech Labs. We were invited by the leaders of Fundación Avina to investigate how technology could be leveraged to help organizations provide essential services, like clean water and sanitation, to their communities in more efficient ways. It was the perfect place to do so, as the conference brought together community leaders and water managers to discuss shared concerns about the future of these services across rural Latin America.

There was an impressive turnout of participants from almost every country in Latin America, and it was inspiring to see such diversity of representation and dedication. Many of these community leaders are volunteers and dedicate their lives to this extremely important cause.

During the three days of the conference, Gerardo and I met with dozens of these leaders. Through our discussions, we learned a lot more about the pressing need for capacity building and education among their organizations. We discovered that there is a great disparity across Latin America between the water and sanitation providers that run effectively and those that don’t. And while there have been steps taken to identify what makes effective organizations work well, there hasn’t been a platform to share those best practices—a way to help less successful organizations better address the challenges they are facing.

As a nonprofit tech company, Benetech believes that using an agile approach to development is the best way to create technology that best meets the needs of our users. We prototype, gather feedback and prototype some more. With Benetech Labs, we have the flexibility to begin this process sooner—to experiment early and often.

In that spirit of experimentation, we held two sessions at the conference where we presented a prototype mobile diagnostic tool to get feedback from community members and to get closer, from the outset, to addressing their most pressing needs. During our sessions, we were fortunate to meet some outspoken leaders who gave critical feedback and whom we believe will be strong partners as we move forward with any future development of a platform to share best practices.

As we discussed the possibilities, we were especially excited by the idea to leverage the proliferation of mobile phones across Latin America to collect data from community members and as a possible way to deliver important and educational information. Of course, we would plan to engage our local partners and use open-source technology to meet this challenge, allowing others to build off any solution we create. Another resource we are excited to tap is Benetech’s SocialCoding4Good initiative, where technologists from some of the most advanced high-tech companies volunteer their time and technical expertise to social-good projects.

Overall, our trip to Paraguay was a great success. I have to say that some of my favorite moments from the trip occurred during the daily conference lunch breaks, where passionate community leaders, members of NGOs and technologists sat together to discuss their most pressing concerns, as well as stories of success. The ability to share stories and work through ideas together is, to me, what Benetech Labs is all about.

Whether we are able to find the resources necessary to invest in a full-scale technological solution, or build simple software tools to assist our partners in a smaller way, we hope to have a positive and meaningful impact on the challenges these—and other—water and sanitation organizations face.

Things move quickly with the Labs, so make sure to check back for updates! And feel free to contact us if you’re interested in learning more or supporting this or other Benetech Labs projects!