Article By Emma Bones, Graduate Research Assistant
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
“It has become overwhelmingly clear that the main obstacle in the use and maintenance of improved water and sanitation systems is not the quality of technology, but the failure in qualified human resources and in management and organization techniques, including a failure to capture community interest. An appalling 35 to 50 percent of such systems in developing countries became inoperable five years after installation” (USAID 1981).
Why Water Point Mapping (WPM) is Important
The quote above is from 1981, yet high failure rates continue. Why is failure so common for water and sanitation systems in developing countries? Why is operation and maintenance such a huge challenge for many governments and NGOs? And, most importantly, why does this statistic still hold (more or less) true thirty years after it was originally discovered?
These were several of the main questions driving our research team as we traveled to Nicaragua during the summer of 2012 to test some of the newest and most promising water mapping technologies. I was part of a research team from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) that partnered with the Executive Director of Improve International, Susan Davis, and El Porvenir, an NGO based in Managua, Nicaragua to better understand the challenges facing O&M of water systems and to identify the most auspicious technologies to aid in water point monitoring. The Georgia Tech research team included Lily Ponitz (pursuing B.S. in Environmental Engineering), Allie George (pursuing B.S. in Civil Engineering), and myself, Emma Bones (pursuing M.S. in Civil Engineering).
Meet the Georgia Tech research team posing next to one of the El Porvenir water points we mapped (from left to right): Emma Bones, Lily Ponitz, and Allie George.
Successes, Failures, and Challenges to WPM
After a careful evaluation of the current options for cellular phone surveying applications, five were selected to be brought with us to Nicaragua for testing. Those technologies were Episurveyor1, OpenXdata, DataTap, DeviceMagic, and FLOW2. We tested the difficulty of setting-up, collecting data, and analyzing data on all five of these applications while in a developing country setting.
We were able to complete water point surveying with four of the five technologies, although we did experience major issues with many of the programs. While we were able to set-up openXdata while in the US, it failed the set-up phase in Nicaragua because of its need for advanced computing knowledge, which is hard for WASH NGOs to access or afford. The next technology that experienced complications was DeviceMagic during the data collection phase; it was discovered that the program would automatically delete water point entries overnight if they had not been uploaded via wifi the day before. The other technology that experienced major issues was Episurveyor during the data analysis phase; when we returned to the main office in Nicaragua at the end of the trip, we discovered that the online form had somehow been deleted. Eventually, we were able to download the data from the phone in a text file and import it into an excel document, but this took an above average knowledge of computer systems.
Lessons Learned and Room for Improvement
The most important result of our research was the development of a comprehensive rubric to compare the technologies tested. Each technology was given a score based on its performance in the categories and subcategories designed based on our field experience. The final scores and categories are listed below. We hope the rubric will help NGOs decide which water mapping technology is best for them and will help the technology developers improve upon their products’ weaknesses.
Allie and Lily entering data into the mobile phones at one of the wells we mapped. We were able to map each well in less than 10 minutes with the mobile technology.
Despite the issues that we encountered in our surveying efforts, many of these technologies showed great promise for helping governments and NGOs better understand and communicate the long-term success of their water points. These technologies could be especially helpful in comparing water points world-wide if a specific set of questions could be developed to gauge each water system’s performance. It would be easy to see which NGOs and countries are the highest performers, and with that understanding, their successful methods could be studied and applied to less successful organizations and areas. These water mapping technologies offer great potential in the area of international aid. However, there are still many program bugs to be solved before world-wide adoption will be possible.
If you have any more questions about our research or have an interest in us testing and ranking one of your technologies, we encourage you to reach out to us at: email@example.com.