Tech takes aim at global water shortages

An app is helping citizens in India’s Karnataka state save time and cope with erratic water supplies

In the streets of Hubli, Dharwad, Mysore and Bangalore, all in India’s Karnataka state people - mostly women - are saving time and sharing data as they find a more efficient way to cope with erratic water supplies.

These people are the frontline users of a new smartphone application called Waattr from NextDrop, an organisation aiming to provide accurate information about access to clean water.

At least 700 million people around the world lack access to safe drinking water and a further 2.5 billion people go without access to toilets, according to the World Bank. This combination of poor sanitation, dirty drinking water and bad hygiene practices can lead to premature deaths and substantial economic losses.

The Waatrr app aims to tell residents when they will next get water and for how long, crowdsourcing current information from users about the local water supply and saving everyone time. Users can indicate if they are getting water or waiting, with the information used to generate a hydro map. The app also asks users to rate the quality of the water based on colour, smell and taste.

“The data we have suggests we are currently saving residents 13 hours of water waiting time each month,” says Raiza Talish, a spokesperson for NextDrop.

The technology works on even the most basic of Android phones, with non-smartphone users able to access the information through SMS alerts. Accessing a mass of users is important for the service, as the more people who use it, the greater the accuracy it offers.

“We released the beta version in July and have 10,000 users in Bangalore,” said Nicholas Francis, app designer and developer with NextDrop. “Aggregating data across four cities, we have 75,000 users in four cities, including the SMS service.

“We’re trying to build hyper-local water communities, then we can generate data to create a water smart grid.”

An agreement just signed with the water board in Bangalore will see NextDrop share the real-time data it collects with the utility. In turn the data will be used to guide decision-making at the utility, in an overall effort to improve the availability of clean water.

As ideas such as Waattr improve access to frontline data on water shortages, this could have a long-term impact on how philanthropists can target their efforts to improve access to water in poor communities.

The problem is at its most acute in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, a region that spans some of the most water-stressed nations in the world. New research ranking countries by the water stress they are likely to face in the future suggests it’s only going to get worse. The World Resources Institute predicts that 14 of the top 20 most water–stressed countries in the world in 2040 will be in the MENASA region.

While the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector attracts donor interest, progress can be hobbled by a lack of accurate information, even about the funding itself. The innovative use of open data though may herald a more transparent approach to dealing with WASH issues. Open data projects such as WASHfunders.org are helping philanthropists gain greater insight to where their money may do the most good.

The site juxtaposes indicators of need, such as the percentage of the population that has access to water and sanitation, against funding flows. This allows donors to see where there are gaps in funding, so they can direct resources to areas with the greatest need.

“Our visualisation of funding flows helps donors see who's doing what, where,” explained Seema Shah, director of research for special projects at New York’s Foundation Center, which created the site.

“Donors can identify and collaborate with other key actors in the sector to increase the impact of their investments and minimise duplication of effort.”

Even with tools such as this, challenges remain. Although much of the data the site relies on is publicly available, such as funding from US foundations, data on foundations from countries with variable reporting requirements is more challenging to collect. Similarly, data on funding from national and local governments is also spotty and levels of funding are no indicator of effectiveness.

If the next wave of water innovation combines data from donors with information from frontline users a more holistic view of how philanthropy is helping to broach the world's water crisis may emerge.