User testing is a critical part of the software development process. As we roll out Akvo FLOW 1.5, we have begun to showcase the release to get our partners up to speed. Following a recent all Akvo team week in Amsterdam, we hosted an intense user testing workshop at our offices, at which we had a diverse group of 12 people from Water and Sanitation for Africa (WSA) from Burkina Faso, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) from Sierra Leone, and UNICEF from Congo-Brazzaville. We were also joined by Akvo team members from India, Kenya, and Ivory Coast.

Above: A view of the Akvo office from across the canal. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Thursday 7 February 2013. Photo credit: Mark Charmer

Because the session took place immediately following the Akvo team week, we were fortunate to also have couple of Akvo’s developers present to respond to questions from the experienced mappers.

The objective of the session was to introduce the newly released Akvo FLOW 1.5 to participants, evaluate usability and discuss all kind of issues related to mapping. Furthermore, we realise that it is important for our partners to get to know Akvo better and for them to create local networks of people that share experiences in surveying and mapping.

The first two days were dedicated to Akvo FLOW 1.5. We began with an introduction by Akvo’s Mark Westra on how our software developers actually work and the background structures of the development process – i.e. how the requested new features are prioritised and tracked, how the process of quality assurance works and the challenges the software team faced in dealing with 60,000+ lines of code.

The demonstration of the new Akvo FLOW 1.5 dashboard was really cool: it features a great design by our designer and front-end developer Loïc Sans, as well as many practical features.

During this session, we had a lively exchange of practical issues around monitoring and troubleshooting, ranging from battery life to solar chargers and car batteries. We also covered how to plan and organise large scale surveys in rural and urban areas.

The third day began with a session called ‘Lessons from the Field,’ during which Akvo staff shared their practical experiences from working with FLOW in the field. This session also provided an opportunity for all of the users in the meeting to share lessons learned and best practices on how to get the most out of FLOW, as well as challenges that emerge in the field, such as lack of connectivity.

Amitangshu Acharya, who leads Akvo’s operations in South Asia, explained in-depth the three groups of challenges that need to be considered before embarking on a survey: people, infrastructure and technology.

People

Human resources can emerge as a major constraint. Sometimes trained enumerators/trainers leave the job. High mobility! Additionally, a trust deficit can sometimes exist between stakeholders and diffused accountability can lead to loss of phones, peripherals, etc. Trust building and designing accountability should be a prerequisite to monitoring using mobile tools. In many regions, smartphones are a new phenomenon and people are not that familiar with them yet.

Infrastructure

Both Internet and mobile networks have an uneven spread and this impacts data transfer, especially since mobile Internet is still very patchy in some areas. Getting GPS fixes in hilly terrains is sometimes a challenge. However, rapidly improving support infrastructure and decentralised or “off the grid” Internet and energy solutions are making things easier by the day.

Technology

Smart phones need smart surveys. The old habit of asking as many questions as possible needs to end, and mobile mapping of water points needs practical questions based on smart indicators. Increasingly, tablets are proliferating across the landscape as National IT policies are pushing them into new areas. Such technology push will see the emergence of new services (education for example) and infrastructure, as more demand is created.

That afternoon, Francis Warui, the partnership assistant for Akvo’s East Africa hub, kicked off a two day course on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the application of different tools like the open source Quantum GIS (QGIS) and OpenStreetMap.  A simple visualisation of both maps and graphs can be undertaken using FLOW. However, for more advanced spatial and statistical analysis the data needs to be exported and the relevant systems like SPSS, ArcGIS or QGIS used.

We spent the final day providing participants with training on Akvo RSR, as all FLOW programmes will be displayed in the Akvo RSR system. Akvo RSR is an online reporting system that makes it easy for teams working in development aid to easily post project updates as progress happens from field or regional offices using the Internet or mobile phones. The link between FLOW 1.5 and RSR is crucial because it makes it possible for the data that has been collected and analysed with FLOW to be visible to the world.

Amitangshu Acharya interviews participant Raphael Sufyan Sulemani of WSA on his reaction to Akvo FLOW 1.5. January 2013. Credit: Amitangshu Acharya
It was a great week and we all felt that a network of local FLOW practitioners had begun to take shape.  Jeroen van der Sommen is a co-founder of Akvo. He currently leads the development of the Akvo FLOW business.