Peter van der Linde, project manager of the Netherlands Water Partnership, talks about Akvo and how it connects to activities on the ground.

When you are visiting Pratap Nagar, a slum on the outskirts of Delhi, the question of how an open source for water and sanitation can speed up activities on the ground makes your head spin. My brain feels like it is trying to unite two worlds I am familiar with, but that usually seem to be miles apart.

Pratap Nagar street

I am aware that Akvo is not a ‘consumer’ solution. The end beneficiaries of Akvo might not even know the internet exists, though the system significantly improves conditions for them. It is all about reaching the local doers that can act as intermediaries and agents of change, providing them with the right knowledge and tools to solve problems. It’s about supporting small-scale local initiatives amongst people who feel disenfranchised from the process today. But of course it’s also about financiers wanting to know what would happen to grants and loans. How do you make it transparent? And how will the feedback mechanism work?

The director of FODRA, the local NGO I am meeting is Madhab Nayak and he turns out to be a true believer in the power of information technology. Madhab is enthusiastic about our initiative. Without having financial support for it, he has stimulated one of his field workers to develop software for a computer based GIS monitoring system that provides (amongst other indicators) water, sanitation and micro-credit information at an individual household level for their entire project area. It also monitors a micro-credit program that is run by 200 community leaders that represent the different families in the slums. I can click on individual houses and see the data pop up. It’s amazing work related to technology influencing the ‘last mile’. I start to imagine if this could be online, shared with others. Financiers could look ‘into’ individual slum houses of people that don’t even know the internet exists. The whole project area can be surveyed in a much more dynamic way that gets a grip on what’s really happening and shares it widely.

Pratap school

“…we visit a local school where the headmaster would like to install sanitation facilities and provide training for the pupils, with the help of FODRA. I like the focus on schools, due to the spin-off that children can create in communities and their natural curiosity.”

We decide to walk around the project area. We are thinking ‘Wikipedia’, a reversed ‘eBay’ for development and perhaps even ‘YouTube’ – in a slum. Makes you feel slightly uncomfortable yet very enthusiastic at the same time. Madhab mentions that it is actually the first time somebody mentioned directly that he has done amazing work to develop the monitoring system. He is willing to share it openly with other interested organizations, just because he believes in it. Perhaps that is the core of what it’s all about.

Madhab suggests we visit a local school where the headmaster would like to install sanitation facilities and provide training for the pupils, with the help of FODRA. I like the focus on schools, due to the spin-off that children can create in communities and their natural curiosity. The school by the way does not have internet access as well, nor is it around for miles.

So we need to assess how AKVO would work here. The main FODRA office in Delhi has internet access. One of the team who works at the local office visits this head office every week. She visits the AKVO web site and because she is experienced, she can quickly identify two promising options for the school and she prints out the description of them. She also decides to post a question related to training material the headmaster could use for the pupils, in the sanitation question and answer forum. The next day there are already several suggestions from people both in India and other parts of the world that are very helpful.

She heads out for the local field office and visits the school to discuss the different options with the headmaster. Together they decide to talk to a local workshop that can help them select the most suitable system that can be manufactured locally. The workshop manager points out several ways in which he thinks the solution might be improved and they decide to try the new suggestions. There is only one problem – money. The micro credit program that is run is not an option here – they need a 2000 Euro grant, to be used to install the sanitation facilities, pay the workshop and provide training.

FODRA GIS map

Without having financial support for it, Madhab Nayak has stimulated one of his field workers to develop software for a computer based GIS monitoring system that provides (amongst other indicators) water, sanitation and micro-credit information at an individual household level for their entire project area.

It takes a week before the FODRA advisor visits the head office again. She fills in an online project description form on AKVO and inserts a picture of the current status of the sanitation facilities of the school. She requests a 2000 Euro grant. An executive at a large business organization in Belgium, sees the project request and is willing to support 500 Euro. He likes the fact that AKVO visualizes results and is personal – nothing like the money he donated after the Tsunami. The rest of the money is donated a few weeks later by a European NGO, because it fits into a school sanitation program they recently started and have funds for. For them it is usually difficult to manage these ‘small grants’.

Fodra receives the money required and, with help from the local workshop, builds and implements the solution at the school. The financial transactions are overseen by a local governmental organisation, which is already involved in supporting the micro-credit program. Pupils receive training about ecological sanitation with material from an NGO in southern India that was wiling to send these materials free of costs.

Once the work is completed, the FODRA staff member shares the results in the form of a project description and some pictures online. She even uses a mobile phone to produce a simple video that she decides to include and emails it to the financiers. In the sanitation discussion part, she describes some of the improvements that the local workshop manager had suggested. A colleague, who is well-versed in contributing material to Akvopedia really likes the improvements to the solution he reads in the discussion part of AKVO. He works to integrate this feedback back into the Akvopedia, so the next person looking for this type of solution has the improved version available to choose from.

As a result of the project FODRA decides to put its monitoring system that was based on a local computer online, to improve transparency. For some people that visit Akvo this monitoring option is still a bit to complex, and no option. But others are very interested and decide to contact FODRA to see if they could help them set up such a system as well.

In the meantime the staff are being approached by several parents of pupils that have heard about the new sanitation facilities at the school. They want to borrow money to install sanitation facilities in their houses. Taking this forward is now ten times easier.

Back in a small restaurant in Delhi, Madhab and I can’t stop talking. It is like we are looking at our work in a new way. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring days I have had in years.