Last week we celebrated our first 500 projects online. This week, I sat down with Jeroen van der Sommen, co-founder of Akvo, to take a closer look at what this milestone really represents for Akvo and in the development aid world.

Jeroen started his career as a hydrologist in Burkina Faso in 1982, going on to work in countries such as Mozambique, Niger, Mali, Indonesia and India. He later founded the Netherlands Water Partnership, where he built a large and dynamic collaboration network. He and Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson ignited the idea of Akvo in late 2006.

Photo: Jeroen van der Sommen, co-founder of Akvo.  Photo credit: Mark Charmer

Last week at Akvo we celebrated 500 projects online. In terms of some concrete figures, this represents over 730 project partners and €134m Euro in project budgets.  Thinking about when we first started, can you give a view to what this represents in terms of progress in development aid?

First of all it’s really fantastic that we’ve reached the 500 mark. But more impressive for me is that within the last six months, we’ve almost doubled the number of projects and partners. If you project that trend further, it could mean that next year we could have more than 1000 projects online. So it means this is really taking off.

This means that people want to show what they are doing, and learn and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. This will lead to more transparency at all levels – the donor, companies, NGOs and the local field partners.

But there is still a long way to go in the context of the billions spent each year on development aid, so this is only a drop.

Thinking about the early days at Akvo, at its inception, what does this mean for Akvo?

We observed that people didn’t really know what was happening in their own organisations, and what the results of their interventions were. Often organisations could not even describe who they worked with and in what places and they referred to big piles of reports, tucked away in cabinets. Experience and knowledge was being lost. Thomas, who I met at Stockholm World Water Week in 2006, told me, “There are tools to solve these problems.” So we started combining our networks from the water sector with those from the IT sector, which has been a fruitful combination. Of course the change process takes time. If you work for an NGO for 30 years only reporting for donors, it is a huge step to report for the public.

When you explain Really Simple Reporting (RSR) or Akvo FLOW, once people get it, (the response) is “Wow.” And we have seen that in the development sector in the last year – and that’s why we’re experiencing this growth. At Akvo we have organised ourselves around three teams. First, we have hardcore software people – these guys worked for the big IT companies in Silicon Valley. For our field, that is new. And we have a partnership team which has the skills to build bridges, relationships between many kinds of partners. Then we have the team that supports the people in the field. It’s not only about the tools, the software – we discovered you also need to have hands-on support in the field, with people providing training and operations assistance.

For the future, it will be very interesting to see how this data now coming online is going to be used, so we are now putting more effort into making data easier for others to access and learn from, so through maps, interfaces and dashboards. Already we have found that local data can provide valuable information for hand pump repair businesses, for example.

What do you think is the next big goal or milestone for us?

The next big goal is end-to-end transparency. Already over 75 large donors have made public their development data, that we translate for public use through Akvo OpenAid, via the website. That means in the next few months we will be able to display basic data on over 60,000 projects involving more than 3,000 organisations online. But this data is mostly financial and top-level. There’s no detail, no breakdown, no current status updates.

And here is a huge opportunity – because if that data is coupled with Akvo Really Simple Reporting data, it’s possible to track these investments right down to individual project level. This material is much more interesting, too. It’s about the stories, the context, the people – not just the numbers.

We can take things even further. With Akvo FLOW, you know what is happening at field level much more accurately: which water points or irrigation systems are working, which hospital facilities are running, etc. So we are designing now at a national level, to build local sector monitoring tools that can scale up for the whole country. People were doing it with pens and papers and lots of people going out into the field. If they use FLOW, all this data is being more frequently monitored and going straight online. This changes many things – it gives local communities more say, and helps talented mayors and civic teams do a much better job of managing infrastructure projects that really work. And as we build these open source systems for one country, it becomes available to all of them.

Right now our entry point is a project and an organisation. But all those projects and organisations will add up to a really good insight into what’s happening in a town, a city, a region – have they reached their goals? I think by 2015 you will find a number of countries in Africa and Asia that take the lead and show others that this is the way forward. I absolutely believe this will happen. The most exciting part of my role is finding and supporting the people and organisations who see the opportunity and really want to become part of it.

Emily Armanetti is communications manager at Akvo, based in New York City.