Open data and the aid boom in the Pacific: Part II
Written by Amitangshu Acharya 16 October 2014
Above: A field visit to Mele, Vanuatu. October 2014. Photo credit: Lissy van Noort.
In part I of this series, I outlined the first steps in our collaboration with UNICEF and the Department of Mines, Geology and Water Resources (DGMWR) to introduce mobile-based data and asset management tools to Vanuatu as part of developing its national water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) database. Generally, this shift from “data free” to “real time” data would have been worth celebrating. But scarcely had we put down our beer bottles, than we had started planning for the next phase.
This time, since the benchmarks were set so high, we wanted to use the baseline data collected through Akvo FLOW for ongoing monitoring using FLOW’s freshly minted continuous monitoring feature. Because the Shefa Province had mapped every water system with its corresponding GPS coordinates, monitoring using Akvo FLOW meant that we could track back and check the status of each water system and update it. The training was conducted this month (October 2014), where I was joined by my colleague Lissy van Noort. This time, the participants included representatives from the Public Works Department, National Statistics Office, the health department, and NGOs such as the Red Cross, ADRA and Live and Learn.
Handheld data collection with Akvo FLOW.
Within two months of having inventoried an entire province with mobile phones, Vanuatu became the first country in the Pacific to continuously monitor its assets using mobile phones. By doing so, it is now officially the first country where Akvo FLOW has been used for both baseline data collection and continuous monitoring.
What does all this mean?
Let’s illustrate this with an example. While doing the baseline, we used an indicator for ground-based assessment of water systems. Three simple parameters were used. Good (in good working condition, minor repairs required which can be managed locally), Fair (minor problems and repairs needed, may require external assistance), Poor (barely functioning, major repairs needed, will require external assistance). The same parameters were kept for monitoring using FLOW and when you compare the baseline with that of the monitoring dataset for a few systems in the village of Mele, the picture becomes clearer.
Above: Baseline in July/August 2014; Below: Monitoring in October 2014.
In a simple colour coded map, where green represents good, orange fair, and red poor, we can clearly see that systems identified to be in working condition have slipped to a lower level of performance. Or perhaps they haven’t, because Good, Poor and Fair may be viewed differently by different data collectors. What this exercise clearly brought out was that a series of observation-based questions could enable a better understanding of functionality.
This entire aside, from our experience in Vanuatu, I realise that our monitoring feature may lead to a paradigm shift in data collection. Demand for good data is always top down. Moreover, data collectors are mostly unaware of both purpose and use of the collected data. These are key reasons why data collection suffers from quality issues. With the Akvo FLOW continuous monitoring feature, we are now bringing data back to its collectors. This is enabling data accountability at the very source.
Since data collected is now being peer reviewed at the source, it means if a person doesn’t do a good job in data collection, monitoring those points by her/his own peers will become difficult. This will generate peer pressure for improved data collection. Hence those who collect data will now care about what they are collecting, especially now that they will have to reuse it for monitoring. With continuous monitoring, we may have finally managed to tie the loop by ensuring downward accountability of data.
This collaboration in Vanuatu has “rigour” and “process” written all over it in bold letters. It has been consultative, feedback-orientated and practical, and we have a supercharged group at DGMWR whose engagement level with FLOW is close to epic. During the training, we used maps and visualisations to help enumerators understand the larger implications of their data. Joy and Josje created some lovely map-based visualisations of the baseline data, and sharing those with DGMWR and UNICEF generated a high degree of excitement.
But visualisations are as good as the data on which they depend. And good data depends on good questionnaires, indicators and, above all, people who value the data they collect. In this small island nation, the quality of inputs has produced the desired outputs. Vanuatu may soon set a new benchmark on monitoring in the Pacific. It’s a future I look forward to with eager anticipation.
Amitangshu Acharya is the manager of Akvo’s Asia hub.