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Above: full house at the ICT for WASH event in Washington DC, USA. Photo by Ben Mann.
Kidus Asfaw of Unicef joins a panel discussion via Skype. Other panelists are Samia Melhem (World Bank), Patricia Mechael (mHealth expert), Mary Roach (GSMA) and moderator Evariste Kouassi Komlan. Photo by Josje Spierings.

In late 2013 I wrote a blog about the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector. It was clear at this time that lots was happening in this space but that it was still a side topic, which did not warrant its own stage.

I’m pleased to say that things have changed in the intervening 18 months or so, and this is no longer the case. So on May 14-15, we jointly hosted a two-day WASH and ICT event together with the Global Water Challenge (GWC), UNICEF, the Water and Sanitation Program at the World Bank and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS). It took place at the OpenGov Hub, which is where we call home. 

It was an informative event with many great presentations, some interactive group work and expert panels, all aimed at evaluating the status of ICT in WASH. Here are some of my key takeaways from the event:

Challenges, and the Principles of Digital Development – One of the main goals of the event was to identify challenges and then propose solutions and concrete commitments to address these challenges. It quickly became apparent that many of the challenges that the participants identified tied in with the 9 pillars of the Principles of Digital Development. In many cases the most important things to tackle are the hardest things to achieve. More details on the outcomes of these conversations will be made public shortly.

Importance of common standards and collaboration – At this event the WPDx was launched. This is an initiative to help the process of harmonizing the data being collected across the sector as well as providing easy access to existing water point data, providing a living record of information. The enthusiasm around this was clear, with governments and organizations volunteering to share existing data and adhere to the standard going forward. This is a very encouraging start based on a core set of indicators. However there is still a lot of work to be done, such as; expanding the index to include water quality indicators, ensuring the quality of the data through robust collection methodologies, making sure this standard ties into government standards and, perhaps most importantly, helping drive the collection of data that helps decision making at the local level. Let’s collect data that is driven by users to promote improved outcomes on the ground. All of this takes collaboration, which is not easy, but necessary and beneficial.

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Learning from other sectors – We heard great examples from the health and eGovernance sectors about how ICT is impacting the way they work. Being further down the path of integrating ICT, they have experience that can be very beneficial to the WASH sector. Let’s not operate in a silo but learn and collaborate (a common theme) across sectors. This is especially true in the case of technology as many systems are sector agnostic, so more collaboration can lead to economies of scale and improved coordination when implementing ICT.

ICT is not a strategy in itself – Technology is not going to solve all your problems – fact. However, it can be a great tool to help you achieve your strategy. Thus it is important to develop a robust strategy and then integrate ICT where appropriate in a sustainable manner. Just like the target of delivering sustainable WASH services, ICT services should be integrated in a manner that will last: local ownership and flexibility to adapt being a couple of key criteria, and also just some of the benefits of open source software.

Optimism with a side of caution – It was hard not to be optimistic at the end of the event. Some technologies (e.g. mobile data collection) are very close to becoming best practice while others technologies (e.g. remote sensors) show great potential, although they are currently at an early stage of development. However, as stated in my first point, there are still challenges to address and it is important that we do not bury our heads in the sand and ignore these. This will only lead to fatigue around the use of ICT due to it not being integrated in an appropriate and sustainable way. With the huge potential that new technologies can bring to the sector, way beyond just its use in monitoring and evaluation, it is vital we keep the conversation going and maintain the current momentum. Throughout all of this, it is important to remember the importance of being open and working together to influence real change. 

Photo: Akvo’s Josje Spierings presenting our vision and goals around open data and common standards at the WASH and ICT event. Washington D.C., 14 May 2015. Photo by Henry Jewell.

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Henry Jewell is manager, Akvo USA hub and executive director, Akvo Foundation USA. You can follow him on Twitter @hejewell.

Updated 3 June 2015 to add picture.