FLOW’s scanning function is being tested by scanning a number of barcodes during the pilot in Dori

In this guest post by IRC’s Amelie Dube and Kristof Bostoen, they describe their efforts to track household water use, using unique identifiers and Akvo FLOW, in West Africa.

Through a Triple-S initiative financed by USAID-WAWASH, IRC and its local partner Eau Vive are in the process of assessing existing water service delivery models in eight rural communes in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. One aspect of the service delivery is the actual use of formal water points (such as boreholes, small piped systems) by households. In order to capture such use, a water point survey is needed.

Similar studies have been conducted by IRC in recent years, and they proved to be time and resource consuming. Introducing Akvo FLOW (Field Level Operational Watch) an Android and cloud-based data collection system in Burkina, IRC, with support from Akvo, looked at more efficient ways to collect household consumption data.

Practicing barcode scanning in Burkina Faso.  Photo credit: Amélie Dubé

The surveys: households and use at water point

Two surveys were developed and administered by local surveyors:

1. A household survey, including questions such as number of family members, name of head, main uses of water by the household etc. This survey is to be administered once, to the first user. Upon completion, the user would receive the household barcode and would lend it to anyone from his household fetching water to a formal point. From this point on, data on use would be collected via the water collection survey.

2. The water collection survey is administered every time a household member would collect water. This survey includes questions on the quantity of water collected, its specific use, indications on quality, reliability of the water point, etc., and of course characteristics of the water point visited.

The difficulty in such data collection processes is to link data from the household, collected at time X, with the fetching visits at time Y and Z, at water points A and B. To link that data together, we needed unique codes to link collected data with its water point over time. Merging data sets allows linking different sources of information such as financial, technical, managerial, and user data to specific water points. Therefore, a solution focusing on the use of barcodes to avoid errors of data entries was developed and piloted in 25 villages.

Linking data with barcodes

To collect the data, two sets of barcodes are used:

1. Each formal water point surveyed was given a unique barcode. The codes are a simple alphanumeric set of characters. The barcodes were then etched on aluminium plates, to be installed on each water point allowing for future continuous monitoring over time. The plates were tested prior to installation in different climatic conditions.

2. Each household was also provided with a unique barcode, printed on soft cardboard and attached to a string. They were to be carried around as necklaces for the time of the study by the person(s) in the household collecting the water.

All the barcodes are based on Code 128, one of the most popular modern barcodes. It is a very high density barcode supporting alphanumeric characters. Other than being high density, this barcode supports the ASCII character set making it easy to use different codes for different situations, by adding letters in the code as done in Burkina Faso.

The inclusion of a scanning function on the Android phone within the Akvo FLOW questionnaire was a recent system update by the Akvo development team. Before starting a survey, each enumerator had to scan both the water point and the household barcode, therefore linking the two codes in one survey. This allowed one water user to be tracked at different water points as each water point and household had a unique identifier.

The data collection lasted four days per village. All formal water points were simultaneously surveyed, capturing the mobility of users who tend to use multiple water sources.

Advantages and challenges of the barcode method

Among the advantages of this innovative data collection method, the data is rapidly and easily accessible to the researchers, eliminating paper, delays and mistakes. It properly links each water point to the right household. Moreover, given appropriate information sessions to the villagers (including officials), the households were not only enthusiastic about the study, but they had a high sense of responsibility regarding their household barcodes.

One challenge encountered before getting to the field had to do with the local device retailer. He sold phones coming from areas of the world where Android Market (now known as Google Play) is not available, making it difficult to download the required applications (such as the barcode reader) to operate FLOW adequately. Two phones out of 12 had to be send back, delaying the data collection.

In the field, reading barcodes with the scanner required some practice for the enumerators, especially under the Sahelian sun, which reflects on any white surface.  But with experience they all got the gist. Another, more difficult challenge was the recharge of the phone’s battery. Working in areas with limited electricity supply, alternative energy supplies were tested, causing delays in the collection process. Car batteries ended up being the most accessible and locally convenient.

Overall, the use of the barcodes to identify water points and household users allowed a quick capture of the users’ consumption profile. This will allow the research team to identify whether the current water service offered meets the national norms and the actual needs of populations. Next steps include data merge and analysis. The data is compiled by household, per day. Currently that linking of data set is done by exporting and merging the data outside Akvo FLOW but it is hoped this can be done inside FLOW in future. This analysis, combined with the study of current management models and life cycle costs of services, should be completed by the end of 2012.

Amélie Dubé is a programme officer for IRC, Africa.  Kristof Bostoen is a programme officer for IRC, Monitoring & Learning.