Locale : Global (English)
An elderly woman from Nepal washing her hands using one of the new water supply taps that has been built after the 2015 earthquake.

The software that brings hard evidence to post-earthquake Nepal

Water and sanitation consultant Simon Cohen talks about a new reporting tool that has allowed his team to increase the efficiency and accountability of projects, while delivering beyond client expectations.

As a self-confessed techie, I’m excited to see that information and communications technology (ICT) in the development sector – often referred to as ICT4D – is increasingly celebrated as a way of improving delivery and achieving more sustainable outcomes. Any innovation opens the door to additionality – in other words, the ability to stand out from the crowd by exceeding the expectations of clients.

Mott MacDonald is currently project managing a UK aid-funded programme that is helping to rebuild regions in Nepal that were badly hit by the earthquake in 2015 – with a particular focus on water supply infrastructure. With 300 water systems, and up to 20 different partners on the ground, regular monitoring and coordination is critical for ensuring that the most vulnerable communities are reached first.

In response to this challenge, we run a management information system (MIS) called Solstice, which is a mobile data collection and analysis tool that simplifies data management and provides real-time data analysis. The user interface is intuitive and accessible, encouraging speedy reporting in the field, while the highly-visual dashboards make it easier for all stakeholders to keep sight of change. Solstice is open source and free-to-use, so we don’t need to develop software in-house. There are other solutions to choose from on the market, but this one ticked all our boxes.

Take back time

Vulnerability assessments provide a good example of how it helps. We naturally want to reach the neediest villages first. In the past, assessments were paper-based. Field operatives would fill in a survey, input the information into Microsoft Excel, and then rank each of the communities by vulnerability. There was the inevitable time lag as they returned to the office, analysed the data, wrote a report, before waiting for the implementing partner to read it, digest it and then act on it.

What used to take a couple of months, now takes as long the survey itself. The information pops up on the dashboard in real-time. Analysis is split-second. The most urgent need is then simply extracted and visualised. Quick decisions can be made with confidence. Rather than rely on personal opinion, which runs the risk of vested interest, the vulnerability assessment is transparent and accurate. Strange as it sounds, I believe that a piece of software will promote human qualities such as fairness and inclusion more reliably than the humans that use it.

The real-time dashboards also avoid the challenge of version control that you often get with shared spreadsheets. We can protect data on the system and then safely transfer it to government officials once the programme is over, creating a legacy. Conversely, ‘data death’, when reports are lost in office drawers or personal hard drives, can disrupt momentum and inhibit sustainable outcomes.

Writer’s block?

Solstice makes report writing very simple. We provide a template that partners can copy and paste, and then add a summary. They jot down the details on their mobile or tablet, and then press submit. As project manager, I can bring up the system on my screen, anywhere in the world, and see which partners have filled in a survey and how they are progressing. Almost immediately, I can reconfigure the data to meet different parameters, making it easier to draw out the necessary insights.

Partners are paid on the milestones that they reach, so it’s very easy to keep track of what progress is actually being made and by whom. That’s vital for accountability. But this isn’t about checking up on them. It’s about making their own job much easier and more effective. We don't want them to be sitting in the office writing reports. We want them to be in the field supervising the construction, making sure the quality is high.

Real-time information is reflected in real terms. Every day that a pregnant woman needs to drink unsafe water – or a young girl needs carry heavy containers over treacherous pathways – is frankly a day too long. This tool helps us to ensure we leave nobody behind.

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