IBM Brings Data Insight for Safe Water Sustainability

A family in Tanzania walk with buckets of water on their heads.

Around the world, an estimated 1.8 billion people lack access to safe water[1]. In addition, 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation[2], and 842,000 people die every year from water-related diseases[3]. Access to water is important, but access alone is not enough.

In the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the United Nations recently extended its focus beyond accessibility to sustainability and service (SDG 6), prioritizing universal and equitable access to safe water and sanitation for all. Water Mission, on the other hand, has actually spent the past 16 years making these priorities a reality.

See Ahead of the Curve: 16 Years of Safe, Sustainable Water Solutions.

Water Mission staff work to implement a disaster safe water solution following the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

At Water Mission, we say a project is successful when a community can manage the project – both operationally and financially – by themselves for years to come. In order to ensure the sustainability of rural water supplies, specifically with regards to long-term financial viability, it is crucial that there are sound management and supply systems in place to support them. However, for communities in some of the world’s poorest countries, this can be a major challenge.

Financial sustainability is arguably one of the most critical challenges facing the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector today. Over the past five years, Water Mission has been exploring innovative and unique solutions for revenue collection and financial management that address some of the main challenges to ensuring reliable and sustainable rural water supplies in the communities where we work.

One of the solutions on the market is smart water dispensers, or water ATMs.

Smart Water Dispensers

These dispensers operate with a closed system of pre-payment for water using a “water card” instead of cash (much like a debit card and an ATM machine). Data on consumer activity and technological performance captured by the system is then relayed in real-time to our headquarters and used to evaluate program and service effectiveness.

The challenge we were soon faced with was the need to interpret and make strategic decisions based on the large amounts of data gathered from smart water dispensers operating in several pilot sites in Uganda. To do so, Water Mission partnered with IBM jStart to leverage their expertise and big data analytics capabilities to help us answer some important questions. We recently presented our work at the 2017 IBM InterConnect Conference in Las Vegas on March 21, 2017.

Download Presentation: Data-Driven Water Security with Bluemix Apache Spark Service

The main question posed to IBM was: “What is the best way to generate actionable insights from the massive amounts of data generated from smart water dispensers?”

The combination of IBM Analytics for Apache Spark and Jupyter Notebook made it easy for jSTART to perform rapid, iterative analysis on large, complex datasets and reach accurate conclusions quickly. Data analysis revealed several key insights:

  • There was a strong correlation between the number of water cards in circulation and overall water consumption in a community. Cards that were lost were not replaced.
  • Customers were relying much more heavily on the smart water dispenser operator to load credit onto their cards than was originally anticipated. A bottleneck was occurring at the point of sale, restricting access for some households.
  • Peak water collection times and seasonal trends were identified so special promotional and hygiene education activities could be optimized.
A young girl fills up her water bucket at an AQ Tap.
A young customer using the smart water dispenser system.

The insights highlighted opportunities for Water Mission to trial different business models for water card replacement and customer reengagement, implement a more fluid credit transfer system, and strategically plan community health promotion activities.

These findings are helping Water Mission to refine the overall business model for every smart water dispenser solution in Uganda, and in our other nine country programs.

Next Steps in Partnership

Water Mission is already leveraging the results from our work with jStart to inform additional smart water dispenser field trials with the World Bank in Tanzania. This grant is intended to provide evidence for a much larger project that will ultimately serve more than 700,000 rural Tanzanians in 150 villages across the country.

IBM jStart is also helping Water Mission with a real-time alerting and program management platform for our water projects around the globe, which we launched earlier this year.

A safe water treatment solution serves a community in Malawi.

Ultimately, our partnership with IBM is helping us to refine our solutions and further our mission of transforming lives through sustainable safe water and sanitation. The question we are always asking ourselves is: “how can we be more effective in serving the millions of people still in need of safe water and sanitation, and contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty by 2030?” Our partnership with IBM is helping us to answer this question and achieve our mission.

[1] WHO. 2016. Drinking water factsheet.

[2] WHO. 2016. Sanitation factsheet.

[3] WHO. 2016. Drinking water factsheet.

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