In 2009, I was a young engineer who just received his EIT and was ready to change the world. I remember sitting in a workshop at an AWWA ACE conference, listening to a panel of experts discuss rural water projects in developing countries. “This is what I am going to do with my career!” I thought to myself.
As the presentations wrapped up and Q&A began, I asked the panel a simple question, in an eager attempt to learn more about WASH.
“Is there somewhere I can go to see a map of hand pumps around the world?”
“You mean for one project?”
“No, like all of them.”
[insert laughter here]
Apparently, my foolish idea wasn’t well thought out and I was quickly told “no…[more laughing]…that’s pretty much impossible,” and then followed by “How would you even fund a project like that?”
A little over a year later, I was in grad school and received a semester long project assignment from a GIS professor:
“Pick a topic you care about and map it.”
I had already been told mapping the worlds hand pumps wasn’t a good idea, so I decided to settle for just one country: Haiti. 2 weeks into the class, the 2011 Earthquake hit and completely changed the landscape of my project. I was already struggling to find data points for systems out side of Port Au Prince, but now even that data was out-dated as systems had been destroyed. My professor gently pushed me to pick a different topic, saying “That type of data just doesn’t exist- or is impossible to find.”
In 2012, I was working with a number of NGOs interested in sharing M&E data on water point functionality. The effort was met with criticism, excitement, and lots of questions.
“Isn’t this the governments responsibility?”
“Shouldn’t we do more than functionality?”
“How do I know my data will be safe?”
“How can my data be compared to everyone else’s- we only do urban projects!”
“Who gives permission for other people to use my data for their research?”
By the end of the initial launch workshop, a lot of steam was lost. Some people were interested, but not enough to keep the initiative thriving.
We work in a sector that has the funds, technology, and data resources to accomplish my foolish idea of 2009. The government of Liberia has mapped all rural water points in their country. Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua have built an online portal to monitor their rural systems. Funders like Google are donating millions of dollars to put remote sensors on pumps for metering. NGOs have more ICT tools available for project monitoring than they know what to do with.
The one thing we still are missing for a global monitoring system is an open data sharing platform. Many people have asked for one. Lots of organizations want to share their data- Water for People has 20k data points to be publicly released later this year and USAID has release a ton of datasets through the Open Gov initiative. All we need is a way to open the flood gates of resources and make it happen.
I’m ready to talk serious about organizing and harnessing the power of open WASH data. Are you?