FLOW Android app primes pump for clean water

From small organizations to the World Bank, one Android app, called FLOW, is changing the way vital water-related information flows in the developing world.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
6 min read

Rwandan kids get water
Rwandan children wait in line to get water. A Denver-based nonprofit working on water and sanitation projects has come up with an Android app that makes water projects there and in other countries easier to monitor. Randa Chickakli

Here's what I can tell you about the drinking water situation in the tiny Rwandan village of Mwite. The few closest spring catchments--basically cement basins with a pipe of flowing water--are working, but not producing as much water as they should. The catchment further to the west, a handmade system nearly a century old, is no longer functioning, so the best bet will probably require a walk to the northernmost safe water source in the area, the newest cement-encased spring catchment, built in 2007.

I didn't speak to anyone in Rwanda for this story, or to anyone who had recently been to Mwite, north of the capital city of Kigali, but I can confidently relay details about the water situation in that far-flung rural village thanks to...what else? An Android-based app.

The agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to ensure that places like Mwite have clean drinking water will tell you that infrastructure is just one challenge, among others being highlighted today on World Water Day. After the pipes and pumps are installed, there's the never-ending task of monitoring and maintaining thousands of sites spread across the challenging terrain of places like Rwanda, Liberia, or Bolivia.

Data on this broken-down waterpoint in Rwanda was gathered with an Android phone running FLOW. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

For years, teams would go into the field with pounds of paper questionnaires, cameras, and maybe an expensive GPS, and gather data on individual sites--all of which would then be stuffed in a file cabinet somewhere back in the capital city, spending most of its time collecting dust.

Today's high-end smartphones combine all those monitoring tools into a single, inexpensive, convenient device that not only collects data on water projects but can also analyze, map, and share it--tasks that would have in many cases taken an unthinkable amount of time just a year ago.

That's when Water for People, a Denver-based nonprofit working on water and sanitation projects in 11 countries, started thinking about an easier way to monitor its projects. The group brought in developer Dru Borden of Gallatin Systems to design an application that could handle survey results, photos, and geolocation data in a single package. The result is Field Level Operations Watch, better known as FLOW. Water for People deployed a team equipped with smartphones loaded with FLOW for the first time in Rwanda last August.

"Now what you can do is go into a village with a cell phone, take a GPS coordinate, take a picture, answer all the questions (in the questionnaire asked of villagers) and then all the information is there," said Water for People CEO Ned Breslin, who together with his group recently won a social entrepreneurship award from the Skoll Foundation for their efforts. "If you have a cell phone network, it sends it directly into the data analysis part of the program and right on to Google Earth, and you can see real-time results right away."

Breslin says the FLOW technology is nothing short of game-changing, allowing for fewer errors, more rapid responses to problems, and greater transparency. He adds that choosing Android as the platform for FLOW was a bit of a gamble, but one that looks like it will pay off.

"We bet that Android technology is going to become much more readily available around the world, that the cost of the phones is going to go way down, that more and more people will start using it, and we're starting to see that."

Water for People is so confident in that trend that it will soon be rolling out a sister program in India featuring what Breslin calls "mobile mechanics"--essentially a corps of plumbers on bicycles riding from village to village doing repairs on hand pumps, armed with FLOW-enabled phones. The application will keep track of the spare parts needed for repairs, payments for the plumbers, and response time to water emergencies.

FLOW data shows residents per safe waterpoint in rural Liberia. World Bank

"The dream is for a woman in the village whose hand pump goes down to indicate it through FLOW, and then there's a response," Breslin said. "Down the road, as Android technology moves forward and becomes cheaper, I think there's great potential... but right now you can buy the phone that runs this thing in Kenya for 80 bucks, and it just keeps going down, so I think it's a good bet we made."

That could be a bit of an understatement. FLOW has been such a success in the months since its debut that Water for People has had a hard time keeping up with the dozens of organizations that want to use it.

One of the highest-profile names to roll out its own FLOW-based initiative is the World Bank, which will soon release results of its efforts to map the more than 7,000 waterpoints in rural Liberia using FLOW.

The bank allowed CNET to take a look at a preliminary draft of results from Liberia, and the massive amount of data gathered with the help of FLOW yielded some interesting insights, including the fact that a certain brand of pump seemed to have lower stamina, breaking more quickly after installation than other types. The project also allows for easy mapping and visual representation of areas that remain completely without safe waterpoints.

Maximilian Hirn, of the bank's Water and Sanitation Program, just returned to the capital Monrovia from rural Liberia. He writes in an e-mail to CNET that the bank adapted Water for People's version of FLOW to be able to deploy it on a national scale for the first time.

FLOW in action
Water for People coordinator Edgar Fajardo (right) demonstrates FLOW to an unidentified community member in Santa Cruz del Quiche, Guatemala. Water for People

"We acquired 75 Android smartphones, loaded the FLOW software onto them, and then hired and trained 75 teams of mappers, gave them motorbikes and sent them out all across Liberia to map all safe waterpoints in the country. Our teams managed to complete this task in about 30 days of intense work...and in the very challenging environment of Liberia, thus really testing its merits under difficult conditions."

Hirn added that the challenges included Liberia's still sparse and expensive mobile phone network. But he says downloading data off SD cards proved to be a workable backup.

Like Breslin and his group, the World Bank is already looking at ways to use FLOW and Android in other areas.

"...just in Liberia there is already a separate pilot-project that plans to use the FLOW software to give local communities an easy way to monitor illegal fishing trawlers that frequent their local waters," writes Hirn. "The communities would fill in a short survey about each spotted illegal trawler, take a picture, a GPS location, and then send the information to a central database."

FLOW doesn't represent the only use of technology to help ensure clean water and sanitation systems for all, however. In Argentina, one technologist uses mathematical analysis to get cleaner water to the slums. IBM is looking at distributed and networked computing to model and improve watersheds. And at least one company has come up with a straw that can filter even the filthiest water for drinking.

For Breslin and Water for People, one of the most surprising benefits of using Android was the cost savings. He describes a grueling process of bringing thousands of paper questionnaires back from the field and the many hours spent matching them up with photos, GPS coordinates, double checking for errors... That expense in time and labor has since been replaced by FLOW, which he estimates costs a total of about 82 cents a month to keep up and running.

But Breslin sees potential for FLOW and Android beyond trimming the bottom line. He and others have "heard rumblings" of mapping and monitoring every waterpoint worldwide. And after that comes applying Android to the world's other challenges, like health care, just for starters.