When I think of the equipment CWS and partners use to deal with water-borne diseases, I think of those charismatic blue buckets, the polytanks and aquatabs and alum balls that we use to clean water and keep it that way. These are the “appropriate technologies” we’ve chosen; things that are cheap, durable and locally available that help with our problem of unsafe drinking water. This equipment is also pretty simple, because it has to last a long time and be easily and cheaply fixed by whoever has a problem. But it is a mistake to think that all the tools appropriate for our purpose need to so basic.
This week’s headlines told us that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, passed away recently. In reflecting on his life and work, most everyone agrees that the greatest aspect of his legacy was his work to make information radically more accessible. Understanding the importance of this idea hasn’t been limited to Jobs, to Apple, or even to the western business environment. Facebook has a larger “population” than many countries. The strategic use of info-sharing sites like Twitter helped activists overthrow regimes across the Middle East this spring. Crowd-sourcing platforms helped emergency responders deal with the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti. The list goes on! Marshalling this spread of information and grassroots energy to deal with more chronic social ills will be the next phase of international development, too.
The groundwork is being laid for these opportunities. At the end of 2007, an estimated 30% of Africa’s population owned mobile phones (280.7 million subscriptions), a figure that has continued its explosive growth in recent years. Most men in Tamale have phones, and there are at least a few in every village CWS works in. So while computers remain out of reach for many, mobile technology at least has rapidly penetrated daily life. In Ghana, credit is comparatively cheap and even some of the most basic phones have web-browsing capabilities.
Making use of this access in a systematic way will be challenging but hugely rewarding for organizations like CWS. Already, women running short of supplies can text in to staff for refills. But how cool would it be if Sanatu in Nyamaliga could post a brief center update on our crowdmap website? Or if households could publicly rate their CWS experience there? By scaling up some of the programs that I’m currently experimenting with here in Tamale, like Ushahidi or FrontlineSMS, this spread of information may be in our future! Of course, things like low literacy rates for women, poor cell coverage, and small credit budgets of villagers make these goals pretty long-term, but with the speed of change we are seeing in information technology they could be closer than you think.
What is accessible starting now is, well, pretty much all the data CWS staff collects in the field. So if you haven’t seen it yet, check out our monitoring website and see pictures and household visit summaries from your favorite village! Additionally, follow CWS on twitter and like us on facebook for other updates!