This leadership perspective by Michael Sullivan, IBM, forms part of a series on the theme of creating business value and development impact in the WASH sector. The series and accompanying Discussion Paper are co-produced by WSUP and Business Fights Poverty.
As social technology becomes more prevalent, governments are looking for ways to be far more interactive with their constituents, and leveraging these networks to help them solve problems. We know that social networks and social media are a great way to monitor the pulse of constituencies, but increasingly we are seeing governments going further, and using the power of the network to tackle issues.
Governments today see innovation as about being more interactive with their constituents, better understanding what they are thinking, being more responsive to their needs and leveraging communities to source new solutions, and in some cases being part of the solution.
In South Africa, one of the problems that the government needs to tackle urgently is water availability and efficiency. The country loses a huge percentage of its piped water through leaks. IBM, in partnership with the utilities and local organisations, has built a platform that engages citizens on the issue of water, allowing them to identify and map leaks. Citizens can use their cellphone to geolocate damaged infrastructure, feeding information back to a central database. As well as a mobile application for smartphones, the platform accepts SMS inputs for those with more basic handsets.
The water authority now has greater visibility on leaks and other issues with their systems. Citizens become sensors on the infrastructure, and this becomes a low-cost, immediate way for the government and the water authority to diagnose problems, while simultaneously raising awareness within communities.
Human behaviour is a huge part of making sure that initiatives like this work. Bringing people into the system and using social technologies creates feedback loops—through their monitoring activities, communities begin to understand their own water use and begin to improve it.
Because the programme is still very new it is hard to gauge its impact, but we will be able to monitor very closely the level of usage through the platform—its very nature allows us to see in real time where issues are being reported and how many people are using it.
While a lot of the work that we do is fairly experimental, and we are still learning a great deal as we implement and evolve these platforms, it is clear to us that these means of social engagement are here to stay. That is part of the commercial motivation for projects like these—learning what is possible, and collecting data. There are currently no user fees, but using ‘big data’ to help governments find solutions to their ongoing social and economic issues is likely to be a huge growth area for IBM over the next decade, and proving the concept now may pay back in the future.
The Facebook and Twitter generation is here. They expect a voice; governments are under pressure to be much more transparent. While this kind of technology is still very new to the water sector, citizens’ expectations have been awakened by the constant interactions and two-way flows of information that power their daily lives as consumers. In our view, the best way forward is to create that dialogue and be more efficient, giving both consumers and governments the tools to interact with one another and solve social problems.