Some technologies seem to take off instantly whilst others – no less useful - seem to just limp along.
Take mobile phones and toilets – two arguably useful and life-changing technologies. In just over forty years, around six billion people have managed to get access to a phone. Yet less than half that number has access to sanitation, despite the fact that toilets were invented at least 5,000 years ago. And, according to Ms Jaehyang So, water and sanitation manager at the World Bank, the number of new people with access to sanitation “is not moving very fast.”
That’s a problem. A lack of facilities, poor infrastructure, leaking sewage and the rapid spread of associated diseases cause billions of dollars in economic losses, and the lives of nearly 4,000 children each day. And, as the world’s population swells, things only seem to be getting worse.
Now, the World Bank has stepped in and it believes the key to tackling the problem is tapping into mobile phones. “What a mobile phone represents to a person today is a potential for prosperity. It connects them to the rest of the world,” says Ms So. “What people sometimes don’t understand is that access to sanitation also gives people that chance out of poverty.”
The bank has just announced the winners of its Sanitation Hackathon (SanHack), a competition to build phone apps that can help improve sanitation in the developing world.
“It was one of the most innovative and risky things we’ve done at the World Bank”, says Ms So, describing the experimental competition that aimed to bring fresh thinking to an age old problem.
“We were a bit worried the challenge wouldn’t be very sexy, or data rich,” claims Edward Anderson, also at the bank. “Developers usually get excited about building apps for things like climate change, but not so much about fixing pit latrines in rural areas.”
The response, however, was quite the opposite. The competition attracted more than 180 apps, including everything from games to teach children about good hygiene to programs that track exactly how much a household spends on sanitation.
More than maps
Yet, most of the submitted apps focused on crowd-sourcing information and mapping it - and for good reason. “Mapping has been a huge game changer,” in sanitation, claims Ms So, allowing utilities and providers to know “who needs service, where the problems are, and where the community is growing.”
Due to the informal design and haphazard growth of slums, and remoteness of rural areas, very little formal mapping has actually been done.
“In these places, it’s less a case of building stuff on top of a map, and more building the map in the first place,” says Gary Gale, who runs community programs for mobile firm Nokia’s Here Maps. “The minute you have information on a map, it gives it a veracity that wasn’t there beforehand.”
When it comes to mapping, “mobile phones are the ultimate democratic tool,” says Gale, because they allow anyone to upload- and therefore help map- real-time information and problems. In theory, that allows governments and organisations to respond more quickly to complaints.
One example is mSchool, developed by Senegal-based firm Manobi and one of the World Bank’s SanHack winners. The system allows students, teachers and parents to send SMS alerts when pump, toilet or hand-washing system breakdowns down.
Each year, millions of dollars are spent by organizations building toilets, taps, and pumps in developing countries- often at schools. Yet within months, systems breakdown, and no one is available to repair them.