Tech for Transparency: Governance of the Kenyan Water Sector

ImageBy: Albert Otieno, iHub Research

iHub Research is the research arm of an innovative, open working space for the technology community in Nairobi, similar in many ways to the Lab’s home- the OpenGov Hub– in Washington DC. Since September 2011, iHub Research has been evaluating how mobile technology can be used to improve governance in Kenya by enhancing transparency through access to information and effective communication among various stakeholders. The project focuses in particular on the water sector, with an aim of creating a replicable framework in other sectors such as education and health.

Kenya’s government recognizes water as a human right and it is enshrined in the constitution, yet most Kenyans face significant challenges in trying to access this precious resource. Despite launching reforms in the water sectoraimed at improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), the country still faces numerous obstacles in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) related to water and sanitation. A USAID report indicated that approximately 13 million Kenyans lack access to improved water supplyand 19 million Kenyans lack access to improved sanitation.

With this critical challenge in mind, iHub Research embarked on a study to evaluate the water-related issues that Kenyan citizens face, the type of information they would like to receive about those issues, and the platforms with which they would like to access that information. The research team began by identifying gaps in water transparency. Citizens expressed a desire to access information on how to make water safe for consumption, where to get clean water and water rationing schedules, yet only 26% (n=896) have access to water information of any kind. When there is an issue with the water supply, many citizens- particularly those residing in rural areas- do not know to whom they need to talk to or even if the information they offer will be acted upon. With this communication gap in mind, the research team began exploring ways to facilitate two-way interaction between the various stakeholders in the sector (the government, media, civil society, academia and citizens) using accessible technology such as hotlines and SMS platforms. The research found that 20 new mobile applications were created in 2010 during a water hackathon to solve citizen issues in the water sector such as water quality, complaints management and the provision of general water information. Surprisingly only about 10 of those applications were still widely in use. Many of the applications did not scale as the teams that developed them lacked funding, supportive partnerships, and government buy-in: factors necessary for scalability and sustainability.

The findings from iHub’s Research report indicate that of citizens interviewed, 86% believe mobile technology to be the most convenient and effective technological platform for communication and dissemination of water information (51% endorse SMS while 35% endorse phone calls). In contrast, technologies that required Internet use, such as social media, were least preferred, as few Kenyans have phones with Internet enabled capabilities. Ultimately, the study confirms that if mobile applications are developed properly and the right stakeholders are involved at each level, technology can be successfully used to improve water transparency and governance. You can read more about the project’s findings here.

To solve the communication problems identified, iHub Research has been hosting ideation workshops and hackathon events to bring together developers, designers, water experts and civil society organizations to innovate possible solutions. In just less than 2 days, the participants are required to design prototype solutions and gather insights on best approaches for usability. The aim of these events is to generate new technological platforms that can bridge the communication gap and allow access to and dissemination of instant and up to date water information to Kenyans nationwide.  iHub research has also been working with the creators of some existing applications (MajiVoice and Mmaji) to see how these applications can be scaled across the country to provide rural communities with the water information they desire.

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