Data on water system functionality, performance, operational costs and quality can be collected, analysed and organised to improve the management, operation, and safety of urban and rural water supplies. To be effective, these data, consisting of measurements, statistics, geo data or qualitative data, must be both processed into information (defined as the knowledge gained from the data) and transferred to relevant actors. This information can then be used to assess, monitor, manage and improve water supplies, advocate for resources, and plan water sector projects.
Evaluating existing information systems
Information systems comprise the tools and components for organising and communicating information within an institution or program, including those based on human interactions, paper, audio and digital tools. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) encompasses the electronic tools used to collect, organise, store, access, process or convey data.
Country policies on ICT (if existing) should be respected, and water authorities should be involved, where possible, in the selection of the appropriate ICT. Before deciding whether a new system for collecting and managing information is necessary, existing systems, which may have been in place prior to the emergency, should be evaluated. One tool for mapping these systems is a data flow diagram (DFD), which is an analysis method that maps inputs, processes and outputs within a system, thereby modelling how data are collected and transferred. DFDs have four elements: (1) external entities (organisations outside the system boundaries); (2) processes (transformations of or changes to data); (3) data stores (physical data storage, like a notebook or computer file) and (4) data flow (transfer of data between the previous elements). These elements are captured through interviews and by observing data management and existing records. The resulting DFDs can then be used to understand existing processes (e.g. Which data are collected? Who is involved? How is data distributed? Who has access to the data?) and to model potential changes to the information systems. When evaluating current information systems or considering modifications, it is important to consider questions such as:
Information and communication technology (ICT) tools for the water sector
The optimal information system depends on the types of data to be collected (e.g. numeric, text, visual), when it is needed (one-off, periodic, or routine; feedback or interactive system), which direction it will flow (one-way or interactive) and how it will be transmitted (e.g. manually or electronically). There are many paper and mobile–phone based tools for collecting information related to the provision of safe water, often based on spreadsheets and word-processing software. These tools can be used for a single system or for synthesising information from multiple water systems, such as within a region or water utility. Important mapping technologies in the water sector include GPS (global positioning system) for establishing the location of a water system or its components and GIS (geographic information system) for visualising and analysing location-based data. Mobile–phone-based tools for water point mapping use GPS and camera features to inventory rural water points by collecting data about the water point and its location; previously, these activities were recorded on paper and with special GPS devices.
Mobile phones have also been used to improve water utility billing operations, such as customer tracking and issuing (and allowing payment of) water bills via mobile money, contactless payment cards or text-based and smartphone interfaces as well as to notify customers of service interruptions. Mobile phones have also been used to collect and collate the results from water quality tests, which are either entered into the phone manually, use the phone camera or rely on attached sensors to record and process the results.
Finally, while most mobile phone systems rely on people to enter data, automatic data collection systems that directly record, process and transmit data do exist and are essential when access and human resources are limited. Examples include sensors that measure handpump or water treatment functionality, operations and use; asset management; water storage tank levels; post-treatment water quality parameters, such as chlorine residual, and water production and consumption rates.
Sustainability of information systems
While information systems optimally improve the sustainability and operations of water systems, these information systems themselves also have to be maintained. They may also suffer from challenges, such as a lack of user engagement and a failure of the system to perform as expected or provide useful information.
With the rapid pace of technological development, new ICT tools are constantly being introduced. Different humanitarian actors may use different tools, which might require additional efforts in harmonising the data and information flow. The sustained function and use of ICT systems can be assisted by ensuring that new tools and information systems enhance existing practices. Since data must be processed, updated and converted into information to be useful, information systems or ICT tools should be carefully evaluated for their full lifecycle costs and weighed against potential benefits to ensure the commitment and resources are available to justify such an investment.
Kumpel, E. et al. (2015): When Are Mobile Phones Useful for Water Quality Data Collection? An Analysis of Data Flows and ICT Applications among Regulated Monitoring Institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. In: Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 10846–10860