Testing the Waters with Mobile Surveys: Water Quality Reporter

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Feb 03, 2010

Safe drinking water is a necessity for life. But according to a 2005 report published by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to quality drinking water.  

In South Africa, a current project is monitoring water quality with SMS in a push to bring safer water to the area. Run by the University of Bristol and the University of Cape Town, the four year project is two-fold: 1) develop a new means of testing water quality and 2) develop a new means of reporting the results of these water quality tests. 

Aquatest, the water quality testing system, is still under development, but the Water Quality Reporter is up and running – on mobile phones with reporting via SMS. The application allows field workers to cheaply and effectively transfer data about water quality to a centralized database, while receiving feedback about how to handle local water problems.

Says Melissa Loundon, a researcher at the University of Cape Town who worked with the development of the Water Quality Reporter,

“The main part of the project is to develop the water test. But the original project team at the University of Bristol realized that if you’ve got a water test that can be used by people who aren’t in the field, or people who aren’t specialists, it doesn’t really help them if they get a result and see that their water is not safe to drink. They may not have a whole lot of resources to do anything about it. So the point of the cell phone application is that once somebody has a result, they can communicate it to a central database and also to somebody in the area who can provide support.”

Loudon is an occasional contributor to MobileActive.org.

Aquatest will be launched at the beginning of next year, so WQReporter is currently being piloted with an older water test in four regions in the eastern and northen Cape of South Africa.

Loudon stressed that open source software was hugely important in the development of WQReporter. The University of Cape Town team developed the mobile data collection application with JavaRosa, part of the OpenRosa Consortium.

Loudon explained, “One thing [about open source], is that we could get it together really quickly. Another is that we’ve learned a lot from the communities who are using the various tools. We’ve learned from that, from other groups’ experiences with the same tools and similar systems.”

The Java version of the Water Quality Reporter is a mobile survey form application; users answer different questions regarding the water samples (such as where the sample was taken, what the results were, whether the sample was treated, when the sample was taken, etc…), and are able to transmit the data via GPRS to a centralized database. Although the application was designed to run on most basic feature phones, an SMS reporting system was also developed for field workers whose phones do not support J2ME (the Java Mobile Edition). However, the SMS system does not allow for the same level of in-depth reporting as the JavaRosa system. The SMS program is running in Alfred Nzo and Amathole regions, while the Java program is running in Chris Hani and Hantam districts. 

Says Loudon, “I think the Java application people have found it incredibly easy to use, and I think that’s partly because we didn’t go into it designing it from scratch –  JavaRosa already had an application, and already had a whole lot of users who’d tried it and refined the interface.“

Below is a chart designed by the University of Cape Town team that shows how the system works: workers collect data on the water, send a message via GPRS or SMS to the water quality database, where the data is verified and synthesized, and then relevant data and updates are sent back to the field workers.

The Water Quality Reporter project has been operational in the different districts for varying amounts time. In Hantam, where the project has been running for seven months, seven field workers have submitted 742 tests through the WQReporter. In Chris Hani, where the project has been running for three months, 11 field workers have submitted 193 test results. 

Loudon said that although the project has been met with enthusiasm by the participants, it has still faced many challenges. One such challenge is the distance between the sites; there isn’t a lot of opportunity for one-on-one training because the test areas are so remote. Thus, the WQReporter platforms (both Java and SMS) have to be simple and accessible to the reporters who may not have much experience with mobiles. According to Loudon, users with less mobile familiarity use the SMS system, while users with more mobile experience use the Java application. 

Furthermore, although the project is funded by the Gates Foundation, researchers were limited by the infrastructure of South Africa’s mobile phone payment system. The University of Cape Town team can’t have the charges for airtime used for the WQReporter billed directly to them, so they have to rely on field workers to use their own airtime to participate and then compensate workers for that airtime.

Despite the challenges, the system is encouraging more frequent testing of water, and creating a feedback system that allows the field workers to have problems addressed more quickly. Says Loudon, “It’s been a really good experience, because once you have the cell phone system working and an information flow between people doing the tests, you’re able to aggregate the data and take action with it.”

When the Aquatest water quality testing system is released, the Water Quality Reporter will have already laid the groundwork for how mobile phones can provide a reliable way of transferring and collecting data. We’re excited to see where the project goes as it continues to develop. 


Images courtesy Aquatest website

Testing the Waters with Mobile Surveys: Water Quality Reporter data sheet 6719 Views
Countries: South Africa

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