• Opinion
  • August 1, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

Toilet tales: smartphone insights from Vietnam

Opinion: smartphones are improving Vietnam's water and sanitation infrastructure

This opinion article was written by Kai Kaiser and Lilian Pena Pereira Weiss. It was originally published by the World Bank. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed. 


In Vietnam, seeing is believing.

The government has opted to only get resources from a World Bank loan if results are documented not on paper, but from digital image evidence, captured with smartphones to prove that adequate rural water and sanitation infrastructure has been built and is functional.

A highlight of two recent Programs for Results (PforRs) is that they use smartphone networks to verify results.

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Traditional monitoring and evaluation (M&E) has relied on sending paper-based reports from the frontlines up through the administrative system.

But by using smartphones that sync with the cloud, results can now be quickly distilled for verification, for transparent governance, and also for prioritizing support activities.

Better water and sanitation can have huge impacts on the quality of people’s lives. When using public funds to support these, how can a results-based mechanism, based on efficient verification tools be used to incentivise and further ensure that results are really being achieved?

Why use smartphones to check on toilets and functional water connections?

The simple act of generating a digital impression of a physical infrastructure can generate a powerful chain of transparency and accountability for greater impacts.

The repeated act of turning a smartphone on a sanitation or water connection infrastructure heightens attention.

Simple checklists of what to look out for? Emphasizing the actual functionality of the system, and not just the infrastructure installation, can help reduce risks and improve processes.

Smartphones syncing with the cloud represent a highly scalable process. The use of open- or subscription-based software and apps means that these platforms can be customized to key local concerns and calibrated to where the main challenges lie.

The focus on data collection, but above all, analysis and visualization, needs to be fit for purpose.

What was done?

The Vietnam Rural Water and Sanitation PforRs use a well-established cloud-based platform for the verification of results.

Participants could use a variety of smartphones to complete the captures, based on a simple but systematic and transparent verification protocol.

Even if temporarily out of internet reach, the captures would sync later. These features are now standard to any consumer app being used by millions, young and old, across Vietnam.

On the cloud, the platform then provides a simple set of quick analytics. These can be remotely performed from anywhere in the world.

Where the image presents issues, the field personnel can be rapidly instructed to provide updates.

How can these types of tools be further mainstreamed?

The sustained track-record of Vietnam’s water and smartphone results verification points to some key ingredients in scaling digital transformation across governments, especially if the starting point is still a context of paper-based processes and documentation.

But governments often remain wedded to paper-based processes. As a counterpart joked – “we love IBM: it’s better manual.”

By “manual”, he meant paper-based, given that digital workflows could be seen by many bureaucrats to disrupt traditional ways of doing things in government.

Part of this resistance to change can indeed be due to lack of digital literacy, but it also stems from concerns that technology will impinge on traditional ways of doing things, including in some cases petty corruption.

To more rapidly scale digital transformations, consider:

  • Cloud-based platforms and services technologies now provide options to deploy and succeed fast, but also fail at a lower cost than stand-alone M&E systems and hardware investments.
  • Cloud deployments allow platforms designs to focus on clear results metrics, ensuring that digital workflows and data are aligned to capturing a set of measures that count, rather than starting design from diffuse monitoring and evaluations (M&E) systems project design.
  • Cloud-based platforms and “modular” libraries and services allow governments to focus on better and simpler user experiences, including rapid trials and experimentation.
  • Digitally native data from smartphones–and other similar sources–can be quickly validated and further leveraged for data analytics and visualization, for example through overlays with satellite data.

Against the backdrop of paper-based cultures, IT has often lacked fit for purpose and been ill-suited for user-centric design.

Applications therefore turn out to be clunky and over-designed, rather than focusing on progressive essentials of what needs to be captured and provided from the field.

M&E systems are designed more to serve the needs of individual projects, giving them an extractive top-down compliance feel.

The question is what design innovations can generate better two-way feedback. Taking a page out of tele-medicine, can smartphone captures provide good feedback from central resources based on these captures, rather than just an accumulation of further data and often poorly thought through indicators.

The policy and regulatory framework still favour paper-based evidence. Neither governments nor development partners place enough emphasis on radically reducing the reporting burden from the local levels.

The result is therefore more data, but data of exponentially lower quality and value. Further data analytics and visualization are neglected, amplifying the sense that data is more procedural than powerful.

But ultimately, seeing is believing – only by spearheading a critical mass of more agile digital applications will more widespread digital transformations across governments become a reality.

Toilets for the Future

The realization of better and equitable progress in water and sanitation access is a journey of smart investments and changes in stakeholder behaviors. But digital feedback is increasingly helping reinforce results in this direction.

As Vietnam shows, getting even basic sanitation infrastructure captured with smartphones is a huge initial leap.

This article was originally published by the World Bank. You can read the original piece here, and more World Bank blogs here. In conjunction with this article, The World Bank has also released a knowledge brief

[Photo credit: Unsplash/Doan Tuan]

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