Make data and information flow
The last two weeks of April 2013 I went working closely with IRC colleagues on the ground. Also I worked with ‘les rapporteur groupes thématique’ from the water ministries. The overarching theme was ‘flux d’info AEPHA’. I went to Burkina Faso, Francophone West Africa. AEPHA = ‘Approvisionnement en Eau Potable, Hygiène et Assainissement’ = Water supply, Hygiene behavior and Sanitation.
Deliberately the visit encompassed two weeks, anticipating on ‘reality happening’. Indeed the planned workshop Monday – Tuesday was rescheduled Tuesday – Wednesday and some participants came back on Thursday for extra’s. The un-seasonal ‘orage’ (storm) over the weekend made Internet until Monday evening ‘snail-slow’ and more halting than connecting. On top, the town district had its weekly Wednesday morning power cut.
People across the world are getting connected, we have our hopes on easy (data) access, but there is a reality of bad and intermittent Internet connectivity to take into account. On top of all the tech- and mechanical issues there is ignorance and partly lack of an investigating / experimenting attitude on lots of issues we Northern-hemisphere-ians take for granted, quickly ask a colleague about or consult our networks when dealing with files, email and Internet. Logical when connection is hap-hazard.
Start with what’s there
Well known is the dominance of Visa credit card and Yahoo web-services in West Africa. Without a Visa you are straight back in the cash economy, without yahoo no digital memory, no digital communication. If you want something in cyberspace it needs to be possible to use a yahoo email address because in these accounts people treasure crucial information and contacts and multiple accounts only complicates.
IRC thinks in services, assets and monitoring, and with that comes administration; nowadays un-imaginable without computers. The government staff I worked with was not provided with laptops to work with; staff brought their own or borrowed one from an acquaintance or colleague. One needs a connector to become connected and one needs to be trained how to use such connectors effectively and efficiently. Appreciation for elegant systems and use hopefully follows.
‘Groupes Thématique AEPHA’ are formed. They are – mostly open –platforms for sharing knowledge on current state, progress and future of the Burkinabé WASH sector. Participants come from all over the sector and the aim is to learn together how to achieve sustainable water supply, sanitation and hygiene services. The meetings and sharing brings along a flow of information which is hampered by blockages I tried to help to unclog.
Lessons learned are all around the basics skills needed for participating in information flow. It all starts with simply inviting people to a meeting and sending around the agenda, first by mail and nowadays by email and – completely ‘Africa style’ – by phone. Email is a problem. Inboxes contain much unopened email, I noticed up to 850!, and attachments are way too big. The reality is that people send email and check by phone later if the email is received / opened.
Getting the basics right
For the WASH sector to progress, to become a ‘learning sector’ the basics – a central agenda and a shared information base – need to be addressed and in place. Much of the training was around how to email what and how to create smaller files. And how to use a central calendar for Burkina Faso AEPHA sector events among which the meetings of the thematic groups, and how to make sure all members of the working groups have the same information and set of documents available on their own computer on time. Enthusiasm is there but much remains to be done to connect all.
For the government led thematic sector groups we managed to set-up file synchronization using dropbox accounts and access to a shared sector calendar based on Google for the rapporteurs and practice a little with it. Off course all is based on their personal (Yahoo) email account because the Burkina Faso government is not running an official email service. Next step is to connect the other thematic group members. The better future solution is for the government to enable the digital ‘flux d’info AEPHA’ and maintain a central calendar and information reservoir. Hopefully connectivity and bandwidth keep improving.
From a distance the following main steps emerge again. First the basics, information must be there, preferably based on sound data (collection) and research (or monitoring). Than information must be shared in a timely manner; needed is a central or synchronized source. Step three is reflection and learning together as a sector. Leapfrogging these steps is never the case and impossible. Capacity development will always be needed.