In my previous blog I discussed the WaterAid Innovators Challenge, and the app that we built in collaboration with Scottish Water to win the competition.
Since that last post, I’ve been on a whirlwind journey testing the app in Nicaragua. It was an incredible experience – and, as promised, I’m going to tell you a bit about it.
The trip got off to an auspicious start on a Friday evening at a Premier Inn in Heathrow.
Here the Fujitsu and Scottish Water collaboration team met properly in person for the first time.
Any concerns I had about being the only non-Scottish Water team member vanished quickly at the warm welcome I received! A couple of hours and a few drinks later, and I was already beginning to feel right at home.
The following morning was a very early start. We set off for Heathrow Airport and started the first of three flights to Bilwi our final destination in Nicaragua.
After settling into Hotel Casa Museo in Bilwi early on the Sunday afternoon, the team attended an informal briefing in preparation for the week, and this is where the first conversations about the app took place.
The app was due to be put through its paces on the following Wednesday and Thursday, when we were going to hand it over to local communities for some real user acceptance testing.
It was at this point that I was given my challenge for the next couple of days: convert the key areas of the app into Spanish, ready for the first day of testing on Wednesday.
It would be a squeeze due to the packed itinerary, but this change was deemed high priority – we needed to make sure people could read the app so they could test it!
Following the briefing we set out on a tour of Bilwi. Some of the team stopped off at a long stretch of beach to oblige in the trip’s first assessment of the local water supply: running into the sea for a quick dip!
We finished the evening with a meal at a nearby restaurant. Although we were yet to actually start the community visits, this would be where I had my first indication of the difficulties faced with water and sanitation in the country.
Even in the relatively busy area of Bilwi the restaurant toilets were pour flush only (a bucket of water is used instead of a cistern of water), and to wash our hands we used the one tap that was being used for food prep around the back of the kitchen. It was a bit of a shock, but it was nothing in comparison to what was to follow.
Monday, day 1: Sukwas, pre-intervention community, population: 131
It was a 5:30am start on the Monday. We jumped into a few 4x4s and headed off on the three hour journey to Sukwas, the first community visit of the week.
Bumpy would be an understatement for the road we travelled out on. Here you had to drive around the potholes, and there were plenty of them!
We would be repeating the same journey the following day for the second community visit, and come Tuesday evening didn’t we all know it! Thankfully there were a couple respites along the way.
First up was a barge crossing across the Wawa Boom River. We were able to get out of the vehicles and stretch our legs whilst taking in the tranquility of the surroundings.
We were joined on the barge by some children on their way to school, probably from as young as 5 years old. For them this was just the start of their walk to school, we were told they would have to walk another 4 km to finally make it to class that morning.
Our second respite of the journey was a breakfast stop. This is where I got my first experience of a latrine.
Housed in a small hut across the road from the cafe, they were little more than holes in a bench with a short drop below. It would be impossible to describe how bad the smell was. There were no sinks or taps, so we relied heavily on the hand sanitizer we were asked to bring in the pre-trip briefing sessions.
After finally getting to Sukwas we had a warm welcome from the heads of the community.
We all introduced ourselves and listened to the community talk about their situation and the plans WaterAid had made for the area.
Sukwas is a pre intervention community, which means water is currently taken from contaminated rivers and wells. We were told that one family sends their 13 year old son off to nearby communities to try and find water every day.
And although the water is contaminated, they have no choice but to use it. It’s an impossible scenario: having to give this water to your children out of necessity, all the while knowing it will make them ill.
Although the water source situation was dire, there were signs of hope in the community thanks to the improved sanitation that had been introduced with the help of WaterAid.
The first house we visited was having a new toilet installed. The toilet would be a pour flush toilet where the contents would be washed down the pipes with a bucket of water. Solids would be collected and decomposed, where liquids would be filtered and dispersed in a drainage system a few metres away from the house.
WaterAid don’t just build toilets, they give communities the tools and skills needed to build the toilets themselves, so that they can thrive after WaterAid have moved on. The community provides the labour and natural resources, and WaterAid provide the training and education.
It was great to see the women of the community getting involved with the build. It was clear that they wanted to learn new skills to better their careers.
We only got away with standing around watching for so long, it was time to get our hands dirty! A few of the team chipped in to help build the drainage system that drew the waste away from the toilet, starting with laying a bed of stones to lay the pipes on. I was chosen to help lay the pipes.
We were able to ask questions during the visit, and it was fascinating to find out that the toilet could be installed in a matter of days.
I spoke to a mother of seven children who lived in the house that the toilet was being built for. When I asked what impact the toilet would have on her and her family, she started crying. I felt really proud to be a part of something that would make such a positive difference to someone’s life.
I’ve always believed that life changing innovation is the summit of what we can achieve.
And these toilets are a perfect example of this: a cost-effective simple design that could be reproduced throughout the entire community. Sometimes the easiest ideas are the best.
The team reconvened for lunch, and then we were treated to a couple hours of hiking. This expedition culminated at the site of the potential new water source: a gravity fed water system.
Recent tests had shown that this river was powerful enough to feed many communities, a total of 948 houses. We would learn more about gravity fed water systems the following day, but it was interesting to see a modest river running down the hill knowing how much of a life changing impact it could have.
Tuesday, day 2: Columbus Central, a post-intervention community, population: 507
On Tuesday we visited a post intervention community.
With WaterAid’s help over the last couple of years this community has installed 70 taps and 104 toilets, and the mood of the people that greeted us was noticeably more upbeat.
We were treated to a presentation from the WASH (Wash, Sanitation, Hygiene) committee, and they told the story of how their gravity fed system had been installed and how they had introduced a small tariff for each household that wanted access to the water supply.
We then had the opportunity to meet with families in the area. The first house we went to was perched on a small hill on the edge of the road that led into the community. We were given a tour of the house and shown the tap in the garden, the tap was turned on and the water fired out with great pressure.
The high pressure was due to the infrastructure that had been put in place to account for a 3% year on year population growth over the next 20 years. The owner of the house explained that prior to the tap installation she – like most families in the community – would have to collect water from a nearby stream, which would be contaminated with animal feces.
The second house had paid the extra money to get more pipes fitted from the outside tap up to the house itself, so they had a tap in the kitchen and even a tap in the bathroom that resembled a shower.
Following the visits we grabbed some lunch, we sat in a backyard surrounded by chicken, eating chicken soup. There was a pour flush toilet in the backyard, another reminder of the difference WaterAid had made; an outhouse for a toilet which meant privacy and also the filtration system we had learnt about the day before, so there were a distinct lack of smells – it was a long way from the latrines I had experienced over the previous couple days.
After lunch we stayed in the community to attend a show at a school. A local drama club highlighted the benefits of paying the tariff to get access to the clean water supply. This was an early preview of the show, but the aim was to build on it and tour it around communities to educate community members and get them onboard.
Wednesday, day 3: Wawa Bar – post-intervention community, population: 1428 Fujitsu/Scottish Water mobile app testing session day 1 (no network coverage)
On Wednesday we faced only a short drive to a bay, where we climbed into two boats and set off for the community of Wawa Bar.
Wawa Bar was different to the previous communities in that there water supply was not via a gravity fed system. WaterAid had helped to build 112 water catchment systems that can hold 4000 litres, enough to last all year round. WaterAid had also improved sanitation in the area for over 281 people.
We were there to test the app for the first time. This was my moment – what I was asked to come along on the trip for, so I was desperate to impress and make sure everything went smoothly. At least I had the Spanish version of the app ready to go!
On this first day of testing the app there was no network coverage at all, so it would really be put through its paces.
We split into groups, roughly divided into teams consisting of a couple Scottish Water employees and me, a translator, and a few members of the community who could potentially use the app going forward.
The app’s main aim was to replace the existing paper based system of monitoring households and how they were complying with the WASH guidelines, there were concerns that the paper based version was not durable enough, and that there was no way to correlate all the data.
The app was developed to work offline for this main feature, so I gave a demo of the digital version of the paper based system to my team and awaited their feedback.
One of the comments prior to the demo was that some of the community had never used a mobile device. This set a few alarm bells ringing, had we come across a show stopper before the trials had even begun? The feedback from the team was positive however, although they weren’t used to the technology everyone agreed that the app was very easy to use, so a really positive start to the trial and a big thumbs up for the design of the app.
Following lunch the real trial would begin, where we would take the app to two houses in the community and actually run through the questions in the app as if we were conducting a genuine health promoters’ visit.
Unfortunately the lack of network was proving to be a real problem for one area of the app, but I managed to bypass this and get to the questions section. A bit of a scare, but it was soon resolved and we were ready to start our tests.
The first house we visited was home to a couple of older ladies. One walked out and sat down on the porch floor, and the other came crawling out on her hands and knees and stopped just past the door to greet us. I later found out that the lady had lost use of her legs during her mid-30s. But she did not let her disability hold her back. She was constantly smiling and a real pleasure to talk to.
We went through all the questions on the app and the local health promoters watched on. The mood lightened a bit as the app was in full flow and everyone could see it was doing its job. It was also clear the app was not there to complicate things with over-engineered technology; it was a simple process throughout.
The second house we visited was home to the deputy head of the community who we had already met. His house was actually a hotel, and he told us that some of the WaterAid staff had actually stayed there. Not surprising considering the views, absolutely breathtaking.
Once again we ran through the app, but this time it was handed over to one of the hygiene promoters from the community. The app worked really well and the feedback was positive, the mood was upbeat so we got involved with a few selfies to celebrate!
Just as we were going to head towards the boat, we were asked by one of the teachers if she could try the app.
The app has two sections, households and schools, so this would be an opportunity to try out the latter for the first time. We went with her and our group to the school and I handed the device over. She also found the app very easy to use, and provided very positive feedback.
I learnt a lot from this first day of testing, specifically that the app would need to be a bit smarter with one part of its offline capabilities – but this would be a minor change.
And although I had implemented a quick fix for Spanish translations, the app would need changes to allow for multiple languages as some of the communities only speak in Miskito! Fortunately we had some very good translators who could handle Spanish to Miskito for the remainder of the trip.
This set us up for the next day of testing really well, a location with full network coverage. It would allow us to test all the features of the app and see what it was really capable of.
We finished Wednesday off with pizza and beer with members of the local government and companies, discussing the plans for getting water into Bilwi. It was interesting to listen to the local government staff talking to the people from Scottish Water. They shared similar ideas, but each faced different challenges in their respective regions.
Thursday, day 4: El Caminante Neighborhood and School Bilwi. Fujitsu/Scottish Water mobile app testing session day 2 (network coverage)
The Thursday started off with a trip to an event in Bilwi for World Water Day. WaterAid had a stand at the event so we helped to distribute stickers and balloons. I got to take a walk with one of the translators and had a chat with a local university who were there to demonstrate how they inspected and measured water cleanliness.
Afterwards we grabbed some lunch and headed off to a school in Bilwi for our second session of testing. It was the same format as yesterday, split into a few groups of community members, translators, Scottish Water and me. In our group we were joined by two teachers and two students, and I was really keen to see how the students found the app.
We set off and headed towards the first location, a house just across the road from the school. I handed over the app immediately to one of the teachers, she read the questions to the house owner (which were translated into Miskito), and we were underway.
After a few questions I suggested we rotate to let someone else try, and that’s when one of the students had a go. He got the hang of it really quickly, which seemed positive from a usability perspective.
The second visit was back at the school, so we headed over and this is where we walked through the other features of the app. I noticed that the chat feature had already been used by another team demoing that day, so clearly this was working well.
The app also has a leaderboard for gamification, and I explained that this would be encouraging for the students if they were to take on the role of assessing the facilities, and everyone agreed. It was a really positive session, and as our groups tests came to a close, I noticed that one of the other groups were still playing with the app for quite some time after. Everyone was onboard and keen to try it themselves.
As the app testing was winding down I got to ask a couple questions about the school that hosted us, and it was a bit of an eye opener.
The school had no toilets and no water for drinking. The pump that had been installed by WaterAid a few years back had been badly mistreated, and there was concern that this might be the cause of the degradation of the quality of the water from the well.
When children want to use the toilet they would have to use a house in the community. The teacher also told me that they want to have their own drinking water as the children just go and buy water from a shop, which is provided in bags. There is no way of telling where the water has come from, and it’s most likely contaminated.
There was a light hearted atmosphere in the group as this would be the last formal activity of the week, but the discussions about the state of the school was just a small reminder that although great strides has been made in Nicaragua, there is plenty of work to be done.
Friday, day 5: Flight back to Managua and tourist activities
On the Friday we checked out of our hotel in Bilwi and headed back to the airport for the flight to the capital. On our way there we popped into the Bilwi WaterAid office to say our final goodbyes to all the team and have a wrap-up meeting, thanking them all for all their hard work in making the trip such a success.
There was still time for a couple more adventures before we said goodbye to Nicaragua, we were due to visit the markets in Managua. But as we were approaching the runway to land in the capital we had to take a detour, and found ourselves landing at an abandoned runway that was previously used by Pablo Escobar. We took shelter from the heat under the aeroplane for a couple of hours, and when we got the nod, climbed back onboard and completed the journey to Managua.
The trip concluded with a visit to an active volcano on the Friday evening, followed by a meal with the team. We headed back to the hotel for a well-earned sleep and to get ready for the journey home.
Looking to the future
It was a great privilege to travel to Nicaragua and see first-hand the work that is being done by WaterAid.
It’s clear the Winnovators challenge is having a real impact on local communities. Everybody is committed to making the app work so that it can help improve sanitation conditions in the towns and villages we visited.
Seeing how much people value the changes WaterAid are bringing made me really proud to be a part of the project – especially as I hope that the app will make a difference.
It’s certainly an improvement on the paper charts that local sanitation workers had been using. These got lost or damaged easily, and they were difficult to store. Instead the app is a centralized easy way to keep records.
Having the app also means that data can be accumulated and presented remotely, so sanitation workers will always be able to keep an eye on what’s going on in their community.
The only thing I have left to say is thank you. A massive thank you to all the WaterAid staff for planning and supporting such a special trip; thanks to the team at Scottish Water for making me feel part of the team; thanks to Fujitsu for the opportunity, and thanks to the guys in Swansea who helped to produce the winning app.
It’s proof that co-creation and collaboration is at the heart of every innovation – particularly one that has potential to change lives for the better.
Latest posts by Paul Harwood (see all)
- Testing an app in Nicaragua: my WaterAid trip diary - April 24, 2018
- How we’re co-creating to improve water sanitation in Nicaragua - February 15, 2018