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Published November 2011.

Update June 2012: A full report of the Water Hackathon is now released, highlighting lessons learned and identifying new opportunities in the Hackathon space. View the report »

Lack of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illnesses, responsible for two millions deaths a year. As the global population grows, and demands on natural resources increase, the sustainable management of water resources is also acquiring new urgency.

In order to attract new ideas for addressing these challenges, the Water and Sanitation Program, along with the Open Development Technology Alliance (ODTA), is reaching out to a new kind of partner: software developers. In fall 2011, software developers and designers will team up with water experts to try to create new tools for solving water problems simultaneously in multiple global locations, including in Nairobi, Bangalore, London and Washington DC.

Knowledge — Interpreting the Issue

Water Hackathon grew out of a need for innovation in water management. The increasing availability of open data sets, the spread of mobile phones and the available of high-fidelity, low-cost mapping tools has created new opportunities for solutions to seemingly-intractable water challenges.

To identify these pressing challenges, the Bank’s water team and its ODTA partners have convened community discussion groups in Water Hackathon host cities to document pressing end-user water problems. Working with residents, water utilities, and hydrologists, they have supported the community identification and prioritization of critical issues, followed by the mapping of key resources, stakeholder, and skills necessary to solve those problems.

For example, in Kibera and Mathare, informal settlements in Nairobi, residents identified utility bills and payments as the most critical issue. Wrongly estimated and accumulated bills-called 'burden billing’ because meter readers refuse to enter slum areas- along with misdirected bills due to the absence of formal addresses, and lack of payment points within informal communities, are both the cause and result of poor utility services.

People — Facilitating Access to Experts

Defining high-value problems is only part of the challenge. Building prototypes for solutions to water problems requires skilled software engineers and designers, under guidance from experts in hydrology, sanitation, and irrigation. To ensure promising prototypes can mature into functional applications for use in the field, problems require ‘problem owners’--stakeholders from groups like water utilities, ministries, and development agencies.

Despite its critical nature, many software developers are unfamiliar with the challenges and opportunities in the area of water. In order to reach these experts, and generate interest for Water Hackathon, the ODTA has reached out to its partners in the technology community. Working with partner Mobile Monday (MoMo), Water Hackathon is presenting on ICT innovations for water challenges at MoMo events in host cities in the month before the Hackathon. Through this and other outreach Water Hackathon is expected to attract as many as 100 participants per city.

In order for software developers to build meaningful prototypes they need to understand the challenges and limitations faced by the water sector. The participation of experts from the field is critical to Water Hackathon’s success--but many are unfamiliar with how ICTs can address seemingly intractable issues. To bring these front-line engineers, project managers, and community organizations into the process, the task team is asking as simple question: “what information do you wish you had”?

Tools — Implementing the Solution

Although ICT innovators are only beginning to discover the opportunities in water, some remarkable tools already exist. In addition to creative hardware projects like the Water Canary, software tools like the Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), developed by Water for People, are helping government and civil society to better monitor the functionality of water points with entry-level smart phones. Similar handheld applications include tools for remote activation of irrigation pumps, utility bill payment and flood warning.

Beyond mobile, there are vast opportunities in water for innovative applications of modeling, mapping, data visualization, and data hosting. The open data movement will only gather momentum as water-related datasets are increasingly made public. Currently, the quality and accessibility of water datasets varies greatly from country to country. Water Hackathon is actively encouraging public data holders– from water utilities to hydromet offices, to bring their data to the Hackathon, for use as the basis of new applications. Prototypes created using this data will serve as evidence of the value of opening up water related data to the public.

Beyond The Hackathon

Beyond the apps themselves, the most important outcome of Water Hackathon is the convening of a dynamic community of minds interested in creating new and innovative tools for addressing a development challenges.

Accordingly, Water Hackathon can serve as a model for how to apply innovative ICT skills and approaches to persistent development challenges. By bringing together sector and technology stakeholders in advance, sensitizing each community to the skills and needs of the other, and working through sustained problem definition processes, Water Hackathon is using a two day event to realize long-term development impacts.