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Preparing for the Sanitation Hackathon in India

The Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Infosys, and other partners are hosting a Sanitation Hackathon in Pune, which is one of several cities around the world to host the event on Dec 1-2, 2012. Building on lessons and expert problem statements from the 2011 Water Hackathon ( led by the Water and Sanitation Program, Water Anchor and ICT Unit in the World Bank), a Sanitation Hackathon is proposed to leverage the existing partnerships and momentum of the Water hackathon community and to apply a specific focus on sanitation clients and sector needs. Ahead of the event, two brainstorming sessions were held in India, which brought together sanitation sector specialists and software developers to identify problems in the sanitation sector where ICT could help. 

Brainstorming session, 27 September 2012, New Delhi

In his opening remarks at the session in Delhi, Dr. Rajendra Kumar, Joint Secretary, Department of Information Communications and Technology, Government of India, said that technology-based interventions were improving the lives of people. Kumar reiterated the fact that as mobile connections are the rule of the day rather than the exception it was the most relevant platform and the Sanitation Hackathon was an important initiative towards mainstreaming technology-based interventions. As a representative of the government of India he was optimistic that this sanitation initiative would result in an effective roadmap for improving service delivery through mobile applications for all government departments.

Given the increasing emphasis in India that the practice of open-defecation is unacceptable, it is heartening to note that there is a strong sense of ownership by the Government of India to end this practice, said Juan Costain, Regional Team Leader for WSP in South Asia, while addressing the gathering. Costain applauded the 2011 Water Hackathon as a globally successful event. He emphasized that everyone involved was looking forward to making the SanHack an even better and more successful event in all aspects. 

Before leaving the floor open for further discussions Ravikumar Joseph, WSP, shared the details of the upcoming SanHack to be held in Pune on the 1st  and 2nd of Dec 2012. The event partners for are IIHS & Infosys along with support from Department of Information and Technology; Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation; Ministry of Women and Child Development; Ministry of Health and Urban Development; Kfw; UNICEF; ADB and JICA. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are providing support to the overall event.

To start the brainstorming session the floor was divided into groups and the participants come up with a list of sanitation problems and challenges they considered important. One of the interesting issues debated and discussed was regarding the monitoring of toilet usage. Although Govt. programs fund construction of the toilets, the sustainability or use of the toilets is a cause for concern. The govt of India as we know is very keen to be able to monitor, track and promote behavior change leading to sustainable outcomes. The solution to this problem was envisaged as an application “App” that can record household toilet (photograph with GPS coordinates) and other information (number of adults – male / female; children – male / female and age; when was the toilet constructed and source of funds, etc) can be captured and a database created. The use of the toilet can then be monitored (through a sensor on the squatting stones) that records people as and when they squat to defecate. Comparing the data captured from the households (time, number of times that the sensor has been activated and the number of individuals in the household) and comparing it with data base (with data on typical usage patterns for households with number and mix of adults and children) one would be able to monitor usage. Additionally the app could also monitor household disease (esp. diarrhea) and hopefully there would be a decrease in household disease with the usage of toilet by all. The intended audience of such an App is the govt who can then monitor the construction and use of toilets in rural areas.

Brainstorming session, 12 October 2012, Pune

Vivek Raman from WSP began the session in Pune saying that with the ever-increasing mobile penetration and falling prices of smart phones, IT applications provide a cheaper and more powerful platform and an opportunity to solve problems in the developing world stated. His presentation included a description of the successful 2011 Water Hackathon, where new ideas and solutions were developed by people outside of the sector. At the Water Hackathon, out of the 113 problems that were defined, 50 solutions were created and more than 60% of the solutions created are in various stages of deployment in projects. The Sanitation Hackathon, he said, along with its predecessor Water Hackathon, is the beginning of a movement of problem solvers – with unusual partners collaborating to overcome a massive development challenge

Presentations at the Pune brainstorming meet were also made by Pratima Joshi, Director of Shelter Associates and Utkarsha Kavadi, Researcher from CEPT University. Both showcased projects underway in Pune that are using ICT tools to better engage with citizens and disseminate information. 

Participants presented a host of issues and possible solutions for the technologists to use at the forthcoming Hackathon in Dec 2012. In the hour-long vibrant proceedings, one interesting discussion dealt with increased urbanization and migration to cities: Migrating populations from rural India tend to resort to open-defecation. Lack of adequate toilet facilities was highlighted as a concern but so were the behavior patterns. The idea mooted was that citizens who wish to report cases of open-defecation would contact via SMS to the ward offices of their urban local body with location details and the number of such occurrences. Repeated messages from a neighborhood not only calls for immediate action by the authorities but can be shared with local newspapers/radio stations to invite public attention.. The solution needs a working link between NGO’s in the city, municipal staff, local newspapers, radio operators, mobile phones, data transfer mode. The team looks forward to the hackers coming up with their ICT solutions. Overall there was agreement that the sanitation challenge is deadly and massive. Although there are significant financing gaps that need filling, many of the barriers to sanitation access have less to do with finances, and more to do with behaviors of citizens, their governments, and their service providers.

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