To find innovative solutions to water and sanitation development challenges, the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Program are reaching out to new, rather unlikely partners. Computer programmers, designers and other information technology specialists were invited by the World Bank and various technology partners to compete for 48 hours in 10 cities around the world this month. Their aim: to create the easily deployable, scalable, and sustainable technological tools that respond to specific water and sanitation challenges in developing countries.
The first ever global WaterHackathon  took place simultaneously in nine locations, including, among others, Bangalore, Lagos, Lima, Nairobi, and Washington, DC. It followed the model set by Random Hacks of Kindness  (RHoK), a partnership between NASA, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, HP and the World Bank, in which subject matter experts and local stakeholders submit problems that are then tackled by volunteer technology specialists at hackathon events around the world.Practical Solutions to Real-Life Water Sector Problems
In order to execute a “water” hackathon, the World Bank team first needed to collect water problems that lend well to technology solutions. Over 100 were collected from Bank staff, their clients and communities. One of the challenges came from Botswana. The water utility’s customer service center in the country is often overwhelmed by calls requesting bill status update. Customers encounter a busy signal, become frustrated, and abandon payment efforts. Others have to travel to the service center to have basic questions about their bill answered.
A solution to that challenge was developed by two students from George Mason University at the Washington DC WaterHackathon. The team built a functional prototype that simulated how a customer in Bostwana could send an SMS message enquiring “what is my bill?” and instantly receive their billing information on their mobile phone from the utilities’ database. In addition to saving customers’ time, this simple technological solution can potentially improve the utility’s revenue collections and operating efficiency.
Winning “hacker” Muneeb Akhtar, aged 19, said: “Our goal is not to develop a product to make money. Our goal is to help people, so all our projects are based on that theme. I think we have done that today and we are going to continue doing that at other Hackathons.”
That application was one of more than 50 submitted at the conclusion of the 48 hour hacking marathon. Nearly 1000 people registered worldwide to participate in the event, volunteering their time and talent to try to solve – “hack” - more than 100 water problems defined in advance by water specialists and water users around the world
Winners around the World
The Nairobi Hackathon awarded its first prize to a team working on a prototype for a mobile-to-web complaint system. The water sector regulator and the Nairobi water utility have already expressed interest in this, and other prototypes developed during the Hackathon event.
One of the six winners in Bangalore was an application that allows individuals to track projects in the field using SMS, by linking an SMS stream into the ongoing project tracking and data analysis. Local government representatives invited developers of the winning applications to further refine their ideas and showcase them at an upcoming major conference.
The winners in London built a location codification system which allows Tanzanians to report water-related problems through SMS messages.
The Lima Hackathon winners made public for the first time hydrological data from the Ministry of Agriculture on open street map.
Kampala's winners created a tool that crowd sources water-related problems in a community and visualizes them, helping to give communities a voice. The second winner is an android mobile tool to help consumers visualize their water usage over time.
Three applications won in Lagos - one for locating water sources and reporting broken pipes to local water providers; a tool for checking water quality and feeding back to the water corporation; and a website for the water corporation with which it can educate and inform consumers.
New Approach to Development
Jeff Martin, a former Apple executive and founder and CEO of Tribal Technologies helped kick off the Bangalore Hackathon: "Today, far more of the world's population has access to a cell signal than safe drinking water," he said. "What we need now is a marriage of digital convergence to solve this problem - where mobile phones and apps help bridge this incomprehensible gap in a way desktop computers never did."
“Water is at the heart of some of the world's most pressing development challenges,” said Jose Luis Irigoyen, World Bank Director for Transport, Water, and Information and Communication Technologies. “At the intersection of technology and consumer-related data, we are seeing new opportunities to create and effectively use non-traditional solutions. Are we really taking full advantage of now-ubiquitous mobile phones, mobile internet access, and social media tools to transform inclusion, citizen participation, and transparency in water management and services? Are we using open data to full practical advantage? It is in search of such non-traditional solutions that the World Bank has organized the WaterHackathon.”
“In addition to sanitation and water experts, the Bank engaged directly with citizens in developing countries to collect actual day-to-day problems they face,” said Max Hirn from the Water and Sanitation Program at the World Bank. “The fact that teams of extraordinary ‘hackers’ were able to solve some of these problems shows that there are partners out there we may not have considered, who care about doing something good for poor people and who can help in ways we may not have thought of yet.”
WaterHackathon Follow up
The organizers will continue to track the outcomes of the WaterHackathon events. At each of the ten sites a “water ambassador” was nominated to act as a liaison between the local technology and water communities and to blog about the progress of some of the prototypes developed. In several locations the winners received spots in local technology incubation centers. It will allow them to further develop their products. Finally, some teams have been in touch with WaterHackathon participants in other locations in an effort to foster future collaboration and follow up and to address their specific problems