What governments can learn from telemedicine to improve monitoring of construction projects

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Myanmar school building Myanmar school building

Improving the quality of small-scale community-level construction projects - a substantial chunk of the already limited capital budget - is a major challenge in developing countries. In Indonesia, one study found that 24% of the funds allocated for 600 village roads were being lost. 

Expanding top-down auditing may help, even in the most corrupt environments. However, logistics, capacity, and cost hurdles inhibit effective inspections of thousands of village road, school construction, and street drainage projects across remote locations. 

Travel may be restricted because of security worries or because of public health crises, as with the current COVID pandemic. The quality of routine supervision may be compromised by rent-seeking. High-quality engineering staff may exist but are better deployed on larger priority projects. Donors often contract third-party consultants for supervision. This method works well with large highways or dams but is not cost-effective for regular visits to remote, dispersed locations. Community monitoring may be limited by elite capture and a weak understanding of the technical specs.

Telemedicine may offer some insights to help governments to set up an inexpensive, sustainable monitoring system that can be embedded even in lower capacity contexts.  Just as a small number of doctors can use ICTs to remotely advise thousands of patients for simpler, routine cases, a small number of engineers can remotely assess the quality of thousands of standard, small-scale construction .
The vendor or the local engineer uses a smartphone to take location, date and time-tagged photos and videos of a structure or site following specified protocols and transmits. whenever a data connection is available. Checking the photos against the specifications, an assigned official or a third party can then assess the quality of dozens of projects in a single day.

Besides, many engineers are already using Whatsapp to informally review photos of the site. The increasing use of smartphones to take location-tagged images to verify the presence or progress of projects is also adding more structure to the Whatsapp informality. 

The next logical step is to not merely monitor the presence, the current focus, but to assess quality in a systematic, scalable, sustainable manner. As opposed to progress monitoring, the more elaborate quality-focused protocols could, for example, specify recording a non-edited video of the concrete flow when mixed to assess the consistency of the fresh concrete. Photos could assess the quality of the shoulders and thickness of a village road and the steel structure in a school roof. And so on. 

Just like telemedicine, such monitoring may not address complex cases, replace laboratory tests, or obviate travel. At least not yet. However, unlike the medical case, such monitoring is likely to be resisted by those accustomed to the status quo. 

While not easy to institute, changes in construction regulations and template contracts could help embed this innovation. In Myanmar, for example, the national directive on monitoring of works already requires that inspection reports include photo record. Similar clauses probably exist in most countries. These clauses need to be developed further into more detailed instructions to monitor quality with smartphones. 

Standard contracts can require vendors to submit the detailed photo and video evidence. Under the Bank-financed Flood and Landslide Emergency Recovery Project in Myanmar, a contractor is now bound to record and transmit high-resolution located and date-tagged photographs or video of various stages of work using a smartphone application with prescribed protocols and angles at prescribed intervals and stages. Importantly, the contract specifies that this information can be used to assess quality. 

The problems causing the lower quality of small scale construction projects are many and varied. The capacity of vendors and government officials, level of competition, quantity, and timeliness of funds, procurement processes, etc., are all significant factors in addition to the supervision challenges. 

Such telemonitoring is also not a panacea. The fact is that no single new idea can uproot entrenched interests in one stroke. However, it may be a useful weapon in the arsenal in the fight for better quality public goods that will serve communities.


Zubair Bhatti

Sr. Public Sector Management Specialist

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