How to … design a sanitation app

How to … design a sanitation app | Source:  The Guardian, March 22, 2013 |
Trémolet Consulting won the London leg of the 2012 Sanitation Hackathon. The team explain how to take your mobile app idea from concept to creation

As we write this, we’re contemplating the prospect of a trip to the Silicon Valley to meet potential investors for a mobile phone application (app) we’ve designed. The app aims to help answer one of the biggest unresolved questions for understanding sanitation markets in developing countries: how much do households invest in their own sanitation facilities?

How do you design an app that can find out how much households invest in water and sanitation? Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

How do you design an app that can find out how much households invest in water and sanitation? Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

It all started when we submitted a problem statement at the London leg of the Sanitation Hackathon, an event that took place simultaneously in 14 cities around the world in early December 2012. Hackathons are increasingly used by international agencies or governments to get computer programmers and app developers applying their creative brains to solve a social issue. The “watsan” (water and sanitation) hackathon dates back to 2011 when the World Bank organised the firstwater hackathon. Since then, mobile phone apps have made their mark in the water sector, particularly for water point mapping.

The idea we submitted to the hackathon stemmed from what we’ve observed as a lack of data on households’ investment and recurrent expenditure on latrines, despite the fact that they often represent a major proportion of total investment in the sanitation sector. It is critical to understand how much households are investing, and in what, in order to design appropriate policies and programmes to support them. We seized the opportunity of the London sanitation hackathon to see whether that app (a computer programme connected to the internet that runs on smartphones and other mobile devices), now known as ‘SIT’ (Sanitation Investment Tracker) had the potential to make a significant contribution to the way sanitation programmes are designed, run and monitored.

SIT is a suite of apps to track investments in household-level sanitation. It can be a more effective way of collecting data than the traditional pen and paper approach. It allows for better data analysis, addresses monitoring and verification issues and can help with building a customer database for the local sanitation sector. Our initial idea was awarded first prize at the London hackathon and has earned us mentorship from Andrew Stott, who formerly worked at the cabinet office where he helped set up We also submitted SIT to the follow-up competition set up by the World Bank, the San App challenge, and wait to hear if we’ve won the final prize, awarded on Friday 22 March – World Water Day.

Since the first win, we have also been able to further develop our initial concept by teaming up with, a Dutch software foundation that builds and runs open-source internet and mobile systems to make development activity more effective and transparent. We’ve also secured funding from DfID via Share, a research consortium dedicated to sanitation. The consortium is led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and comprises of NGOs and research institutes, which will be particularly helpful in the roll-out of the app.

So, should you have an app idea and want to take it further, here are a few words of advice:

Aim to fill a clear gap

There are already dozens of apps for all sorts of things, from games to news or video-making and this is also true for sanitation apps. If you want your app to be used by professionals, it should respond to a clear need and fulfil a function. By working in the sector, with lots of different agencies (including donors, NGOs, governments), we could see how getting better data on household investment would help design better interventions, particularly those that use public funds as a way to leverage household investment.

Identify your users

One key question is who is going to download and use the app? During the development process we considered whether households themselves should report on their investments or whether the app should be used by surveyors hired by sanitation professionals. We opted for the latter, bearing in mind that households have limited incentive to report on their investments. The success of self-reporting apps in the developing world has so far been disappointing, as many people are illiterate or are not motivated enough to send the required information. As the app develops, however, we intend to add an SMS reporting system, allowing households to report when their latrine fills up and needs emptying, for example. A small incentive, such as a discount on pit emptying charges or free mobile air-time, will most likely be necessary.

Don’t reinvent the wheel, do build partnerships

Partnership is the key, not simply to provide technological support, but also to build on the experience of others. Our development partner, runs the Akvo Flow system, which was originally developed to collect, manage, analyse and display data on water points using mobile phones. Akvo is now running it as open-source software, developing it further to make it adaptable for wider use and integrating additional features. We selected them for the robustness of their underlying system and for the fact that their tool was already widely in use in a number of sub-Saharan African countries where we intend to test and roll out SIT. Between our two organisations, we have a wide and deep range of contacts in the WASH sector, which will also come in handy when testing out the app.

Test your app on the ground

Once your idea is in place and partnerships have been secured, now think: what will this app look like? What are its main features? To answer these questions, you must focus on the user experience and take into account social and cultural considerations: are your features intuitive? Is the app easy to use? Will it contravene social norms? For instance, will people agree to have their latrines being given a number or photographed? Could these reporting tools be perceived as an invasion of private life? To get these answers, you need to find a few “friendly projects” working with organisations who are prepared to test your app and perhaps also cover some of the costs on the ground.

Build a business case

Your app is a living product that you will need to update, maintain, further develop or tailor to your users’ needs. Users need to be trained and data needs to be stored somewhere. This generates costs which need to be covered in some way. To ensure that you can keep the app running, you will need to build a sustainable business plan to finance the on-going management of the app. Once SIT is up and running, it will be open source, but we will also offer tailored services to partner organisations using the app so as to support the app’s ongoing development and tailoring to local circumstances. These services will include customising the content of the app (surveys and reports), delivering training to use the app as part of a wider data analysis project (monitoring and evaluation, verification work, policy design etc) and hosting the database on a server.

Invest in communications and tailor your message to different audiences

Your app is a product that you want to see disseminated. As well as informing your existing networks, social media platforms are a great way to reach a wide range of users. We used the full range, from Twitter toYoutube but it was also important not forget the traditional email pitch to reach development sector specialists who may not yet be on sharing socially.

Sophie Trémolet, Marie-Alix Prat and Goufrane Mansour are consultants in water and sanitation economics and finance at Trémolet Consulting. The consultancy tweets as @TremoletC

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