This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Water Quality Products magazine as "Beyond Maintenance"
Well Aware and WellBeyond recently developed a new app that empowers communities in rural, developing regions to diagnose and maintain their water system issues worldwide. WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello asked Kathryn Bergmann, COO of WellBeyond, about the value of data analytics in safe water management and how technology can help bridge the gap between technical expertise and system maintenance.
Lauren Del Ciello: What was the genesis of WellBeyond?
Kathryn Bergmann: Through the 10 years of work in the Austin-based NGO, Well Aware, the team discovered one of the most significant reasons for water system failure in rural water supply is the lack of operation and maintenance. While countless well-meaning initiatives have invested heavily in clean water infrastructure in these regions, a low percentage of these dollars is directed to ensuring the longevity of the water source. Meanwhile, the majority of people in Africa own a cell phone. We realized we could leverage this technology and place the expertise of our team (hydrogeologists and engineers) into a diagnostics and maintenance app.
Del Ciello: What is the value of data analytics in safe water management?
Bergmann: Data collection and analysis are imperative to support improvements in safe water management, particularly as climate change creates new obstacles and variations in rainfall and aquifer recharge. In order to assess, replicate and improve any large-scale development project, data needs to be regularly collected, and the quantity and quality of that data is also important to be meaningful in determining the efficiency and impact of the project. This data analysis reveals that the goals of the project have been met or not met by measuring consistent benchmarks through uniform methodology, and then this information is used to inform and improve the water system being tracked, as well as future water system design and management.
The WellBeyond App collects data on water system functionality and needs at least monthly, enabling our team to not only improve upon the existing systems infrastructure and design but also to measure the overall impact within the community itself.
Del Ciello: How does the WellBeyond app empower communities to manage their water systems?
Bergmann: A common risk in rural water supply projects in developing regions is the lack of appreciation of the power of the people who ultimately determine the success of the system (the beneficiaries). The WellBeyond App provides the ongoing community contact and training that is critical to water system success without needing additional NGO staff on the ground that comes with a host of additional burdens. Unless the community understands their water system, is involved in regular maintenance and can fix the most common issues on their own, the water project has a low chance of sustainability.
Del Ciello: How can technologies such as this contribute to the long-term health of a system?
Bergmann: In addition to the community education and engagement component as a major factor in project success, technical expertise is critically important to the success and sustainability of rural water supply but is often missing from project planning and oversight.
The WellBeyond App brings expertise that is unavailable locally to the most remote or impoverished places in the world. Our team has found that this support improves community buy-in and extends the life of the water system. With the diagnostics of common water system malfunctions being in the hands of the people who live next to it, a water well can be repaired in 30 minutes instead of two weeks. This is so important, as every day a water system is down, it reduces the likelihood that it will ever run again.
In addition to diagnostics, continued maintenance instructions are integrated into the WellBeyond app, meaning the water system receives care often overlooked but crucial for the continued functionality of the system. With WellBeyond technical expertise, ongoing maintenance checks and on-site troubleshooting resources, the system is able to function longer and with less overall downtime and repair cost.
Kathryn Bergmann is COO of WellBeyond. Bergmann can be reached through Rebekah Epstein at [email protected].
*Responses have been edited for clarity.