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Fixing South Africa's Water System, With Citizen Inspectors

WaterWatchers is a new tool from IBM that lets mobile users, even ones without smartphones, report issues with the water in their communities. Can it help clean up the country’s dirty water?

Like many countries around the world, South Africa struggles with an aging water infrastructure that’s struggling to keep up with rapidly increasing urban populations. In 2010, IBM previously tested the power of crowdsourcing to pinpoint water issues with its Creekwatch app; now the company is leveraging the crowd to keep track of all the leaks and busted pipes in South Africa with WaterWatchers, an app that lets citizens report issues with the water supply to a central database.

In many ways, WaterWatchers is an extension of the CreekWatch app, which lets users monitor the health of local creeks—things like trash, flow rate, and water level. WaterWatchers uses similar technology, but can also deal with pure text. That means users can report issues on the app even if they don’t have smartphones. WaterWatchers is also more widely applicable—in general, people care more about their own water supplies than nearby creeks that don’t immediately seem relevant.

"The issue with CreekWatch is that it’s a great app but sort of leaves things open-ended. It doesn’t really say what it is we’re trying to find, just letting you tell us what’s going on with a diverse set of inputs in a natural environment," explains Perry Hartswick, IBM Smarter Planet Architect. "When you’re talking about water supplies, these are much more focused issues. We think and hope that there will be a much more intense response to this."

IBM chose to launch WaterWatchers in South Africa because, well, this is just how it greets new markets. "When IBM goes into a region, we don’t say we’re coming into this geography to make money. We go in on many different levels of participation. We establish a research lab, a local presence, and we take responsibility for that area as well," says Hartswick. IBM launched its first African research center in Nairobi, Kenya in 2012. The company’s first Africa Innovation Centre launched in Johannesberg, South Africa in 2008.

If WaterWatchers is successful, the app will end up with a detailed water "leak hot spot" map for the country. Local officials will have access to the data; it will be up to them what they want to do with it. But if citizens start to notice that officials are paying attention to the app’s reports, they’ll probably be more likely to take it seriously.