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In Afghanistan and India, Low-Tech Approaches Aid Monitoring

June 1, 2010

  • GPS cameras track progress on irrigation infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas of Afghanistan.
  • In India, pilot project will track maternal and child health visits via cell phones.
  • Low-tech methods allow for timely, cost-effective monitoring of multi-site projects.

June 1, 2010—In conflict-affected Afghanistan, agricultural productivity and food security hinges on restoring the country’s irrigation infrastructure. But the remoteness and increasing insecurity of some areas have hampered efforts to reliably track the progress of a nationwide irrigation project.

Now there may be a solution: cheap and relatively low-tech global positioning system (GPS) cameras are being used to record the date, time, longitude, latitude, and to some extent altitude, in photos of irrigation structures under repair or construction.

Project field workers in six regions have been using the cameras since February, producing photographs of 650 locations that are setting a baseline from which progress will be measured, says Usman Qamar, the World Bank’s lead on the $127 million Emergency Irrigation Rehabilitation Project. The project is financed through the International Development Association, the arm of the World Bank that provides grants and no-interest loans.

“It’s a very powerful tool in that you have authentic confirmation that a particular asset was built and actually exists at that location,” Qamar says of the GPS cameras.

Pilot Keeps It Simple

Qamar is working with a World Bank Group innovation team and the Afghanistan Ministry of Energy and Water to develop a system that documents and maps project milestones, and relates them to other development data.

The effort is piloting a type of “remote supervision” that World Bank information, communications and technology (ICT) experts hope will improve project outcomes and result in better services for poor people in developing countries.

In proposing GPS cameras be used for the Afghanistan irrigation project, members of the South Asian regional ICT innovation team at the World Bank – Deepak Bhatia, Naseer Rana, Pratheep Ponraj and Kimmoye Byron—said one major aim was to make it easier to supervise a large project with hundreds of sites by allowing staff to be more selective about site visits.

“This effort is about building capacity within government agencies and ministries to sustainably monitor projects to improve development outcomes,” says Ponraj.

“With tools like this, it becomes feasible for project teams to get timely and reliable information from geographically spread areas covered by the project. And then decide, well,  this particular location I’m not very comfortable with the data I’ve been getting, so let me also make a site visit there,” he says.

Identifying a method for remote monitoring that did not require project workers in the field to have technical expertise was critical, adds Bhatia.

“A key principle we used was that whatever we proposed had to be both simple in terms of operation and sustainable after the Bank's involvement ended. The technology used in the field, for example, shouldn't be so sophisticated that you need a techno geek to come out and show you how to use it. At the same time, our goal in CITPO [the Bank Group’s Communications, Information, Technology Policy division] is to unleash the transformative power of ICT to achieve development outcomes.”

Solution Built on Established Practice

Use of GPS cameras built on a practice already in place by the project to “geo-reference” irrigation rehabilitation through photographs. Under that system, field workers took photos that included landmarks, but Ministry staff in Kabul had trouble distinguishing one structure or location from another.
Now, the photos with GPS information are downloaded in regional offices and e-mailed—or the memory card is hand-carried—to Ministry headquarters in Kabul, where trained personnel view the images through a web browser or Google Earth and add them to the project database.

While Google Earth does not currently show high-resolution or recently updated images of Afghanistan, the geo-referenced photos, and updated images taken periodically, can be embedded in geographic information system (GIS) maps that display other development-oriented attributes such as administrative boundaries, land classification, agricultural productivity and crop data.

India System Could Use Cell Phones, Smart Cards

The Bank innovation team is developing beneficiary tracking and service-verification systems in other regions as well, including in the Indian state of Karnataka, to measure the effectiveness of maternal and infant health services.

The system will likely employ increasingly ubiquitous and cheap cell phones to record, in real time, the results of visits to remote areas by health professionals to determine whether the programs are working well, says Bhatia. Nurses would be able to text information such as the number of patients they saw, number of inoculations or tests.

The team also plans to pilot different options to verify that patients received services and to obtain their feedback. Options include using short message service (SMS) on mobile phones or using smart cards to confirm patients received a service and it was satisfactory.

Parts of this pilot will be funded by a grant from the Governance Partnership Facility, supported by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway. The facility also funds the work of the innovation team.

Rana says the team is tapping into trends promoting greater transparency and accountability in South Asia, such as recent moves to improve access to information through legislation, rapidly growing cell phone usage even in rural areas, and increasing interest in “social audits” that open up projects and programs to public scrutiny. “These things have the potential of raising accountability to the next level,” he says.

“These pilots show the creativity of Bank staff in response to challenging conditions and have the potential to improve results not only in the South Asia Region but for the Bank as a whole,” says the Bank’s South Asia Region Vice President Isabel Guerrero.

Adds Qamar: “In insecure environments such as Afghanistan, all projects, particularly those being implemented in the rural areas, can benefit from the use of simple technologies such as GPS-enabled cameras that provide comfort to governments and donors that things are indeed happening in the field.”