With all the recent advances in information technology and networking on the Internet, it is of interest to see how all of this works in the important human development space. Information and Communication Technologies For Development, ICT4D is the acronym used to describe this area of work. ICT4D is an active and vibrant area, but the results are still disappointing.
This information sheet is a case study of the India Water Portal, an ambitious ICT initiative in the water sector in India that seeks to use ICT as an empowering tool that is able to concretely assist weaker communities in their daily lives.
The India Water Portal is envisaged as a public service hub of information and knowledge for the water sector in India. It was a brainchild of the National Knowledge Commission of the government of India, which envisaged a stable of public service “Knowledge Portals” that would « prepare India for the knowledge economy ». The NKC asked Arghyam, a foundation that focussed on the water sector, to create the Water Portal which was launched in January 2007.
What is content in the age of social networking?
A Portal is primarily a repository of content. But the definition of useful ‘content’ and what all can be classified as content is expanding rapidly nowadays. The Portal started off with mainly written documentation (case studies, courses, movies, research, policy documents). Most of the content on the Portal is from different organisations in the water sector. We have been able to pick up several excellent pieces of content that otherwise may not have made it into the public domain or gotten wide dissemination.
Examples of online content
Among the notable content we have collected are the e-book versions of two classics on traditional rainwater harvesting in India, “Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab” (in English: “Ponds are still relevant”) and “Rajasthan Ka Rajat Boonde” (“The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan”).
Each of these pieces of content reveal something about the water sector in India and show directions for much more work. The Watershed Works Manual for NREGA by Samaj Pragati Sahyog is an attempt by a premier non-governmental organisation (NGO), to enable people to take up watershed development work on a large scale while sticking to the scientific principles for construction.
The Rajasthan Groundwater Atlas, with detailed data on the status and quality of groundwater in that state, and the research outputs of the National Institute of Hydrology are government products. Unfortunately, government outputs are not always widely and freely available in India. There is data and research on river flows, water pollution, status of water bodies, and much more. It would be a very good public service, in this situation, if the Water Portal were able to acquire and digitise as many of these kinds of content as possible.
Most NGOs do not have the capacity and resources to disseminate their documentation effectively. The Water Portal is thus ideally suited to showcase such content. There is also much good content that is created and presented at conferences and workshops but after that does not get put on the web so is not available more widely. We have a special section on conference outputs, precisely to capture such content for posterity, for example the presentations at the CII (Confederation for Indian Industry) contest for Excellence in Water Management in Industry.
A particular approach that is also possible in this regard is application of the landmark Right to Information (RTI) legislation of the government of India, which allows any citizen to demand pretty much any information in the government possession. Recently an organisation filed an RTI petition arguing that rainfall data is crucial information for all citizens and atleast the last 5 years of rainfall data should be made freely available. The petition was upheld and this data was made available, which is a real boon to practitioners. The Water Portal contributed to this effort by collecting from citizens and organisations their statements on why they need rainfall data.
We have picked a few areas where we felt the need to create specialized content for the Portal. Prime among these have been e-learning courses in areas of watershed development, groundwater, fluorosis mitigation and traditional rainwater harvesting systems. These were created to provide materials of superior teaching value, that could also be used by people in self-learning situations.
Since launch we have expanded the Portal to include a site on YouTube with a 100 good water videos, a site on Flickr for sharing water photos, a site on SlideShare for sharing presentations, and so on. We’ve expanded the scope of what we see as useful content, and realized that the content of a Portal need not reside at the indiawaterportal.org web address itself.
The Portal has also come to realize that the community that visits the website is the most valuable repository of knowledge and it needs to facilitate the expression and dissemination of that knowledge. The experiment of Ask The Experts service that consists in answering, free of charge, water questions that people ask on the Portal using the community of practitioners themselves has been very successful. The scope of the questions asked is restricted to those that are direct and specific like “How to do rainwater harvesting for my farm?”, “What can I do to fix my drinking water quality problem?”, “My borewell has gone dry, what should I do?”. The service works by forwarding the questions to water practitioners and encouraging them to respond to the questions. This gives practitioners visibility and also an opportunity to perform a public service. Its a good web 2.0 example of creating knowledge and a public service from the community. More than 600 questions have been asked, more than 2400 answers have been given.
A related potentiality with the web 2.0 idea is to tap into volunteers. India is at a stage where there is a large mass of youth who are quite enthusiastic about environment, public service and development and are keen to take part in volunteer activities but are not finding meaningful real-world projects to work on. If the Water Portal could tap into these volunteers in an effective way, a huge amount of useful work could get done. With IT tools it should be possible to manage these resources that are highly distributed in space and time in a way that was not possible earlier.
Over the course of the past couple of years, the Water Portal has transformed itself from a static one way website to a dynamic participatory website where the energy comes from the interaction with users. When someone sends a note about a waterbody in their area that is being encroached and asks for help in opposing it, the Portal team sees what it can do to help that person. When the Bihar floods of 2008 occurred on an unprecedented scale, again the team added its effort in disseminating information about the situation on the ground and facilitating donations to disaster relief work.
Meteorological Data: A success story
One of the key successes of the India Water Portal has been the Meteorological Data tool. Meteorological data is widely needed by water practitioners for a variety of purposes: to construct rooftop rainwater harvesting structures or watershed development structures, to understand groundwater recharge, to understand suitability of cropping patterns, and many kinds of academic research.
Meteorological data in India is provided by the India Meteorological Department. The IMD provides raw data from its observation stations at a per-point price and through a complex process. However a lot of practitioners need just a little local data and are not in a position to go through the process of data procurement from IMD for this. In this situation the Water Portal were able to make available on the web, climate data for 100 years (1901-2002) at a district level. The data source is a global data set from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK. This has proved to be a real boon for practitioners. More such applications in different areas would be a real boon in making work in the water sector more scientific and robust.
Portals in Indian languages: bridging the language divide
The Portal team has also set up portals in two Indian languages namely Hindi and Kannada, to provide a hub for information and discussion in local languages. The creation of the Hindi Portal in particular is an important experiment as Hindi is by far the most spoken Indian language, and is also the only language spoken in some of the most developmentally backward parts of the country. It is critical to have information in the local Indian languages in order to empower the vast portion of the population that does not know English.
One of the interesting learnings is how the water sector is highly fragmented and there is not enough sharing of knowledge and resources. The language barrier is a big one that prevents information from crossing boundaries. The subsectors (industry, domestic water supply, rural vs urban etc) also don’t interact very much.
There is also a lot of debate and arguments in civil society – water is a very fraught issue. There are extremely strong and passionately held viewpoints for example regarding privatisation that often stall progress. The Water Portal been successful to some extent in being a meeting place that is seen as neutral and willing to post all viewpoints. For example the India Water Portal Blog and newsletter have become the defacto place where you can find out about what’s going on in the sector, cutting across themes and geographies.
We have already alluded to the difficuties with data. There is a vast amount of past data and research, especially done by the government that is available only in hardcopy. Also there is no easy way to find out who has what data and how to access it. But how to crack this highly decentralised and fragmented problem ? How to visit all the government offices in all the states to find out what data they have and get it by hook or crook to make it generally available ? We are grappling with this problem.
More possibilities for ICT4D in water
There is a tremendous amount of money being spent in the water sector in India. If a very tiny fraction of that is diverted to IT applications (some examples: multimedia learning materials, community-generated knowledge, compilations of fragmented knowledge at a central location, watchdog services for government projects) it has the potential to pay off many times the investment.
Further the extremely local nature of a vast portion of water management makes the incorporation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and ‘location’ based information very compelling. People want to know things about what is going on in their area regarding water, want to connect to people close to them who can help them with their water problems. Two applications that come to mind are for extreme weather event warnings and river flow updates. But there are GIS problems. The surface has not even been scratched in the exciting area of mobile applications. With mobile penetration so much more in India, it offers a feasible way to bridge the digital and language divides and bring information home where it is needed most.
It has been an intense learning experience for the India Water Portal team who mostly come from the IT sector. The potential for more work is immense and many more such initiatives should arise to meet the challenge of safe and sustainable water for all.