In honor of World Water Day last Friday, IBM unveiled a revolutionary new app for Android phone users in South Africa. Water Watchers is a crowdsourcing app that encourages South Africans to engage in fixing their own water distribution problems. While in a 2011 census it was found that 93% of South African households had access to safe water, a scant 45% of citizens actually have safe water in their homes. This app is striving to change that.
South African citizens can use the app with SMS capabilities to report leaks, faulty water pipes and any problems with their local canals. The app makes the process easy: After taking a picture, the user answers three simple questions about the problem and all the data gets uploaded to a server in real time. After 30 days, the thousands of data points that will have been crowd sourced from all over South Africa will be aggregated and analyzed into a “Water Watchers” report. This report will then be made openly available to local municipalities, water control boards and other water system stakeholders.
South Africa has traditionally underspent on water services. However, in 2011-2012, there was a 20% increase on water spending, or roughly $900 million. Over the same period, there was a 28.8% increase in water management spending and a 13.2% increase in water infrastructure spending. WaterWatchers hopes to give this new influx of spending a positive direction.
“This project is about analyzing use, predicting demand and managing the future of our country’s water,” said IBM South Africa Smarter Planet Executive Ahmed Simjee. “It’s a unique exercise in crowdsourcing for South Africa and we encourage every person to become a ‘citizen scientist’ — to engage with the environment and help create a big picture map of our water leaks and issues. By enabling countless individuals to gather and submit data, Water Watchers represents a new kind of data aggregation, analytics and visualization for water planners in South Africa — and is exactly the kind of Big Data challenge IBM excels at solving.”
IBM tested the same idea of big data and crowdsourcing in San Jose with another app called CreekWatch, an app currently in use in over 25 countries. Water Watchers adapted CreekWatch to have more social capabilities such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook photo sharing, and kicks down the door for crowdsourcing as an environmental tool. Any number of issues from air pollution to potholes can be analyzed through these methods.
In other World Water Day news, the hospitality industry launched the WHOLE WORLD Water initiative, in which Virgin Hotels, Ritz-Carlton and a host of other global hospitality brands began bottling and selling their own water and contributing 10 percent of the proceeds to the WHOLE WORLD Water Fund, which benefits clean and safe water programs around the world.