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Using mobile phones to pinpoint better water in a Nairobi slum

In Nairobi’s largest slum Kibera, government officials withhold public services like electricity, sewage and waste collection and only supply water two or three days a week. When water is available, vendors fill large hundred-gallon plastic storage tanks that tower from the rooftops. As a result, water in Kibera has become a commodity overpriced by a handful of private dealers.

While water is expensive and basic utilities are non-existent in Kibera, mobile phones are cheap and easy to access. So Stanford professors Joshua Cohen, PhD, and Terry Winograd, PhD, created a course aimed at combining emerging mobile technologies with human-centered design to improve residents' living conditions.

One project developed in the class is M-Maji, a mobile application that uses a two-way SMS system to provide users with accurate and up-to-date information on the location, price and quality of water in Kibera. M-Maji means “mobile water” in Swahili. A recent story posted on Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute For International Studies website describes how the app works:

Walking through Kibera, [Kelvin Lugaka, a young Kenyan water specialist at Umande Trust,] shows how M-Maji works on a very basic Nokia mobile phone – the kind that costs the equivalent of $15 on the second-hand market. The technology was developed by a local team of Kenyans working for Wezatele, a Nairobi-based startup located at the iHub technology incubator.

Lugaka dials *778# onto the phone's large buttons. A few seconds later, a SMS message pops up on the phone's small screen prompting him to press "1" for water, "2" to sell water or "3" to file a complaint. He presses "1" and a list of villages appear that have water available that day. Next to each landmark is the cost of water that day.

Because there are no street signs in Kibera, the M-Maji team had to use popular landmarks – schools, health clinics and churches – to identify water vendors locations.

"M-Maji is going to have the coordinates for water vendors, which will allow people to find out information about water and the cost of water today, so people can move to a different water vendor (if the price is too high)," says Lugaka.

Each morning the registered water vendors are responsible for entering the price of water at their kiosks into the M-Maji system. Lagaka currently has 45 water vendors registered in the system but would like that number to grow to 100

In addition to M-Maji, the course has produced prototypes that harness mobile technology to bridge the information divide in Nairobi's poorest communities to connect users directly to medical, health and legal professionals.

Previously: Using cell phone data to track and fight malaria and Using text messages to combat counterfeit drugs, promote health in Africa
Photo by Shack Dwellers International

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