Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Can social media improve access to drinking water?

CI’s Hubert Linders looks at a project in Latin America which allows consumers to participate in regulating formerly public services through the use of social networks. 

Access to public utilities like drinking water, energy or telecommunications, require vast infrastructure investments and maintenance. Many Latin American countries privatized these services in the last decades of the 20th Century, telling consumers that private companies would be able to provide more efficient and cheaper services than government-owned institutions.

In their apparent rush to do so and because of lobbying by specific interest groups, regulation was often forgotten or poorly taken care of by the governments, leaving end-users without the possibility to claim their rights when the service delivery was less than optimal.

About two years ago, Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) approached Consumers International (CI) in Santiago to ask if we were interested in carrying out a project on the use of ICT tools to improve the participation of consumers in the processes of regulation of and access to public services.

A pilot project was designed in which two CI members, CDC in El Salvador and ASPEC in Peru, worked in a peri-urban zone where a public service – access to drinking water – became the subject of an investigation.

The organisations were asked to define target groups of citizens within their respective working areas and find out about the use of communication technology (access to internet, use of web 2.0 sites or social networks, application of mobile phones, etc.), their problems with respect to the service, and contacts with the provider and regulator.

Text messages were chosen as the ‘tool’ to allow the people participating in the project to communicate with their water providers (eg, to report problems) as there is more access to mobile phones than the Internet in the project area. Providers can use the same system to warn end-users of changes or cut-off of their water supply because of repairs or other problems.

CDC developed its own application, Matilti (meaning communication in Nahuatl, the local language), while ASPEC decided to use an existing tool, TextMagic. Both organisations designed a capacity-building programme to train the people in the use of the tool and to educate them on the work of the respective consumer associations, consumer rights and how to claim these rights.

Both organisations then encouraged participants to communicate via text message with their water provider and regulator to improve client contact and complaint handling.

A project website and a blog  were set up to inform about the project’s objective, the activities in both project countries and about the investigation.

All participating organisations were very enthusiastic about the opportunities the social networks offer. They not only make it easier and faster to reach a wider audience but also opened up the issues to a new audience of the younger citizens who show little previous interest in consumer rights issues.

The outcomes so far look very promising in Peru where the drinking water provider (SEDAPAL) and the regulator (SUNASS) are becoming more responsive to comments and complaints from consumers as the project progresses.

While in El Salvador, communities are directly communicating more and more with the water provider, ANDA. Here, the governmental consumer protection agency, Defensoría del Consumidor, also receives messages sent to ANDA and will take action if the provider does not resolve the problem within a fixed time.

Also, the Ministry of Health is looking at the tool to see if it can be used to monitor the prices of medicines set by pharmacies throughout the whole country; while the Ministry of Economy has shown interest as well.

The project runs until (end of) February 2013 and we are looking to extend it until (end of) June 2013.

1 comment:

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