Leveraging GPS technology to access the inaccessible

Last month, insurgents killed more than 60 people in north-east Kenya. This is only the latest in a wave of violent incidents heightening insecurity along the remote Somali-Kenyan border. The north-east is one of the poorest regions in Kenya. Weak infrastructure and limited public services are exacerbated by banditry and insurgency. The national primary school enrolment rate is over 90%, but in the north-east it is below 40%.

Therefore, a steady stream of development projects continue to operate in these areas, implemented by a variety of government and non-governmental agencies. Insecurity is just one of the operational constraints faced by implementing organisations operating in remote rural areas. In the Kenyan counties such as Mandera and Garissa, these factors combine to create a general feeling of inaccessibility.

One of the primary challenges in the management of development projects is fixing accountability along the delivery chain, starting from implementing agencies on the ground up to donors that fund these projects. Understandably, this is exacerbated in inaccessible locations where it may be difficult (and costly) to send out monitors to the ground even for routine verification of project activities.

Even where project locations might be accessible, different groups of stakeholders along the delivery chain may have varying levels of access. For instance, locally embedded implementers may have access to locations that donors find inaccessible. There is a need, therefore, for better project monitoring tools that provide as complete a picture of the activities on the ground as possible.

As such, there is an urgent demand for improved monitoring tools that give insight into the effectiveness of aid in challenging environments. A possible answer is the smart use of technology. In our case, the use of simple smart-phone captured photographs that have GPS data embedded in them offers a potential solution. We are piloting the use of the remote monitoring system, initially with DFID’s Kenya Essential Education Programme (KEEP). Photographs taken using GPS-enabled smart phones are emailed by implementing agencies operating in the Kenyan counties of Mandera and Marsabit. The system is monitoring the results of 15 implementing partners and their projects. Many of the projects feature infrastructure creation in schools. Data-enabled photos taken by the community and partners clearly show donors the various stages of construction, which are collated, mapped and compared against targets.

As we develop this system, we recognise the potential benefits of deploying this at a wider scale across multiple projects:

  • One, photographs, taken systematically, contain a wealth of information regarding the characteristics of the project activity (e.g: type of infrastructure constructed), location (e.g: proximity to towns, roads, schools, clinics etc) and indicates the extent of progress (e.g: under construction, being used, etc).
  • Two, the ubiquitous smart phone makes it convenient to capture and transmit images in real-time to a central database. This also makes it a highly participatory monitoring exercise, since these photos can be taken by a wide variety of stakeholders on the ground – implementing agency staff, government officials, community members, etc.
  • Third, the GPS information can be easily represented on a map, denoting both geographical presence as well as diversity of project activities. The data collected and presented through photos from the ground provide a transparent means of communication with donors as well as government officials in the capital cities. The central database can also be accessed worldwide and forms a powerful communication tool.
  • Fourth, as technologies go, this is almost as simple as it can get. GPS data plotted on a map, linked to an excel-based database that contains school-wise data provides a wealth of useful information to not just donors, but also central and county governments. In fact, keeping the technology simple is critical to getting this system to work.

These benefits combine to form a versatile solution to the problem of monitoring projects in inaccessible locations. While not a perfect alternative to direct engagement with implementers and communities, this makes for a robust data-driven approach to remote management. This complements partners’ efforts in training staff and ensuring that information on projects is disseminated widely in the communities where these are implemented

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this monitoring mechanism is the trust cultivated between donors and implementing agencies. Remote and insecure locations are often the areas with the greatest (and urgent) needs and it is critical that implementing agencies are supported to continuously improve their ability to deliver interventions that have the potential to address local challenges.

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A shorter version was earlier published by Adam Smith International on the Guardian partner zone and the WB People, Spaces, Deliberation blog

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