Mapping research on digital water in developing countries: state of the art and future research agenda

There is no doubt that digital water — use of digital technologies in the water sector — is growing, with evidence of widespread adoption and use across countries.  Many water service providers are investing in new technologies not only to improve infrastructure performance and enable existing systems to operate more efficiently, but also to make new service delivery models possible.

However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the hype and hope of digital technologies to tackle water sector challenges, especially in developing countries. It is in this context that we’re witnessing a growth of interest in the discussion, evidence case studies and research on digital water. How have digital water innovations (DWIs) been implemented and what has been the impact?  And how is the growing implementation of digital water innovations in global South cities researched? Our recent systematic review paper of urban DWI in the global South answers some of these questions for the first time by analysing a total of 43 papers.

The findings

Literature profiling: Findings demonstrate the relative recency and volatility of publication – first paper published in 2006, 67% of papers published in the last five years of the review, and more than one-third in the last two years – reflecting the relative recency of digital technologies being deployed in developing countries.  Also, research is strongly dominated by engineering with limited focus on social science and limited engagement with theorisation (40%) (see Figure 1). At present, the majority of the research focused on Africa (58%).

Figure 1. Disciplinary focus for reviewed papers

Scope of DWI implementation: In terms of type of digital technology implemented, the current literature focused heavily on data processing/visualisation such as geographic information systems and what we called “action support technologies” such as mobile payment systems. There is relatively little research on digital technologies applied at the upstream end of the value chain such as water sources, headworks and treatment. To date, research reflects a provider-centric view of innovation with no instances of user-driven or government-driven innovation or even co-design or participative approaches to implementation involving users or government. Indeed, almost all (93%) of papers discussed water service providers with much less focus on end-users/consumers (25%) as key stakeholders of relevance to the focal digital water innovations and research. Partly related, research has focused mainly on use of digital for on-grid water supply, with only limited studies looking specifically at digital water innovations for off-grid water users.

Scope of DWI impacts: Overall, there has been relatively limited focus on the impact of digital systems.  Just under half of papers reported something about the impact of the digital systems, but more than a third of these were solely speculative and almost all of the remainder reported just pilot or early-stage evidence. Where impact findings were presented, they were skewed towards benefits more than disbenefits: on average each paper talked about four different types of benefit but fewer than two types of disbenefit; and they were skewed towards the impact of one type of DWI:  action support technologies. There was no primary evidence-based research on the impacts of the great majority of digital water innovations including data capture, data processing and decision support technologies.

Digging down, research interest was clustered around benefits for users and water service providers, and benefits such as financial, operational and other service benefits.  This meant that evidence of broader impacts — such as environmental impact, or impact on inequalities — was limited and tended to extrapolate from individual studies. Nor has research yet engaged with the datafication of water; that is, the growing presence, use and impact of data in the water value chain.

What does this tell us about implementing and researching digital water?

In the review, we found a field of research that is still at a formative stage, which thus provides ready opportunity for future research on specific technology, implementation and impact priorities. This calls for rethinking digital water innovations, with future research attention on:

  • social science research including socio-political and inter-disciplinary socio-technical perspectives;
  • particular digital technologies with proven water-related potential such as data capture technologies (remote sensing, smart meters, SCADA, telemetry); data processing technologies (big data, data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality); and less-researched action support technologies (water ATMs, digital purification systems);
  • “upstream” water value chain technologies and technologies for off-grid and low-income users;
  • user- and government-centred or -participative innovation processes, including action research;
  • impact, including evidence of longer-term and broader impact;
  • interpretive and critical realist research, qualitative and mixed methods research; and
  • more explicit use of theory and conceptual frameworks including re-use of conceptualisations by other researchers.

It is our belief that researchers, technology implementers, utilities and policy makers will continue to engage with digital water innovations in the coming years. To contribute to this discussion, I am currently undertaking a research project on digital water innovation impact in urban Ghana, with some early results already emerging. Stay tuned!