photo by Nathan Watson / Unsplash

Can AI and emerging technologies for integrity contribute to water sustainability?

A summary of tech opportunities and challenges for water and sanitation from the WIN Integrity Talk 5

Water Integrity Network partners promote and introduce integrity measures that contribute to improving water and sanitation service provision and management globally. In our interactive Integrity Talks, we discuss their challenges and lessons learned. This is an edited summary of our fifth edition on emerging technologies.  

 

Emerging technologies are showing increasing value for anti-corruption work.  There are more advanced tools and digital platforms for collecting data, monitoring budgets, and reporting wrongdoing. They can help improve access to public information, strengthen the demand for accountability, and enable citizen participation, which in turn can improve decision-making for effective water and sanitation service provision and management. 

However, the implementation and use of such new technology remains a challenge, especially in areas where access to internet is poor, where quality of data is insufficient, or where there are few skilled users and developers. And, there is still much to learn about their effectiveness and impact.

In water and sanitation and related sectors, there are a number of initiatives to learn from: some opening data up for use and assessment by the public, some using data analytics to identify red flags for corrupt transactions in climate adaptation projects, and others assessing the relevance and efficiency of planned investments. In this Integrity Talk, we brought together experts and pioneer users of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and civic tech or gov tech, to learn about the tools they use, and how they support their work on water integrity. We also focused on the challenges and new integrity risks some of these technologies can pose. 

With special guests  :

Isabelle Adam (Government Transparency Institute); Albert Lihalakha (Green Climate Fund, GCF); Maria da Graça Prado (Infrastructure Transparency Initiative, CoST); Nanda Sihombing (Open Contracting Partnership, OCP 

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

There is no one-size-fits-all solution – local context matters for tech too

The water and sanitation sectors, with both complex governance structures and critical requirements for large-scale and long-term capital investments, are vulnerable to corruption and poor integrity. Emerging technologies have the potential to make information more available and traceable, and to strengthen anti-corruption efforts, but they are not a magic bullet.

Water and sanitation sector stakeholders exploring tech options, from government or civil society, need to factor in the way technology use is shaped by political and economic circumstances and social norms. They also must consider the possibility of new integrity risks arising. The TAPA framework – looking at Transparency, Accountability, Participation, and Anti-corruption – is useful for such an analysis and addresses the key issues speakers discussed in this Integrity Talk.  

  • Transparency – We need more open data in the water, sanitation, and climate adaptation sectors on water management, service levels, investment decisions, procurement, and transactions. And we need clear information on how data is collected and used. Standardisation and interoperability are still significant challenges. 
  • Accountability – Large volumes of information are difficult to manage and require constant verification. Using such data to hold duty-bearers accountable is difficult, time-consuming, and costly. Information that is provided therefore has to be simple, relevant, and easy to use to ensure the active engagement of citizens.
  • Participation – Citizens have to be empowered to demand and use information. They need to be involved in the development of solutions and need to be technologically equipped and have the skills to use emerging technologies. When applying tools and digital platforms it is important to understand the motivations, capabilities and incentives of users, as well as to consider who might be excluded by the technology being used. Users should be able to track, monitor and report while getting quick and tangible responses from authorities.
  • Anti-corruption – Technology can support anti-corruption efforts, but can create new opportunities for corruption, such as enabling anonymous flows of money, rent-seeking, and use of data for private aims. Implementation should therefore be thought through carefully and accompanied with relevant anti-corruption measures 

 

How can emerging technologies support anti-corruption and integrity?

Isabelle Adam (Government Transparency Institute): E-government has become a promising tool in the battle against corruption. There are now tools for the payment of electricity bills and taxes, as well as applications for certificates and personal official identifications (IDs). E-government can be an effective instrument to discourage corrupt acts as it exposes government activities to the public, minimises personal interactions between public officials and citizens, and reduces opportunities for discretionary decisions. However, e-government projects require constant monitoring and revision to avoid being misused by tech-savvy public officials, as tech can also facilitate nefarious use for rent-seeking or issuing fake IDs.

Crowd-sourcing and whistle-blowing tools can also be used to improve transparency and reduce corruption. For example, I Paid a Bribe is an application that enables citizens to report bribes. It has been replicated quite broadly as it is relatively easy to use and anonymity is guaranteed. However, the impact varies across regions. While such platforms have been highly successful in India, they seem to have been far less successful in China and Kenya.

Blockchain is another new technology, useful for land registries for example, and widely used in India, Georgia, and Ukraine. One benefit of this technology is that it secures records, making them unchangeable because they are decentralised. However, blockchain can be subject to integrity risks as it can also facilitate embezzlement and anonymous flows of money (e.g. money laundering, cryptocurrency transaction). However, blockchain can be subject to integrity risks as it can also facilitate embezzlement and anonymous flows of money (e.g. money laundering, cryptocurrency transaction).

 

Water Integrity Talk 5 – Clip with Isabelle Adam, Lessons learned from reviewing gov tech and civic tech initiatives

 

How can digital technologies help to reduce corruption and build integrity in the development of infrastructure?

Maria da Graça Prado (Infrastructure Transparency Initiative, CoST): Infrastructure is known to be a highly corrupt sector. One way to use technology and open data to reduce the risk of corruption is the monitoring and evaluating of infrastructure investments. At CoST, we juxtapose interactive mapping and socioeconomic information. The data and visualisation makes it possible to identify the location of projects that are unjustified, or possibly did not require significant infrastructure investment. It also makes it possible to see which contractors are involved. The aim is to find red flags for integrity failures. 

Nanda Sihombing (Open Contracting Partnership, OCP): Around 1.47 billion people globally are directly exposed to risk of intense floods. Low-income populations are the most affected by flood events. One way to prevent floods is to invest in infrastructure. Surprisingly however, a number of governments do not have the ability to track investments made on flood relief, response and preparedness. Governments often struggle to monitor where funds are invested and how efforts can best be extended to help adapt to climate change and protect populations at risk.  At OCP, we use open contracting to find a solution to this problem. We work with governments, which often lack qualified data scientists, providing capacity building to run an open contracting model to track the investments made on flood relief, response, and preparedness. We also collaborate to collect data and information. Open contracting highly depends on political commitment and cooperation to support its proper implementation.  

 

Water Integrity Talk 5 – Clip with Maria De Graca Prado, How data can help accountability

 

What kind of emerging technologies are being used by the GCF-IIU to address corruption issues?

Albert Lihalakha (Independent Integrity Unit of the Green Climate Fund, GCF): The Independent Integrity Unit was created to investigate fraud and corruption in GCF-funded activities. We undertake digital forensics by capturing relevant information from different sources such as server data, emails, docs, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, browser data, etc. Reviewing all this information manually is overwhelming: there is a lot of data, which makes an investigation process lengthy and the risk of missing key evidence high.  

As part of our prevention mandate, we therefore developed an “Integrity Due Diligence Platform” to help identify potential risk areas for corruption. Our machine learning has four components: (1) Data Integration from project documents and databases, (2) Integrity Risk Ranking to assess data and inform the selection of projects that will be selected for an integrity review. An integrity review is a process that engages external stakeholders to identify potential gaps in GCF-funded projects and then work collaboratively to address those gaps, with capacity building or technical assistance, (3) Automated and manual Red Flags Detection; and (4) Reporting on the risk mitigation strategy. 

 

How do you engage citizens and convince people to use new technologies?

Water Integrity Talk 5 – Clip with Nanda Sihombing, Ensuring citizen engagement, a condition for success

 

Can we trust the data used for these analyses?

Isabelle Adam: Measurable indicators are very useful to check the quality of data, particularly in public procurement. One of the key benefits of emerging technologies is the ability to quickly identify faulty data.  

Maria de Graca Prado: Emerging technology can help us to collect and confront information from different sources and identify if the information is inconsistent 

Albert Lihalakha: This is a very difficult issue in particular with resource constraints. One of the main challenges is to trace the quality of data and to ensure that civil society organisations or interested parties are inputting the right type of data. These questions need to be answered according to particular contexts as well as with the active engagement of relevant stakeholders where these discussions are taking place.   

Nanda Sihombing: At the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) we receive data in different formats, for example, PDFs or Excel sheets. We make it available as open data but in a structured format, this is what we call Open Contracting Data Standards.  

 

What are the risks?

Water Integrity Talk 5 – Clipwith Albert Lihalakha, Integrity tech risks and what to do about them

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