In Hubli, a major city in Karnataka, India, water flows but a few hours a day, sometimes as infrequently as once every two weeks. Information is an equally scarce resource.
“People wait around the house for hours. They miss weddings, they miss funerals, they miss voting because they need to wait around the house for the water to turn on,” said Anu Sridharan, the CEO of NextDrop, who lives in Fontana, Calif.
NextDrop notifies families, via text message or phone call, when their water is turned on. The company just wrapped up a six-month pilot with 57 families, and a second phase is underway.
“We actually got some amazing results,” Sridharan said. “There was a family who had actually gone off to a wedding and they didn’t know that water was going to be on, and so when (the woman) got the NextDrop text, she was able to send her brother back to Hubli … to go collect water, because if she didn’t, she said she’d have to wait another six to eight days.”
NextDrop has just won a $375,000 boost from the 2011 Knight News Challenge. Sridharan hopes to serve 1,000 families by March 2012 and the entire city (population: 1.2 million) by July 2013, fingers crossed. Sridharan said the Knight money will allow her to add new staff on the ground and pay herself. She has quit her day job.
I could hardly get my head around the idea that first-world technology helps solve what seems like such a basic problem. Believe it or not, Sridharan told me, cell phones are a lot more plentiful in Hubli than water. There are more cell phones in India than toilets.
“The things that we used to think were scarce (aren’t) scarce anymore,” she said. “Water and energy and the things we take for granted now in this new, developing world, this new economy, those are the things that are scarce.”
The company is filing paperwork this week to become incorporated in India, not the United States, and Sridharan said the project can only succeed with local cooperation from both the utility and the end users. The company has three employees, including Sridharan, co-founder Ari Olmos, and a staffer in Hubli.
“It would make it so much harder if we had to do this by ourselves,” Sridharan said. Indian valvemen are like mid-cenutry American milkmen. “Everyone knows your valveman. The valveman says, ‘They’re here, they’re doing so-and-so work, give them your phone number if you want these updates,’ and everyone says yes.”
When a valveman endows a neighborhood with water, he calls in to NextDrop. The service in turn notifies participating families. (The second phase of the pilot notifies families 30 minutes in advance.) Finally the families are asked to verify with NextDrop that they do, indeed, have water.
That last part, verification, is an important part of the cycle. The focus of NextDrop’s R&D is not so much the tech — SMS is dead simple — but figuring out how to build trust. At first, NextDrop paid people 10 rupees to report back on the accuracy of notifications. And a lot of people did. But: “We found that the people who consistently gave us information didn’t do it for money — granted we weren’t in extremely poor areas, this was more middle-class families — but still they said they did it because it was the right thing to do. ‘You gave us information, we’ll give you information,'” she said.
Sridharan said that exercise led to a shift toward social, not monetary, incentives. How do you get a valveman to participate? Sure, the boss makes it mandatory, but that’s difficult to enforce. A NextDrop intern came up with the idea of a Facebook-style “Like” system for valvemen, Sirdharan said: “At the end of the day we want to show him, ‘Fifty-five people said that they wanted to thank you for turning on your water today.'”
NextDrop is also piloting a web-based dashboard so the utility can track water distribution in real time. Eventually the data would be made public.
The service could be expanded to cover other services where communication is thin, such as transportation. (If your bus comes once a day and it’s late, or broken down, a single text message could make a world of difference.) Or it could be used to keep truant teachers and doctors accountable. “Doctors are paid to show up at these hospitals, but they don’t show up … and there’s no way for people to know whether they’ve showed up or not. So for people with cellphones, if you crowdsource that information and, like, 20 people say that this doctor did not show, chances are the doctor did not show up,” Sridharan said.
The ultimate goal of NextDrop is to empower individuals, Sridharan said. “It gives people a voice when something is not right, when something is not working.”
Image by Ross Pollack used under a Creative Commons license