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Updated: November 10, 2013 17:56 IST

Counting every drop

ESTHER ELIAS
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Changemaker: Anu Sridharan
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Changemaker: Anu Sridharan

Anu Sridharan’s technology start-up, Nextdrop, sets an example by sending alerts to residents on water supply in Karnataka

The numbers say over 90 per cent of South Asian families face an intermittent piped water supply. In places such as Hubli in Karnataka, water comes once every five days and not often on schedule. The end result is either hours spent waiting for water, or gallons of water lost through unattended pipes left open. What if the solution to both was as obvious as sending residents a text message an hour before the water arrived? That’s exactly what Hubli-based technology start-up Nextdrop did in 2010.

After close to three years in existence, Nextdrop has succeeded in reaching close to one million citizens with legal water connections across the twin-cities of Hubli and Dharwad, and is now piloting their project in Malleswaram, Bangalore. Their motto has been simple, says CEO of Nextdrop, and INK Fellow, Anu Sridharan, “Use basic, and available, technology to bridge the gap between the utility suppliers (the government) and the utility users (residents).”

The idea was born when Anu’s friend Emily K. came to India for a research project on water and realised that she spent most of her time waiting for the water to arrive in the first place. Anu, then a master’s student at the civil and environmental engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley, teamed up with four of her friends and together moved to Hubli in 2010 to pilot, and later officially launch, Nextdrop.

Nextdrop follows a fairly straightforward flowchart in its operations—the valve operators let Nextdrop know what time they will open pipes towards a particular area; Nextdrop in turn sends messages to the residents there; and if the water doesn’t arrive, the residents inform Nextdrop, who then logs a gap in the chain, which is later examined by government engineers. A by-product of this system has been a crowdsourced storehouse of leakages and time lags gathered from the residents’ feedback messages. This data is then visualised on a map so that the government operators are “no longer working in the dark”. Problem areas are mapped out across the city and when they are addressed, that shows up too. “All the information about the water system in Indian cities lies with individual citizens. So what we’ve done is to decode that information from decentralised human beings and centralised the data into one accessible space, so that the loopholes can be analysed and fixed,” says Anu.

Encouraging response

Anu’s greatest takeaway from Nextdrop’s experience so far has been the unexpected ease at which the Karnataka Government, with whom they have partnered, has opened up to using technology. “The Indian government gets a lot of unnecessary rap for not being technologically progressive, but we’ve found that to be absolutely untrue. The key was in tailor-making the technology for each level of operation. For instance, at the residents and valve-operators’ level, it’s just a basic cellphone. Higher-up, with engineers and government officials, it could be about creating smart-phone or tablet literacy. It’s important to work with what people are already comfortable using,” says Anu.

India is just one among several African, Latin American and Asian countries that face intermittent water supply, observes Anu. Thus, Nextdrop could potentially expand their service globally. Their current revenue model involves citizens paying Rs. 10 a month to receive water alerts, supplemented with the income generated from partnering with the Government. But Anu adds that water isn’t the only irregular utility citizens experience; “We could use a similar solution system for power outages, pension, LPG supply, etc.” For now though, the start-up is riding on the success thus far—customers who once kept their children home from school, or stayed home from work themselves, to watch for the water now say they’ve gained freedom of movement. Anu is convinced that this is the future—an age where technology interfaces civil requirements. “It’s a trend that, for a change, has started with the developing countries, followed by the developed world learning from them. In the US, I don’t know if we would have achieved this much this fast. In India, the time is ripe for entrepreneurship such as this.”

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