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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:25 IST

The power of the collective online

Vasudha Venugopal
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They call it the power of the collective to make cities observable and its residents responsive. Individuals from different parts of the country are collecting and collating up-to-the-minute information using the social media, especially Twitter.

This story began with a couple of tweets and discussions on midnight power cuts and unplanned interruptions, and Ajay Kumar, a software engineer and NGO worker, created http://powercuts.in/ in early May. Reports started pouring in, mainly through Twitter. In the first 24 hours, the hash tag reached more than 98,000 people with over 1,57,000 impressions. Sorted into categories of 'planned,' ‘unplanned,' ‘good news' (indicating no power cuts) and ‘voltage,' there are more than 15.55 reports the site receives in a day on an average.

While moderators incorporate the updates from Twitter, information received through the smartphone applications updates the map automatically. Gurgaon was the first place where power cuts were mapped, says Mr. Kumar, but the moment of pride was when people of the villages of Jharkhand and Jammu responded.

People volunteer for data crunching and technical help through an open Google document. Suggestions include pitting this data against diesel prices and farm output and comparing the billed units with the consumed units to figure out how much electricity is being stolen.

This is the latest instance of crowd-sourcing — getting a group of people to provide data on a particular subject. Internet analyst Clay Shirky refers to “cognitive surplus” — the shared, online work done with spare brain cycles. “While people are busy editing Wikipedia, by posting to Ushahidi they are building a better, more co-operative world,” he says.

“Infrastructure issues are taken for granted in our country. This initiative will prompt people to think about the excessive money spent on imported invertors, and wake [them] up to what others are facing,” says Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher, Medianama, who is supporting the initiative.

The Ushahidi platform, which provides free software for information collection, was first used to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. The platform works well for information with a spatial component, but users like Mr. Kumar are aware of limitations. “The website's original purpose leads to it's collating all information. We are trying to customise the data display for the last few hours or so.”

A similar mapping exercise, Mobile Telco #Fail, maps mobile network problems in India, while the recently launched spamcaller.in seeks to collect reports of spam of all sorts, including lottery scams, outdated offers and false mobile connections.

The tricky part is sustaining participation, says Mr. Kumar. “Only a few users provide reports, and there is a dearth of committed moderators and technical help. And it is possible only if people have access to twitter when there is a power cut.”

Another crowd-sourcing initiative on Ushahidi, the Bangalore security map http://bsm.mod.org.in/ was launched this week. It seeks to understand how citizens perceive security in the city by asking questions about their insecurities and pins responses on a map. This joint project of the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) and MOD, an international collective of architects, designers, researchers, curators and practitioners based in Bangalore and Berlin, has 18 reports now.

Behaviours of people and poorly handled infrastructure issues comprise most of the reports, says Jayanth R., researcher, CSTEP.

The sample space in such cases can be non-representative. “The many reports from South India may just mean more people are reporting,” says Mr. Kumar. Getting people to collect information using the platform and to analyse the data is an intensive process. Data is crucial to sound policymaking, says Mr. Jayanth.

“These reports, by themselves, are not indicative of anything; they need to be collated with more sensible data to make sense,” Mr. Kumar says.


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