• 05.02.14

Using Citizens As Human Sensors To Improve Public Services

An innovative SMS service allows citizens to report on whether city workers are actually doing their jobs.

Using Citizens As Human Sensors To Improve Public Services
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The city of Delhi outsources garbage collection to a third-party contractor. Every day, it sends out trucks to pick up the trash, and every day the company reports the same thing to the municipal government: 100% garbage collected. Except, that isn’t what it looks like to Delhi citizens, says local resident Prukalpa Sankar. Either the contractor is outright lying, or it isn’t so much reporting as box-ticking.


That’s why Sankar started dig into what was really going on. Working with a local NGO, she set up an SMS service allowing residents to report “red” (not collected), “yellow” (partially collected), and “green” (collected) for their bins. She then sent the data to the government, which had a word with the garbage company. The result: The pick-up rate increased from as little as 26% in one ward (roughly 150,000 people) to 98%.

Sankar is co-founder of Social Cops, a social enterprise that recruits citizens to act as “human sensors” around India’s capital. After only eight months, it’s already worked on several intractable city issues by creating a mobile platform that allows people to get involved in their area.

Another project evaluated street cleaning services using an automated phone system that called residents on Sunday mornings. Another still involved working with a nonprofit to do “social audits” of public bathrooms. A third helped Akshaya Patra, an organization that distributes more than a million free school meals every day, check on food quality.

“One of the issues they have is they don’t know the quality of the meal scheme,” Sankar says. “We get citizens to adopt a school in their locality. It’s creating a voice for people.”

As well as working with nonprofits, Social Cops also collaborated with Michelin, a tire maker, on a campaign called SteerToSafety. It asked citizens to report on the condition of Delhi’s roads, and to identify the worst potholes, with a prize for spying the biggest. More than 6,000 volunteers came forward.

Sankar started Social Cops with another student from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Since moving back to India, they’ve got several awards for their work, including a D-Prize, which recognizes innovation around development issues.

Of course, recording data is only one part of the problem. The government still has to do something with it. But Sankar is hopeful measurement is the first step to action. “There are things that happen when officials have the data that they don’t have today,” she says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.