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Citizen Sensors Make India’s Complicated Water System A Little Easier To Navigate

With the help of simple mobile phone technology, a nonprofit called NextDrop is improving access to water for poor families.

Citizen Sensors Make India’s Complicated Water System A Little Easier To Navigate

Here in the United States, we take running water for granted. It’s always, or almost always, there when you need it. But much of the rest of the world can’t count on that. Even in cities where the water runs, it only runs at certain hours and on certain days. To wash and cook, you have to store spare gallons for a later time.

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If you’re prepared, this might not be that bad. Bangalore resident Pronita Saxena explains that many middle-class Indian families, like hers, have an automated pump. When the water’s on, it senses the flow and fills up a tank for later use. Poor families aren’t so lucky. They need to be ready and waiting to fill up by hand. And, sometimes they wait a long time, not knowing when a utility will switch on the pipes in a particular area.

It’s this uncertainty that Saxena is trying to fix with NextDrop, an Indian social enterprise that’s using mobile phone technology to create a more responsive water supply system. It’s a straightforward concept. When a “valveman” turns on supply in a certain neighborhood, he will alert Nextdrop with a phone call to an automated line. That in turn allows the nonprofit to create a map of water pressure in a city, and alert people when they can expect water, so they’re not waiting for hours before filling up.

“We’ve created the first live valve map where [a utility] can tell the areas that got water two days ago and those that are getting water today,” Saxena says. “They can actually monitor the system, which is something they didn’t have before.”

That might not sound like a big deal. But bringing greater visibility to the water network means several knock-on improvements. It means poorer people have more time for other things, like working or shopping. It opens up a channel for residents to make complaints about services and alert utilities to leakages (they can also send texts to say they haven’t received water). And it creates a way of recording problems, so someone can follow up later. At the moment, Saxena says, leak reports tend to go into an old notebook, where they get forgotten.

Since co-founding NextDrop two years ago, Saxena has worked on a project in Hubli-Dharwad, a mid-sized city in India’s south. So far, 20,000 families have used the text system, she says. More recently, the group won approval to work with valvemen in Bangalore. It hopes to cover the whole city by the end of next year, then go to more places after that.

“This is a system that eradicates the need for a lot of expensive hardware to get the kind of monitoring that allows you to function better. It gives you better visibility and decision-making capability,” she says. All from a few text messages and phone calls.

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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.

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