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Anywhere in India, water could be a phone call away
SATARUPA PAUL  22nd May 2011

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta

he twin city of Hubli-Dharwad is the second largest conurbation in Karnataka after Bangalore. But only 10 percent of its 191 sq km area receives 24-hour water supply. Frequent leakages in PVC pipelines and distribution network problems render the water supply in the rest of the area to be sparse. While the unscheduled timing of water supply not only builds up stress levels in affected individuals, it leads to enormous working hour losses as people wait at home all day in anticipation of trucks that will bring them clean drinking water. In an attempt to address this concern, students from the Stanford School of Business and the University of California, Berkeley have collaborated on a project that aims to ease, if not provide a complete solution, to the pangs of water troubles in India and elsewhere in the world. Called NextDrop, the project plans to create an integrated, reliable network between residents, valvemen and engineers with the help of simple technologies.

K.P. Jayaramu, executive engineer of the Karnataka Water Board, Hubli, breaks down the details of the water problems that need to be tackled for Guardian20, "We receive enough bulk water for drinking purposes. But due to distribution problems, we are able to supply only 30 percent of the water-scarce area with drinking water about once in five or six days." The situation of the rest of the area is hung on fate. Extrapolate these figures to the rest of the country and the situation looks a lot bleaker.

"The technological principles behind Next Drop are not new. The idea is based on the model of crowdsourcing that has been around for a while. You could call NextDrop a mix between Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace, and Next Bus, a popular Californian website that tells you when your next bus will arrive so you don't have to wait," says Anu Sridharan, CEO of NextDrop.

The project plans to create an integrated, reliable network between residents, valvemen and engineers with the help of simple technologies. The idea is based on the model of crowdsourcing.

So this is how the proposed system will work — valvemen will use their mobile phones to call an interactive voice response (IVR) system to notify people well in advance about when they plan to open neighbourhood valves in a particular area. These reports will be used to generate SMS updates that will be sent to local residents 30-60 minutes prior to delivery. In addition, the residents will be contacted randomly through the IVR system to verify the accuracy of the information provided by the valvemen. Updates from valvemen will be turned into streaming visual data using a web-based dashboard powered by Google Maps. This tool will help engineers track the status of valves throughout the city in real time, while crowdsourced information will help compare the feedback from residents with reports from valvemen to create a feedback loop. In the case of a conflict between the two reports, engineers at the utility will be alerted, enabling them to address the problem.

"Our goal is to help residents save time. If they get advance notice of water arrival, they will, hopefully, be able to plan their day accordingly. This will also make the valvemen's job easier; instead of calling people individually and answering separate phone calls about water timings, they will be able to notify everyone at once. On the water utility end, we hope that this system will help them track their water supply and keep track of reservoir levels," says Sridharan. In this regard, NextDrop has started a pilot project in collaboration with the Hubli-Dharward Water Board. "NextDrop sounds like a promising concept, and we have already started collecting mobile numbers of residents with the help of women self-help groups in the Hubli-Dharwad area," says Jayaramu. "The point of NextDrop is to bring people information. We believe that sometimes all it takes is a little information to make a world of difference," concludes Sridharan.

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