SMS and interactive voice response systems are emerging as a significant methodology for gathering and spreading information in the developing countries. This is important to note because in 2010, more than 4 billion people paid for mobile phone service. That's 6 of every 10 people on the planet compared to 3 out of every 10 people on the planet who has internet access 1.
One such initiative that utilizes SMS and IVR is NextDrop which gathers water supply information from the valvemen and spreads the information to residents of those areas.
Why does this matter? Because outside of major cities, water gets delivered once in 5 days or once in 15 days, and on those “water days,” someone (usually the women) has to stay back and ensure to collect enough water for the next 4 or 14 days. They usually don’t have enough water storage capacity for that many days and end up having to collect as much water as possible in vessels and pots. So, as you may expect, it is critical for someone to be at home on “water days” and even keep back children from going to school on those days. This is such a loss.
This is where NextDrop comes in and tries to solve this information asymmetry and hopefully solve corruption problems as well. NextDrop is running its pilot in Hubli, Karnataka in collaboration with the Hubli Water Board.
NextDrop was started by a group of Berkeley students including a Ph.D researcher in environmental science who noticed this problem when researching water quality in Hubli, Karnataka and other Berkeley School of Information students. One of the team members, Thejovardhana Kote did his masters thesis on NextDrop and made the initial prototype. Eventually he had to make the hard decision of moving on to something else and he asked me to step in. Since I had just then made the decision of going freelancing, it was perfect for me to earn money as well as make a social contribution at the same time, so I readily agreed.
It took me some time to figure out a different domain (SMS, IVR, non-computer-literate users) but eventually I got the hang of it.
The challenge for me was to get the system to a production level and subsequently, I embarked on a rewrite of the system because it was clear one had to be thrown away which I will write about in more detail later.
There are some really interesting stories on the Official NextDrop blog during this time frame:
- This is how water really works.
- And the NextDrop (alpha) Pilot Results Are In
- Oh no, Not Another We Successfully Launched Story!
- So Do People Like the NextDrop Service?
- People Liking Us? That was SO 48 Hours Ago.
- And the Most Important Question- How Do We Collect the Money?
- The State of the Nextdrop Technology
I’ll end with Rohini Nilekani’s writeup on future water challenges for India :
India may have to ready itself for perennial freshwater shortages. The country is among the wettest in the world, with an average annual rainfall of 1170 milimeters and total water resources of around 4000 billion cubic meters per year. Of this total, a little more than a quarter is pegged as usable. With India's high rate of population growth and intensifying water consumption, per capita availability of water, one of many indicators of an oncoming crisis, has declined steadily over the years. Thanks to indiscriminate withdrawal from rivers and underground aquifers, without adequate thought to recharge and regeneration, India could become an officially water-stressed country within this decade, dipping below the common indicator of 1700 cubic meters per person per year. Going beyond a merely human-centric position, it's critical to understand that water is a key element of nature in its own right.