Imagine turning the taps on, only to wait around for hours for piped water to arrive. This is the daily reality for hundreds of millions of people. In India, tech start-up NextDrop is using mobile phone messaging to spread the word- and the water.
A lack of water is often associated with water scarcity or pollution. But there is a whole other problem which the vast majority of cities across South Asia face: a lack of water pressure. To make sure that at least some people connected to the grid get water, the rest of the network needs to be temporarily switched off. As a result, millions of households have piped water supply which is only available for a few hours at a time. Depending on the area, water can take up to ten days to arrive.
The problem, says NextDrop’s 26-year-old CEO Anu Sridharan, is that water utilities struggle to track their water distribution and often lack the technology to monitor and manage their systems effectively.
In absence of an upgrade of the entire system, NextDrop has come up with a cheap and hugely scalable innovation. What started as a pilot project created at the University of California, Berkeley rapidly expanded into a fully operating social enterprise, providing utilities with a digital monitoring system to track and distribute the water supply.
To get reliable information, NextDrop contracts valvemen to call into its interactive voice response system. It then processes this data through its backend technology. Automatically, the system sends messages to both customers and utility decision makers in real time, using basic handset phones. Residents receive text messages with the date and time when water will arrive and engineers receive reports when water delivery is delayed.
For customers, the service costs just a few rupees a month. To make its business sustainable, NextDrop partners with utility services that often have no other way of accessing reliable live information about their system. With each city divided into so-called ‘valve areas’, all run and maintained by different sub-contractors, it was near-impossible to get an overview- until now.
To sign up, all customers have to do is give NextDrop a missed call on a dedicated phone number, explains Sridharan. “Our system allows us to track their location via GPS technology. When we track a phone, we can narrow it down to around three valve areas. We will register the user under area 1, send them a delivery time message and ask them to tell us whether the water arrived at the given time or not. This way, we’ve got them correctly allocated within three text messages maximum.”
On the surface, a simpler solution would seem to ask new costumers for their address, but in many suburbs and settlements in India that would not work, says Sridharan. “Postcodes mean very little in the areas we operate in. In Hubli-Dharwad, where we launched our pilot, even the pizza delivery just gets given a landmark and then calls the customer for further directions. We soon realised that GPS was the way to go.”
NextDrop is already serving over 75,000 citizens in the twin cities Hubli-Dharwad in the state of Karnataka and is working with utility services in Bangalore to provide water management tools to their engineers. In the future, it aims to serve all 1.2 million citizens in Hubli-Dharwad, and ultimately scale up to the entirety of Bangalore.