By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist
We often think of technology in terms of flashy gadgets and slick new applications. But the technology with the biggest impact is often more prosaic. It’s about using straightforward tools to solve basic problems that make people’s lives better.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of this recently is NextDrop, out of Hubli in the state of Karnataka, India. NextDrop is attacking a problem that affects millions of people in India and in much of the developing world: unpredictable and unreliable water supply.
The company was the brain child of co-founder Emily Kumpel who came to India as a PhD candidate researching water quality, but found that most of her time was spent waiting for the water to show up. This was because in many large cities in India (and elsewhere), the distribution system provides running water but not continuously—only once every three to four days.
“She would never know when it would come, so she’d have to wait at home and hope the water would show up at some point during the day,” says Nishesh Mehta, vice president, NextDrop. “She realized that if this was a problem for her, it was probably a problem for a lot of people living in the city.”
How it Works
As its core service, NextDrop sends short message service (SMS) texts to alert people when water will be supplied to their area. The system works like this: an employee at the water utility calls NextDrop and uses the company’s interactive voice response (IVR) system to enter which area water will be released to and when it will be released. (For example, water will be supplied to Area A in 60 minutes.) The system then automatically generates an SMS to all subscribers living in Area A that they will receive fresh water in an hour. Subscribers pay 10 Rupees, or about 20 cents per month, to use the service.
It may sound like small thing, but it makes a huge difference. With no continuous water supply, people in Hubli must make elaborate plans to make sure they can collect the water they’ll need for the next several days – for drinking, bathing, cooking, everything – until fresh supply is released. And if they happen to be away when the water comes, they’ll have to find the extra money to buy it.
“If you’re a lower-middle-income household, you and your spouse both have to work,” says Mehta. “Every hour you miss, you’re missing wages. But one of you will have to stay back, and sometimes, you will miss an entire day of work just to make sure you have enough water for the next few days. Thousands of man hours are lost every year as a result of this problem. In terms of the macro effects on the economy, it’s a huge drain of resources.”
With NextDrop’s service, people are free to work, attend school, or run errands without worry. When they’re notified that water is on its way, they can run home to collect it, and then get back to their lives.
A Human Smart Grid
NextDrop knows that, while the SMS alerts are helpful, they can’t address the underlying issues that create unreliability in the water system—scarcity of water at different times of year and an aging and underpowered distribution system that can’t keep pace with demand. Even here though, NextDrop is seeking to make a difference.
In addition to tracking water release times, NextDrop uses the same IVR infrastructure to track reservoir levels and measure how well water supply is keeping pace with demand. The end result is that decision-makers with the utility have a much more accurate picture of what’s happening in the distribution system.
If this sounds familiar, it should. NextDrop is effectively creating a Smart Grid, an intelligent distribution system that provides continuous feedback on supply and demand. The only difference is that instead of using wireless meters and sophisticated telemetry systems, the sensors distribution systems, the sensors in the NextDrop system are human beings.
“A lot of system operations in the utility are done through best guesses or estimates, because there’s no real-time data,” says Mehta. “What NextDrop is trying to do is not just supply information for customers, but connect all of this information, which is actually system operation data, in real time, so that the utility can make data-driven decisions. We may not be able to solve the underlying problems, but we can help utilities optimize the systems they have, even if they can’t make huge new infrastructure investments or augment the water source.”
And of course, the technology that powers this “human Smart Grid” is straightforward and ubiquitous: SMS, IVR, and cell phones.
“IVR is probably the easiest way for people to input information,” says Mehta. “At the same time, in Hubli, and basically anywhere in India and the rest of the developing world, everybody uses cell phones. The telephony is cheap, the SMS services are cheap, it’s reliable, and it makes the entire system much cheaper to operate.”
Today, NextDrop serves 50 percent of Hubli, and is now expanding to other parts of India. But the company has its sites set beyond that.
“We want to take it to Latin America, where we estimate the market would be at least one third of the continent,” says Mehta. “In Africa, we could probably serve half the continent. And Southeast Asia, another one third of cities there could use these services. Long term, we’d like to take it everywhere.”
With NextDrop’s unique approach to solving concrete problems with practical, inexpensive technology, there’s no reason to think they won’t make a difference on virtually every continent.
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