In many homes with piped in the developing world, piped water is only available a few hours at a time, and in some cases, they can go up to ten days without it. If they miss the water supply window, then the opportunity to collect and store the water has passed for the next 2-10 days. To ensure receiving water for their families, many low-income families must have someone waiting at home at all times. So a lack of water also becomes a lack of freedom for many women and children.
As a solution, social business NextDrop was founded , and it began by sending messages to about 15,000 households in the southern Indian twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad. The service informs subscribers via SMS about 60 minutes in advance of when the water service will be switched on, switched off, and whether it is contaminated or affected by low pressure. The information is gathered the same way: Through the use of mobile phones, the service workers who manually open and close valves provide them with real time information on the water delivery.
NextDrop’s young staff do not know whether to call themselves a social enterprise, or a tech start up, since they have received funding for both types of ventures. The startup built upon a novel team project that won University of California Berkeley’s Big Ideas competition. They work in conjunction with the local government, while at the same time gathering data that shows the structural problems with water delivery. It is an exercise in openness on behalf of a public delivery service. NextDrop has now expanded to Bangalore, where they have partnered with the Water Supply and Sewerage Board to supply city-wide services.
To sign up, customers have to give NextDrop a missed call on a dedicated phone number. The system allows them to track the customer’s location via GPS, narrowing it down to three valve areas. They will register the user to the first one, send them their first delivery message, and ask for feedback to whether they received the water or not. That way they have them correctly allocated within three text messages. A simpler solution may have seemed to ask new customers for their address, but in many suburbs and settlements in India post codes are rarely used, so, NextDrop says, GPS is the best option.
Is it a solution or just a plug in the leak?
There are two types of payments that the poor must make to obtain their water supply. First there is the actual cash payment in exchange for an ideally reliable water supply. The second ones are called “coping costs”, which are “payments that are outside the system and that ought not to be required,” but that the poor must pay in order to gain access to water.
The first coping costs is what are known as “informal payments,” which can vary from burdensome hospitality to outright bribes. The second coping cost is the time lost waiting for water since it has “the same impact of reducing poor peoples’ incomes, since time spent collecting water, or lying ill in bed cannot be spent earning money elsewhere” (UNDP, World Bank). NextDrop eliminates many of the coping costs that come with having to stay at home to wait for the water; the time and energy that could be spent in a wage-earning job.
Yet the third type of coping cost is the one created by coping mechanisms such as NextDrop itself. The service creates a newer, albeit much smaller, cost. As the UNDP study suggests, theses emerging new costs are “cash payments that are not contemplated in the original design of the water scheme, but which pay for real services that are made necessary by the scheme’s inadequacies” NextDrop would not be needed if there were a 100% reliability of water delivery to the different areas of the city.
Improving services through direct feedback
NextDrop allows citizens to report whether the information the government provided is correct. So, after the initial SMS saying that water will arrive in an hour, they send you a follow-up message to see if that was indeed the case. If a lot of people in the same area report not receiving water, then the government knows there is a problem.
Anu Sridharan, co-founder and CEO told Forbes that they are “seeing feedback work firsthand within the water utility company… People lower in the organization finally have the data to back up the fact that their job is hard, and that they are being put in an impossible situation. And now they are coming together at meetings, and they are able to tell their superiors, hey, there are all these issues, let’s work on fixing them… the utility companies themselves are asking us for citizen feedback, so they can keep track of their direct reports.”
When Hubli-Dharwad’s water utility used NextDrop’s monitoring tools across a three-month period, over 17,500 families got water when they otherwise would not. These families were at the end of their area’s supply cycle and wouldn’t receive sufficient water if the system lacked proper pressure. By engaging valvemen to report water pressure when they turned water on, and relaying this to utility engineers responsible for decision-making about those areas, NextDrop enables real-time adjustments to ensure equitable supply.
A water data bank
NextDrop wishes to collect as much data as possible in order to develop a predictive system, which could potentially have a big impact on quality of service. A lot of this data is gained from field visits by the team, who map new areas to inform these models. Much of the data is already within the knowledge of the utility companies, but is not yet aggregated. As this system is fed with more information by customer and engineer feedback, and by previous lessons and historical trends, it will become increasingly effective and will enable the network to surpass its current efficiency levels of 60-80 per cent.
Andrea Alarcón Sojet is a journalist and online media consultant in Bogota, Colombia.