By Pronita Saxena, Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer, NextDrop
A slight, dark boy with unwashed hands pushes up to our car’s window to beg. With learned apathy, I turn away. Perhaps, I wince. My mother says, “Pronita, don’t ever forget it’s sheer luck you’re on this side of the window, and not the other.” This window signifies a separation today, and also a divide between what we dare to dream possible for our futures.
20 years later, I returned home to India to join a startup solving water problems affecting over three billion people across the globe. In most urban areas, your tap gets water every 2-10 days, but no one can tell you when. The absence of real-time tracking means the utility doesn’t know where the water is going and where it isn’t. Overwhelmed and grossly understaffed to fix problems, utility companies leave citizens feeling neglected, helpless. And it’s not just water – whether the lights turn off, potholes stay unfilled, only your wallet or political influence can address the problem.
“Overwhelmed and grossly understaffed to fix problems, utility companies leave citizens feeling neglected, helpless”
NextDrop believes that connecting citizens, government bodies and the private sector to actionable, real-time information can change this. Through mobile phones, we broadcast information across our network of mobile-enabled citizens, covering 90 per cent of Hubli-Dharwad (India’s 51st most populous city, Census 2011) and reaching Bangalore (India’s third most populous metropolis, Census 2011), entirely, this year.
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 tail-end of their area’s supply cycle and wouldn’t receive sufficient water if the system lacked proper pressure. By engaging valvemen (ground level staff) 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.
Valvemen also report when they’re turning water on for an area, or if there’s a delay. Affected citizens are immediately alerted via SMS to validate the information or report a problem such as pipe damage, which can cause contamination that affects hundreds to thousans of households, depending on where it’s located. Companies struggling to be relevant where only 13% of households filter water can now talk to households about water quality when it matters.
“Timely, accurate information about public services that govern our daily lives frees us through the power of choice, no matter who we are”
One of our users, a housewife, claimed, “You’ve set me free.” She runs errands, sees friends or goes to the movies without worry or guilt over risking her family’s water security. Timely, accurate information about public services that govern our daily lives frees us through the power of choice, no matter who we are. A utility engineer can fix problems that matter most. A citizen can shop instead of waiting for water, or be a neighborhood hero rather than passive problem viewer. A brand can send water to a family, knowing they didn’t get water today.
If sheer luck places us on either side of the window, only accessible opportunity can deliver meaningful citizenship. Real-time data transparency makes public services more reachable and responsive, allowing choice to thrive.
The boy on the other side of the window has become a man who struggles to get clean water, a place to lie without being bothered, assurance about his next meal. He doesn’t ask what he can contribute to a city that gives him only struggle and uncertainty. Today, however, he has a phone that connects him to the NextDrop community. He receives information that allows him to choose his destiny, be respected, have his voice counted. We all ensure he never misses a thing.
WhatWorks is our series of short talks, presented at the New Cities Summit, by urban innovators across a variety of disciplines and regions. Join in the conversation! @newcitiesfound #whatworksincities