How NextDrop is Using Cell Phones, Crowdsourcing to Get Water to the Thirsty

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In many cities in developing countries, residents have piped water supplies. But there’s a catch: the water is only available through the pipes for a few hours at a time, and people have no way of knowing when that will be. As a result, residents (mostly women and the poor) spend their days just waiting for the water to arrive. NextDrop, one of the winners of the Knight News Challenge, has a solution.

Here’s how the system works: Utility employees call NextDrop’s interactive voice response system when they manually open neighborhood water valves. The system generates text message updates for local residents (most of whom have cell phones) 30 to 60 minutes before water delivery. Residents are also contacted by the system randomly to verify the accuracy of the information given by the valvemen. Updates from the utility employees are also turned into Google Maps-based streaming visual data so that engineers can track valve status throughout the city in real time.

NextDrop originally started two years ago as a project in a competition in a UC Berkeley civil engineering class. The project won–and quickly grew to encompass a team of six people. Last week, NextDrop won $375,000 from the Knight News Challenge, a competition that “aims to advance the future of news by funding new ways to digitally inform communities.”

So far, NextDrop has partnered with the local utility in Hubli, India, where the system has been working in a pilot phase for the past year. NextDrop hopes to serve 1,000 families by March 2012 and the entire city (population approximately 1 million) by July 2013. The service has so far been free, but NextDrop plans to charge money in the near future. “We need to start charging because we need to know if we have a service people want,” says Anu Sridharan, one of the founders of NextDrop.

And now that NextDrop is flush with Knight News Challenge cash? “I’m able to work on [NextDrop] full time,” says Sridharan. Most of the time most of the people have to spend time raising money in social enterprises. I get to concentrate on what’s important to me.”

Source: Fast Company (link opens in a new window)