Article in Mobile Future, Startup, Tech Industry categories.

NextDrop Addresses the Issue of Inadequate Water Availability in India

The prospect of having little, sparse intervals of running water, or none at all, is a very unsettling one. In India, the problem of inadequate…

The prospect of having little, sparse intervals of running water, or none at all, is a very unsettling one. In India, the problem of inadequate water supply is one that reigns supreme for millions of families. The task of retrieving an adequate share of water for one’s family is extremely arduous. The San Diego start up, NextDrop, is concentrating their energies on taking some initiative against unreliable water service by virtue of SMS. This approach, as covered by Fueled, is reminiscent of the way in which mobile device innovation and SMS are supplementing and helping those living in rural parts of Kenya in terms of farm and crop maintenance, thus contributing to economic progress and stability.

NextDrop Logic In-Depth

For 10 rupees per month, residents can benefit from NextDrop’s services. Working in coordination with Indian water utilities, NextDrop has an interactive voice response system which aims to do mitigate the immense amounts of time waiting for water to arrive. When utility employees open neighborhood valves to enable local water delivery, they use their cellphones to call the interactive voice response system. The reports are then used to produce text message updates that are sent to local residents via SMS updates 30 to 60 minutes before actual water delivery. Cell phones, according to NextDrop, are already widely used in India.

The management of water distribution in India works quite differently from anything most Americans have probably ever experienced. Out of all the cities in India with a population of more than one million, none distribute water for more than a few hours per day. According to research done in 2007 by the Asian Development Bank regarding water utilities in India, the average duration of water supply was only 4.3 hours per day in 20 cities, and no city had a continuous supply. The longest duration of supply was 12 hours per day in Chandigarh, and the lowest was 0.3 hours per day in Rajkot.

The best part of this system is that engineers would ideally be able to see whether or not set-schedules for water delivery are being complied with as a result of having access to streaming visual data for updates made by valve-men. A built-in feedback loop furthers this kind of transparency as crowd-sourced information from residents is made available along with reports from valve-men - a discrepancy between the two sets of data calls for engineers to be alerted in order for the problem to be addressed.

Turbulence and Success

This is clearly a brilliant idea, as evidenced by the over-10,000 customers the start-up has garnered in less than five months. But there are also a few bits of turbulence which the start-up may overcome slowly and hopefully surely as they manage to become a household name. Starting a business in India is tremendously difficult when taking into consideration all of the prerequisite legal processes needed and, of course, the need for building customer trust. As with any start-up, feedback is paramount for the building of reputation and the improvement of service, but the company had a particularly difficult time getting this out of customers. NextDrop co-founder Anu Sridharanm, on the company blog writes, “When we went to ask people for feedback, people considered us a nuisance and didn’t want to answer any questions. ‘What, all this for a 10 [rupee] service? Just cancel my service. Don’t come back.”

Back in October of 2011, they had been hit by one of the new regulations the Indian government had passed that went into effect on September 27th. It essentially did not allow for bulk messages (i.e. NextDrop messages) to be sent between the hours of 9 pm and 9 am. As a large amount of NextDrop’s customers only have their water turned on in the early morning, this new regulation would have seriously hindered business had it not been for their resourcefulness in finding enough official evidence to prove they were working with a water utility.  The messages were ultimately proven to be “transactional”, thus exempting them from the rule. Exciting, right? This articlke should perhaps be appropriately named, “Nextdrop’s Overseas Adventures.”

The company plans on expanding their service to more parts of India, particularly slums, and they are of course working on ways to increase customer engagement and enrollment by using some alternative routes.  In the meanwhile, though, the start-up has been faring relatively well in terms of receiving a variety of grants and small prizes, a $375,000  investment being one of the awesome results of winning the Knight News Challenge. There is certainly an undeniable humanitarian agenda serving as the foundation of NextDrop’s business premise, especially when it comes to getting such an invaluable resource to people - at least a tad more smoothly. It should be interesting to follow what kind of trials, tribulations, and successes the future will hold for this still relatively young company.

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