In Western countries, we take it for granted that we have access to clean water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At our fingertips is water that is plentiful enough to run our washing machines, warm enough for a hot shower, and safe enough to drink. In much of the developing world, however, this simply isn’t the case. In 90 percent of South Asian cities and one-third of African and Latin American cities, water is provided intermittently.

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The 200 million residents of urban India receive piped water for only a few hours at a time, and they have no way of knowing when that will be. Because every drop of water is precious, someone in the household — most often, a woman — must wait by the tap, ready to fill up buckets and do all the washing as soon as she hears the sound of running water.

NextDrop, our winning submission for the 2011 Knight News Challenge, began with a simple purpose: inform residents in India about the availability of piped water and help them lead more productive, less stressful lives.

How it Works

To generate reliable information on water delivery, we partner with water utilities. Utility employees in the field call into an interactive voice response (IVR) system to report manually opening valves around the city. These updates are turned into text messages to inform residents that water will be available in their neighborhood in about 30 minutes.

Sending out information about water delivery may not remove the unreliability in the system, but it has one major advantage: It doesn’t require any expensive, new infrastructure. The idea, instead, is to leverage the expansive mobile networks that have sprung up over the last five years, with 1.4 mobile phones per person in Indian cities.

Using the mobile phone and “human sensors,” we can reach households with dynamic, locally tailored information, as water delivery times shift unexpectedly due to pipe breakages, power outages, or last-minute schedule changes.

Transparency and the Smart Grid “Lite”

When we started piloting NextDrop in June 2010 in Hubli-Dharwad — a city of about 1 million people in the state of Karnataka — we focused on providing households with reliable information about water delivery times. But we were cautiously optimistic that the data we were collecting would have applications beyond saving residents time.

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Transparency: We knew, for instance, that in Hubli-Dharwad, some neighborhoods received water longer than others. Everyone seemed to know this, yet it persisted. It seemed that without credible data on the true distribution of water, citizens had a hard time making the case to the water utility that they needed to improve the situation.

As we move forward and use our Knight News Challenge award to provide the NextDrop service across the entire city of Hubli, we plan to publish data on water delivery outcomes in the newspaper. We’re fascinated to see if transparency will drive change and lead to more equitable distribution of water.

**Smart Grid Lite* In the first iteration of our pilot, we started with the idea of providing information to residents who needed to know when their piped water would be available. After seven months of field work, we realized that residents weren’t the only ones who could benefit from accurate, real-time information. Central decision-makers — the engineers running the water supply system — also needed good information about water delivery outcomes. Managing a city with more than 1,000 neighborhood valves and thousands of manual processes to perform each week, there was no easy way to keep track of everything.

In light of this, we designed a web-based dashboard that uses Google Maps to visualize water delivery events. When utility employees call our IVR system, that same information lights up indicators on a Google Map in real time. Engineers can use this dashboard to identify problems and compare outcomes with the set schedule.

Over the next year, one of our biggest challenges will be to work with the utility to make this dashboard as useful as possible. We’ll be posting updates on this effort and others here on Idea Lab.