The NextDrop Initiative

This post was written on the Health Unbound website in development last month in my writing role there to highlight innovative global health projects. As an update, big congrats to the NextDrop team for recently winning the Knight Foundation News Challenge.

The confidence most of us have in our local municipal systems to provide consistent resources on a daily basis probably borders on the lines of being taken for granted. Having access to sanitation services (sewage, waste), clean streets and neighborhoods as well as clean water are all expected as citizens of a city. During crisis events – such as the ones recently experienced in the Midwest United States – many times results in temporary loss of these facilities. However in many developing countries, the lack of consistent resources and access to food and water is an ongoing aspect of daily life. Water has been a topic of many global health initiatives – from making sure the water is clean, transporting the water from sources and finally getting it to intended communities. According to the WHO, almost one fifth of the world’s population (about 1.2B people) live in areas where the water is physically scarce. In addition, a quarter of the world’s population live in countries that face water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure.

The good news is that sometimes when smart people get together with ideas and combine them with easy to use technology – these problems can be addressed. In this case, the fantastic team behind NextDrop are the smart people and the technology being used are mobile phones. I am continuously intrigued by the ideas that are simple, innovative and yet are highly effective and from what I have learned so far this project hits on all three of those points. With the proliferation of use around the world, most notably in developing countries, of mobile phones for SMS-based activities – the NextDrop initiative makes absolute practical sense. Created by graduate students at UC Berkley with diverse backgrounds in business, public policy, and civil engineering, NextDrop aims to reshape the water distribution system in developing countries, currently focused on Southeast Asia. The project launched in Hubli-Dharwad, a city in Karnataka, India (population nearly 1M). The problem is that families in many of these countries, while having a piped water system, are unable to get reliable/consistent water. Not knowing when water will arrive causes individuals and families to wait around, resulting in wasted time for other opportunities – many times ill afforded for the economically disadvantaged.

In a nutshell, water servicemen in the community use their mobile phones to send out an alert to residents prior to when the water will be available in their piped systems. In addition to the community members getting a notice of water, they are randomly selected to provide feedback letting the servicemen know if everything is happening according to the SMS reports. The mobile phones allow a circle of information and feedback to all parties involved, creating a quality assurance system. Here is a video of the NextDrop team explaining how the system works:

The NextDrop initiative got its legs through a competition around big ideas in information technology at UC Berkley, notably called the “Big Ideas” competition. I’m a big fan of competitions and challenges that effectively give a platform to ideas that can turn into sustainable solutions to the problems we are facing around the world – large or small.

UC Berkeley’s annual “Big Ideas” prize competition inspires innovative and high-impact student projects aimed at solving the world’s most pressing problems. By seeking out novel proposals and then supporting efforts to help them succeed, Big Ideas has produced remarkable results.

And in 2010, the NextDrop team in fact did succeed in the competition – helping them launch into existence. Coming up on a year since their pilot initiative began in about 200 households in Hubli, the team is continuing to grow their impact. The sustainability factor is always important with these types of initiatives so I wanted to find out from the NextDrop team their plans for the future.

From NextDrop Co-Founder & CEO, Anu Sridharan:

“Nextdrop could not have started without the collaboration with the Hubli water board- particularly chief engineer Mr.Jayaram. Through his leadership we will finish our pilot by December 2011 and be in the entire city of Hubli by Dec 2012.

In the next 3-5 years we hope that other water utilities and public services will follow Mr. Jayaram’s example to be on the cutting edge of innovation and provide better service for their customers. Together, we simply hope to improve the flow if information in not just the water sector, but any other sectors with information asymmetry.”

That last sentence really solidifies the mission of the the NextDrop initiative. It can also be a great way for future global health innovations to stay focused on what is necessary right now: simple and effective. The basics need to be tended to with the basics. Simple tools that work with the people to bring about tangible change

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Stephen Peteritas

Sounds like a cool project and one I can appreciate after living in a city with out clean water for 2 weeks. Sure beats trying to wait for a boil water alert to be lifted.