Water problems affect billions of people around the world. Every day in India, millions of people turn on their taps, only to find they too often run dry, and are forced to wait hours until piped water arrives.
But not for much longer, if Anu Sridharan, the 20-something founder of NextDrop, has anything to say about it. NextDrop works with engineers in Bangalore to improve water utility services and is already providing more than 75,000 people in nearby twin-cities Hubli-Dharwad with timely and reliable information about their water supply.
NextDrop’s real-time data and messaging system uses SMS to inform subscribers about when they’re receiving water, when there’s a delay, when pipe damage is likely to affect them, and when someone in the community has water updates to share.
In this Q&A, Sridharan shares updates since we last caught up with her at Buckingham Palace as one of seven finalists in last year’s Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards and offers a couple tips for youngentrepreneurs.
Ashoka: In your own words, what is NextDrop all about?
Anu Sridharan: What we do is allow citizens to tell us if the information the government provided is correct. So, we send you an SMS saying that water will arrive in an hour. Then we send you a message asking if it did. If a lot of people in the same area said they were supposed to get water but didn’t, then the government knows there is a problem.
We use feedback to help inform the utilities about problems in the system in real time. That way they don’t have to wait until it gets to be a huge crisis, they can solve problems, from pipe damages, to low pressure, to supply. We hope that feedback and coordination can really make a dent in the water issue.
Ashoka: You’ve said that technology offers people the courage and capacity to speak up and demand accountability from their government. What does that look like in your world today?
Sridharan: It’s interesting. We are actually seeing feedback work firsthand within the water utility company, which is fascinating. People lower in the organization finally have the data to back up the fact that their job is hard, and that they are being put in an impossible situation. And now they are coming together at meetings, and they are able to tell their superiors, hey, there are all these issues, let’s work on fixing them.
That’s what we have been seeing in the last three weeks. And interestingly enough, the utility companies themselves are asking us for citizen feedback, so they can keep track of their direct reports. So, that’s what you’ll be seeing more of in the next few months: recruiting citizens in Bangalore to give us feedback on water supply.
Ashoka: Your team has been able to correctly identify customer locations in three texts or less. Have you made any changes to the way you communicate with NextDrop users?
Sridharan: Yes! We’ve been able to create technology that pinpoints where you live, to within about 10-20 meters.
Ashoka: And you have plans to scale-up not only in Karnataka, a state in southwest India, but also across the Indian subcontinent and beyond?
Sridharan: We are excited to try this at scale in Bangalore. Right now we just have one-off examples that are really encouraging. The last one being pipe damage a citizen saw. He called NextDrop, informed us about the leak, we contacted the appropriate people in the utility, and they fixed it within two hours. The customer called us back in shock—they didn’t think the government worked that fast! That’s the exact delight we are hoping to replicate throughout the city: making people happy with their public services.
We believe that we are now ready to tackle other rapidly urbanizing cities not just in India but globally. Most of this interest is demand-driven, and we actually have demand—both on the government and citizen side—than places we are in! Soon, I’m hoping we can raise the capital to meet that growing demand.
Ashoka: How did you go from a grad student with a good idea to the leader of a pilot project in Hubli, one of the fastest growing cities in the world? How has NextDrop matured since?
Sridharan: I think that I would have to say that NextDrop is here in spite of myself. I’ve made so many mistakes, been in so many ‘wow, this is nuts’ situations, and I’m just lucky to be surrounded by people who are understanding, who know that I’m learning as I go along, too, and we are all in this together.
I think NextDrop has gone from just a good idea to a good idea with a bunch of awesome people behind it who will do a heck of a lot to make sure it happens.
Ashoka: What’s your advice to other young people with smart solutions who might be in need of a few connections or words of wisdom?
Sridharan: Strangely enough, my roommate and I are trying to write a book about this exact thing (because, man, we learned a lot along the way and want to share things I wish I knew when I started). But the short answer is that sometimes, the best learning just comes from doing it. No matter how little you know, sometimes you just have to pick up, grit your teeth, and get it done.