Pronita Saxena

Co-founder and Chief Growth Officer, NextDrop

GROWING UP IN DELHI, Pronita Saxena had no idea what the words “intermittent public services” meant.

But she experienced the uncertainty that comes from living in a city where water and electricity aren’t always available. “I remember times when we didn’t have water and [were] running to the water tanker with buckets. It’s a really desperate time for any family,” Saxena says. “You would probably say this is a really arcane system. But over 3.5 billion people across the world live in urban areas under these kinds of water supply systems.”

In many Indian cities, people wait all day for water to reach their taps. NextDrop makes this more predictable. (NextDrop)

In the developing world, many poor families rely on neighborhood fountains for their cooking, cleaning, and bathing needs. When pipes break or levels run low, people sometimes wait all day for water — if it comes at all.

Saxena moved to the U. S. at 10. But now, she’s back in India, trying to solve that problem with an app.

NextDrop uses simple cell phone technology to notify customers when their water taps will be flowing. Essentially, the app texts a city’s water valve operators, who measure local reservoir and pipe pressure levels. They update NextDrop, which passes that information on to the utility companies’ engineers. The engineers then decide (and inform NextDrop) where a city’s water will be sent. An hour before the water is transferred, NextDrop alerts customers via SMS, voice recording or email.

A subscription costs between 10 and 25 rupees per month, depending on the city (that’s the equivalent of about 17 to 42 cents). For NextDrop’s customers, the price is worth it.

“There’s a high cost to this uncertainty,” Saxena says. Women sometimes skip work to wait for water. Young girls may miss school just so someone can be home if the water’s turned on.

The service has also been helpful for the utility companies. NextDrop’s customers are asked to send an SMS message to confirm that water has been delivered as expected. NextDrop passes this information on to the utilities, alerting them in real time to problems. They’ve also created a “live” valve map, showing where water is being pumped and when.

An hour before water is ready to flow, NextDrop alerts customers via SMS, voice recording or email. (NextDrop)

“This whole thing is very new, not only for NextDrop but also for the utilities that we’re working with,” says Saxena. “They’ve never had this kind of visibility.”

NextDrop began operating in 2010 in the neighboring cities of Hubli-Dharwad, which have a combined population of about a million. The app has more than 20,000 subscribers there. They’ve since moved into India’s third-largest city, Bangalore, with a pilot project serving about 2,000 customers. Soon, they’ll expand citywide. If that goes well, Saxena hopes to be in every Indian city in the next few years. Eventually, she says, she wants to take NextDrop global.

Saxena says it’s important to make this system work in huge cities like Bangalore, as well as relatively small ones like Hubli-Dharwad. It’ll likely take emerging cities decades to figure out how to provide services like water 24 hours a day. In the meantime, residents need better information about public services. NextDrop is hoping to help both water users and utilities to cope more intelligently with supplies that are less-than-consistent.

“This is a global issue,” she says. “We’re definitely interested in getting the technology to as many cities and citizens and utilities as possible.”

— Nate Berg

This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here. And see Pronita’s presentation in the video below.

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