Archive for ICTD

How NextDrop is Mixing Water, Data and ICT in India

Originally published in ISIF Asia

In many homes with piped in the developing world, piped water is only available a few hours at a time, and in some cases, they can go up to ten days without it. If they miss the water supply window, then the opportunity to collect and store the water has passed for the next 2-10 days. To ensure receiving water for their families, many low-income families must have someone waiting at home at all times. So a lack of water also becomes a lack of freedom for many women and children.

As a solution, social business NextDrop was founded , and it began by sending messages to about 15,000 households in the southern Indian twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad. The service informs subscribers via SMS about 60 minutes in advance of when the water service will be switched on, switched off, and whether it is contaminated or affected by low pressure. The information is gathered the same way: Through the use of mobile phones, the service workers who manually open and close valves provide them with real time information on the water delivery.

NextDrop’s young staff do not know whether to call themselves a social enterprise, or a tech start up, since they have received funding for both types of ventures. The startup built upon a novel team project that won University of California Berkeley’s Big Ideas competition. They work in conjunction with the local government, while at the same time gathering data that shows the structural problems with water delivery. It is an exercise in openness on behalf of a public delivery service. NextDrop has now expanded to Bangalore, where they have partnered with the Water Supply and Sewerage Board to supply city-wide services.

To sign up, customers have to give NextDrop a missed call on a dedicated phone number. The system allows them to track the customer’s location via GPS, narrowing it down to three valve areas. They will register the user to the first one, send them their first delivery message, and ask for feedback to whether they received the water or not. That way they have them correctly allocated within three text messages. A simpler solution may have seemed to ask new customers for their address, but in many suburbs and settlements in India post codes are rarely used, so, NextDrop says, GPS is the best option.

Is it a solution or just a plug in the leak?

There are two types of payments that the poor must make to obtain their water supply. First there is the actual cash payment in exchange for an ideally reliable water supply. The second ones are called “coping costs”, which are “payments that are outside the system and that ought not to be required,” but that the poor must pay in order to gain access to water.

The first coping costs is what are known as “informal payments,” which can vary from burdensome hospitality to outright bribes. The second coping cost is the time lost waiting for water since it has “the same impact of reducing poor peoples’ incomes, since time spent collecting water, or lying ill in bed cannot be spent earning money elsewhere” (UNDP, World Bank). NextDrop eliminates many of the coping costs that come with having to stay at home to wait for the water; the time and energy that could be spent in a wage-earning job.

Yet the third type of coping cost is the one created by coping mechanisms such as NextDrop itself. The service creates a newer, albeit much smaller, cost. As the UNDP study suggests, theses emerging new costs are “cash payments that are not contemplated in the original design of the water scheme, but which pay for real services that are made necessary by the scheme’s inadequacies” NextDrop would not be needed if there were a 100% reliability of water delivery to the different areas of the city.

Improving services through direct feedback

NextDrop allows citizens to report whether the information the government provided is correct. So, after the initial SMS saying that water will arrive in an hour, they send you a follow-up message to see if that was indeed the case. If a lot of people in the same area report not receiving water, then the government knows there is a problem.

Anu Sridharan, co-founder and CEO told Forbes that they are “seeing feedback work firsthand within the water utility company… 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… the utility companies themselves are asking us for citizen feedback, so they can keep track of their direct reports.”

When Hubli-Dharwad’s water utility used NextDrop’s monitoring tools across a three-month period, over 17,500 families got water when they otherwise would not. These families were at the end of their area’s supply cycle and wouldn’t receive sufficient water if the system lacked proper pressure. By engaging valvemen to report water pressure when they turned water on, and relaying this to utility engineers responsible for decision-making about those areas, NextDrop enables real-time adjustments to ensure equitable supply.

A water data bank

NextDrop wishes to collect as much data as possible in order to develop a predictive system, which could potentially have a big impact on quality of service. A lot of this data is gained from field visits by the team, who map new areas to inform these models. Much of the data is already within the knowledge of the utility companies, but is not yet aggregated. As this system is fed with more information by customer and engineer feedback, and by previous lessons and historical trends, it will become increasingly effective and will enable the network to surpass its current efficiency levels of 60-80 per cent.

4 questions of as Internet for the poor

This post was originally published in ICTWorks

Approximately 80% of the world’s population lives in areas already covered by 2G or 3G networks. The coverage is mostly urban, with the basic infrastructure already constructed by mobile service providers. So in these locations, the main obstacle to Internet access is not being able to afford it.

As a solution, Facebook launched its initiative in 2013, with the goal of providing “free Internet access” for the two thirds of the world who do not have it. By partnering with local telecommunications providers and hardware makers in the developing world, people who cannot afford a data plan will have access to a certain number of applications (depending on the country).

This practice is called “Zero Rating” or “sponsored data”, where carriers and services subsidize access to some products. The project has been launched in Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia, Ghana, India, Philippines, Guatemala and Indonesia. But recently in India, several telecommunication firms withdrew from the deal because of complaints that the project threatens the principle of network neutrality.

Can Facebook claim to be giving free Internet access, but only to a few applications?


In its defense, Mark Zuckerberg claimed there is no conflict between increasing connectivity and network neutrality. But India’s Save The Internet Coalition wrote in the Hindustan Times that is “Zuckerberg’s ambitious project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.”

Not all connections were created equal

On one end, Zuckerberg argues that “something is better than nothing” and says that this limited access will incentivize users to purchase a full data plan. One of ICT4D’s main goals is indeed access; leveling the information playing field. Nonetheless, by selling as “universal access” to the Internet, many will jump at the chance of not paying for a data plan, and we can assume most of them will be the world’s poorest.

According to Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute, bridging the digital gap is not only about connectivity, but about what the Internet is being used for. Yet by providing free access to the two thirds of the population who don’t have Internet yet, Facebook positions itself as their main access gate to the web, certainly conflicting with the principle of network neutrality.

Even the sharing of external content is limited, since users cannot click on links to external web sites. He is therefore creating a parallel internet: the internet of the poor vs the actual one.

Even before the project, Facebook is already gaining ground as the Internet’s front door. In 2012, think tank LIRNEasiafound that 11% of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the internet. In Nigeria, 9% of Facebook users said they do not use the Internet. Even Sheryl Sandberg admits that there are Facebook users who don’t know they are on the Internet, and that in some people walk into phone stores and say “I want Facebook”.

Facebook claims that it itself is a catalyst for economic development. A Deloitte report commissioned by the company claims that the social network was responsible for $227 billion in global economic impact, and 4.5 million jobs in 2014. But according to the Wall Street Journal, independent economists said the study used questionable assumptions. “The results are meaningless,” Stanford economist Roger Noll said in an email. “Facebook is an effect, not a cause, of the growth of Internet access and use.”

Bringing connectivity to everyone


Nonetheless, the zero rating partnerships are only part of’s strategy. For 20% of the world’s population the basic network infrastructure has yet to be built.’s Connectivity Lab is trying to create alternative means of connection, including high-altitude drones, which have already been successfully tested. Google’s Project Loon is their competition for the disconnected world population. The project aims to reach rural and remote areas via balloons.

4 Questions for ICT practitioners

  1. Is it a monopoly? To incentivize local economy, local start ups to be accessible. Closed-internet projects such as these tilt the balance against small local initiatives. Any venture that is currently creating apps of web-based services will be cut off from their target audiences. In an interview with Colombian paper “El Tiempo,”’s vice-president Chris Daniels said the selection for the included aps comes from a discussion between Facebook, the mobile provider and the local government. “We determine which ones are more useful and are more likely to improve lives.” They say they are open to include more, but the process one would have to follow to get there remains ambiguous.
  2. Is it philanthropy? Zuckerberg visited Colombia in January where the project launched in South America. For now, the service is available to customers of Tigo (the biggest mobile service provider) even if they do not have a data plan. Tigo is aggressively using it in its advertising to lure customers away from other mobile service providers.
  3. Is it equitable? As ICT practitioners, it is important to ensure that the voice of civil society in developing nations is heard, especially since regulation has not caught up with the technologies that are already well within borders. India raised its voice, but the initiative has been going on since 2013. It continued to go through Indonesia even after India. Either people do not understand what it means, or they could easily be confused by the project’s name and promises.
  4. Is it the best option? It is important to see what other alternatives could be found to improve connectivity. Letting American internet giants in charge of connectivity is not only risky, but almost imperialistic. There is always that to content with when talking about aid in development. Does the end justify the means?

Update: Facebook has introduced the Platform, an open program for developers to easily create services that integrate with They are also giving people more choice over the free basic services they can use.


Internet pobre para los pobres

Originalmente publicado en

La competencia de los gigantes de Internet por llegar a los que aún no están conectados.

En enero de este año Colombia recibió la visita de CEO y fundador de Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, para inaugurar su proyecto en América Latina. El servicio, que por ahora está limitado a los usuarios de Tigo, permitirá acceso gratuito a Facebook y otras cuantas aplicaciones (depende del país) escogidas por ellos. Tuvo algunas críticas, pero por ahora en nuestro país, el proyecto sigue en pie.

Por otro lado, esta semana en la India se armó un escándalo en contra de la iniciativa. Los argumentos son varias pero se enfocan en 1. Facebook no equivale al Internet y 2. Se viola el principio de neutralidad de la red (explicación más adelante). A raíz de esto varios de los proveedores de telecomunicación asociados al proyecto se echaron para atrás.

En un editorial en el Hindustan Times de la India, la Coalición para Salvar el Internet lo denominó como “el ambicioso proyecto de Zuckerberg para confundir a millones de usuarios de mercados emergentes, al hacerles creer que Facebook y el Internet son la misma cosa”.

El Centro de Investigación LIRNEasia encontró en el 2012 que muchos usuarios de teléfonos móviles en la ‘base de la pirámide’ en Indonesia dijeron que no usaban el Internet. Pero al preguntarles por Facebook, decían usarlo seguido. Lo mismo se encontró en África, donde más gente responde que usa Facebook que el Internet, lo cual es físicamente imposible. Es decir que en la percepción, Facebook es el Internet.

Los argumentos a favor y en contra de la iniciativa también aplican en Colombia, y creo que es importante mirar a otros países emergentes que se puedan relacionar con el nuestro en términos de conectividad, desarrollo y política pública.

No todas las conexiones son iguales

La primera crítica al proyecto es que Zuckerberg está creando un Internet chiquito, limitado y con el fin expandir la base de usuarios de Facebook para tener cómo monetizarlos. Él no contradice esto, pero argumenta que “algo de conexión es mejor que nada” y que al ver lo importante de la red, estos usuarios eventualmente pasarán a pagar por datos.

Pero según Mark Graham del Instituto de Internet de la Universidad de Oxford, para cerrar la brecha digital no es sólo importante la penetración y el acceso, sino el uso que le de la gente. Al proveer la opción de Internet gratis se puede asumir que la gente la tomará y que la mayoría de estos usuarios serán de escasos recursos. Esto creará un Internet paralelo: el de los que tienen plata y el de los que no.

Hasta ahora pensamos en el Internet como un beneficio absoluto que trae consigo la equidad y el acceso a la información. La mayor parte de la investigación social hecha sobre el tema contradice la teoría. Al paso que vamos el grueso de la información en Wikipedia sobre los países en desarrollo ha sido escrita por norteamericanos y europeos. Por ende, a pesar de tener el acceso no estamos colaborando al mismo nivel y, por el contrario, muy pocas compañías internacionales se llevan la mayoría del tráfico derivado de la creación y circulación de la información que consumimos.

¿Qué es la neutralidad en la red?

La idea comenzó con la Comisión Federal de Comunicaciones de Estados Unidos (FCC, por sus siglas en inglés), la cual considera el Internet como un servicio público básico. Bajo este principio, la ‘neutralidad en la red’ es un conjunto de reglas creadas por la FCC en 2010 para prevenir que los proveedores de los servicios de Internet realicen cambios en la velocidad para favorecer a algunos sitios o bloqueen el acceso a algunas páginas legales. (Ver: ‘6 claves para entender la neutralidad de la red‘).

En el mundo se discute este principio, que tiene como objetivo el asegurar la libre competencia en el mercado en línea. La premisa es que los dueños de los cables que transmiten el Internet, generalmente las grandes empresas de telecomunicación, no puedan discriminar a un servicio en línea por encima del otro.

Al decidir la alianza con Facebook, Tigo está, en teoría, violando este principio. Al presentarle a sus usuarios una alternativa gratis, lo más seguro es que la tomen. Pero eso haría que la entrada de la gente que utiliza sea manejada, curada y decidida por Facebook. Si uno opta por esta opción, no puede navegar por afuera de las aplicaciones, incluyendo Google, por ejemplo, o algún link a un medio de comunicación que haya puesto un amigo.

Según una entrevista de El Tiempo a Chris Daniels, Vicepresidente encargado de, las aplicaciones que forman parte del conjunto surgen de una discusión entre Facebook, el operador y el gobierno. “Se determina cuáles son más útiles y cuáles van a mejorar más su vida. Estamos abiertos y siempre estamos discutiendo qué nuevas aplicaciones pueden formar parte de”. Pero por ahora no se ve por ningún lado qué proceso hay que seguir si se quiere ser incluido en el portafolio de aplicaciones.

A conectar a los que faltan

En realidad el mayor problema de Zuckerberg ha sido el nombre de su proyecto. Si hubiera dicho que iba a proporcionar algunos servicios gratis para los usuarios más pobres, que se llamara, no hubiera levantado tanta crítica.

Ya hay varias iniciativas que están tomando otras entidades del sector privado para intentar traer el Internet hasta las áreas más remotas del mundo. Project Loon de Google piensa conectar a la gente por medio de globos. El mismo Facebook también compró una fábrica de drones con el mismo propósito. Sea lo que sea, la única forma de expandirse para estos gigantes es competir por la población que aún no se conecta.