It’s Monday afternoon and Anu Sridharan is in the middle of yet another day, of a year that has celebrated her. The 25-year-old has entered Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ list of social entrepreneurs and it’s because of a simple application through which she has managed to impact over 75,000 people in cities like Bengaluru — a state capital in the middle of a full-blown water crisis.
Anu, a UC Berkeley alumnus, was born in Southern California and moved to the southern city three years ago. Her idea, NextDrop, creates a tight loop of communication on water availability, between citizens in need of water, the government and the private sector.
“While I was in grad school, my friend Emily was working on her doctoral thesis on the World Bank’s projects in the Hubballi-Dharwad area. It was there she realised that she spent hours every single day waiting for water to arrive from the taps. So she broached the subject of a pilot of NextDrop in the area, and I said, ‘Sure, why not’!” says Anu, who now manages a team of 12 dedicated youngsters as they work towards utilising technology to end a city’s water troubles from a single office.
In the twin cities of Hubballi-Dharwad, in the south of Karnataka, water supply is notoriously intermittent and there is no assurance as to when water will be released from the reservoirs to reach the taps of the city folk who, like Emily, often spend hours waiting for their water to arrive. So, to make life easier for not only the people in need of water but also the people in charge of supplying it, Anu and her team established a web of technology-based communication using the most readily-available tool — phones.
The idea was simple — customers would get alerts when their water is about to arrive, if water supply is cancelled or if there is contamination or low pressure present in the pipe network. The system would work both ways, informing officials turning the bigger taps of areas that are in need of water and when.
So, what started off as a tiny effort in 2011 became a sought after service and soon, the Karnataka government expressed an interest in working with Anu and her team. Not ones to limit the service only to those with smartphones, they also introduced text message-based alerts. “I realised how much the app mattered to people when last week, I got a call from a woman who complained saying she hadn’t received updates in the past couple of days. Can you imagine the amount of involvement where you are driven to call because an app you use has stopped working? Most of the apps I try on my phone, if they stop working then I delete it. But here, she was calling me. At times I find it difficult to believe that people listen to me. I have made every mistake in the book... the only thing I did right was that I chose to continue,” says Anu.
Despite a phone that rings off the hook, Anu is finding time to be normal — allowing herself some breaks to learn dancing, practice yoga and maybe that TV dinner. “I had an ordinary childhood in California and an even more ordinary college life. It took a while for my parents to understand that I was leaving a job to start a venture in India. If I were my child I’d say, ‘you’re crazy!’ but now the surprise has given way to understanding. In the end it’s the product that matters — it’s a start.”