App and the city

Technology-based solutions can help sort out urban challenges like waste management, water disposal

Written by Saritha Rai | Updated: June 23, 2014 9:45 am
rag-m In a city reeking from a long-drawn garbage crisis, a technology solution that uncomplicates waste management and makes micro-entrepreneurs out of waste-pickers is nothing short of a windfall.

In hi-tech hub Bangalore, which has gone from garden city to garbage city in the span of the last two years, waste-pickers are going digital. This week, a waste-pickers’ cooperative called Hasirudala (Green Force) is launching a pilot where it will train trash collectors to tap in data, such as the weight of each kind of garbage collected, into a smartphone app. Workers at its dry waste-collection centres are using tablets to track and analyse grades of plastic and paper waste. This data is plugged into a cloud-based platform through which the cooperative measures the livelihood and environmental impact of the waste.

The cloud-based platform, called I Got Garbage (IGG), was launched last week by the Bangalore-headquartered IT services firm, Mindtree, to connect the city’s waste-pickers to its waste producers. In a city reeking from a long-drawn garbage crisis, where clueless authorities periodically fumble about for answers, a technology solution that uncomplicates waste management and makes micro-entrepreneurs out of waste-pickers is nothing short of a windfall.

Mindtree is not the only one bringing technology to the rescue. Earlier this year, the multinational IT consulting firm, IBM, collaborated with the city’s water authority, BWSSB and, by using Big Data and predictive analysis technology, created a “dashboard”, a command centre to monitor and manage its complex water supply networks. The city’s population explosion, doubling in under a decade and a half, has so strained its water distributions system that the supply is just not adequate to meeting the city’s needs. But technology is now ensuring that the precious resource is equitably and fairly distributed.

Not just Bangalore, a city of 10 million residents, but every one of India’s crowded, populous cities could benefit from technology-based solutions to sort out their real and massive urban challenges. Each innovation could be part of a large technology-based urban programme that every other Indian city could learn and adapt from. “Technology can play an important role in addressing many of urban India’s challenges,” said Prashant Mehra, the associate vice president of social inclusion at Mindtree who spearheaded IGG. Mehra wants to eventually move the platform from serving Bangalore’s 20,000 waste-pickers to India’s 1.5 million waste collectors. “But technology alone cannot solve challenges unless citizens, the government and social business collaborate,” he said.

India certainly has a monumental challenge at hand on the solid waste management front since it is projected to generate a billion tonnes of waste in the next decade. Mindtree’s platform is conceived as a giant but simple, cloud-based marketplace for waste management services. “The emerging theme is to treat waste as a resource,” said Mehra. Social businesses such as Hasirudala, which organises waste-pickers into franchises, and seven other such small enterprises are IGG’s collaborators in making waste management an organised business. These franchises participate in IGG’s online marketplace, where waste generators like large residential communities, office parks, households and companies can access their services.

“The waste-picker franchise model which plugs into the IGG platform could be a prototype for other Indian cities,” said Hasirudala’s co-founder, Nalini Shekar. Through a structured, tech-governed framework, every waste-picker in Bangalore is a micro-entrepreneur. “Technology can help solve problems that seem big and insurmountable,” Shekar said. As proof that the system is working, Shekar’s waste-pickers are being targeted by the city’s garbage mafia, whose monopoly of transporting unsegregated waste to landfills and getting paid by quantity is being threatened.

With IGG’s rollout, Bangalore’s citizens have a single window to explore specific waste-management solutions. The platform assists urban communities groping for solutions to their solid waste disposal challenges to “hire a vendor”. Because garbage in Indian cities is not segregated, recycling is inefficient. By organising communities of waste-pickers, the platform gives them stable access to a supply chain of segregated waste, with a potential to double their monthly income to over Rs 8,000 by selling recyclable material. It avoids their scavenging through unsegregated waste dumped in street corners, which is hazardous and inhuman. The platform offers business management tools for waste-pickers, social engagement tools for citizens and a marketplace for waste-management services. Just as importantly, it helps avert massive amounts of waste going to the landfill — the crux of Bangalore’s garbage problem, with villagers blocking access to landfills in its suburbs.

Technology is the enabler for next-generation smart cities in India but the approach has to be holistic, encompassing traffic, power, waste, water and other constituents, said Priyansh Dixit, programme director of IBM India’s Smarter Cities project. “In crowded Indian cities, the design solutions have to be different,” he said.

At Bangalore’s water supply authority, IBM’s command centre monitors the water flow in bulk-flow meters installed at various points. That dashboard provides a single view, real-time monitoring of the amount of water transmitted by each flow meter, the amount supplied to individual geographies within the distribution system, the level of water in each reservoir in the area and so on.

In a city afflicted by serious water shortages, officials can pan and click on a specific flow meter to view the latest flow rate, total flow in 24 hours and average flow over the past week. “The advanced analytics helps plot water levels in the reservoirs and plan the flow. Deviations cause an alert to come up or an alarm to sound off,” said Dixit. Investing in an efficient water distribution system helps conserve the resource, he said.

The waste management and water distribution technologies are a start but Indian cities need many such transformational projects to fix their problems. The solutions, however, are proof that such projects can be started up within India’s many technology companies as part of their corporate social responsibility.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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