The Power of Us

Summer in India brings not only juicy mangoes but also the prospect of frequent planned and unplanned power cuts. The euphemism “load shedding” tries to hide the fact that the grid is unable to shoulder the demand for electricity. This demand is rising with India’s rapid economic growth. This economic growth also means that fewer and fewer Indian citizens have the time to take their utility companies to task for failing to deliver a reliable power supply. However they do now have the means to have spent a reported US$ 22 Billion on power back-up equipment such as inverters that store power in a battery while there is supply, or generators.

This is my third summer on Twitter. Come summer time, my Twitter stream floods with persons complaining about power cuts in the middle of a workday stymieing productivity, or in the middle of the night interrupting resting hours. On May the 4th, after seeing a few tweets, I suggested: “May be you guys SHOULD tweet #powercut with location. The infographic will highlight the need for investment. To many people.” Within a few minutes, an enthusiastic techie, Ajay Kumar had created a site with an Ushahidi backend to track such reported powercuts. Within seconds we had our first report – from Gurgaon, a new, modish town which is in the national capital region but whose powercuts are legendary. It has not stopped since. These reports mainly came from Twitter users reporting power cuts with their locations  and a hashtag #powercutIndia. In the first 24 hours, the hashtag reached an audience of over 98000 people with over 157000 impressions. In the next couple of days, Ajay and I took the decision to move to a proper own domain – www.powercuts.in. On the website persons can also report anonymously; this allays privacy concerns and security risks that were highlighted to us early on by some Twitter users. Soon a design firm provided us with a logo and is now developing the website further. We set up a Facebook page and one of India’s leading dailies, Times Of India, wrote a piece on the project.

From idea to execution, to the actual build-up and success Power Cuts In India is a crowd-sourced, open data project. This means everything we do is out in the public domain. The Wiki details in one place all the work and credits. An open document collates ideas on how to improve the data collection and what possible uses it can be put to. At the time of writing, we are testing SMS based reporting and smart apps for smart phones are in development. Purely on voluntary basis from enthusiastic donors of their expertise and time, who believe in the project.

Naturally there has been curiosity as to why so many of us, including Ajay and I, would give so much of our time to collate this information. Typically I have been asked why such monitoring is needed, since everyone knows how bad the power situation is. The short answer is that situational awareness allows specific responses. Whether from government, from utility companies, from investors or from citizens themselves. One of the most recent examples in another – admittedly acute, not chronic like the power cut situation – setting was seen in Libya.

For me, the project is a beautiful example of how the power of social media can be harnessed to take a simple idea into execution and how web and social technologies can build a resilient backbone for a project. The rapid prototyping and release of the website by Ajay deserves a special mention too. And with rapid prototyping come iterations and incremental changes.

These are being made based on ideas suggested through our open document. Collective wisdom continues to shape and define the project. We are all aware that this should not become yet another urban India project but also rolled out to villages where issues related to linguistic diversity as well as lack of literacy may be a problem. This awareness is feeding into design and reporting protocol related to SMS reporting and smart apps in development. With mainstream media carving a narrative out of something happening on the web, more citizens in India are getting to hear about the project as evidenced by reports now coming in from more regions than just the metros or individual towns where some of the Twitter users are located. SMS reporting will enable even more persons.

What can a corporate firm learn from our experience so far?

First, social technologies can be unpredictable in their scope, reach and success. When the Power Cuts In India project was rolled out, a Twitter user pointed out she had suggested the idea three years ago. But it did not take off then. However when I mentioned it on May the 4th, it did take off and is now growing by leaps and bounds. This unpredictability of uptake can be unnerving for those, who like to predict both the trajectory and the time line of their “social” undertakings.

Second, when an idea gains traction, crowd-sourcing can be benevolent or damaging. In case of Power Cuts In India, it has been benevolent so far. HSBC’s experience from a few years ago was bracing and different.

Third, “social” is not concrete, fully formed. It is amorphous, iterative. Or in the words of Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke: “Planning is everything. Plans are nothing.” Before launching into “social” an organisation needs cultural readiness. And comfort with amorphousness, iteration and tweaking in response to feedback.

Regardless of where you are, you can contribute to the project by sharing your views here. Or on this post.

Further reading:

An old post on the use of Twitter in emergencies/ acute situations.

Power Cuts In India in media:

Times Of India

PC World

CIO Magazine

Yahoo News

LiveNewsIndia

One India (online in Tamil)

Trak.in

The Daily Dot notes that for all its resilience, the web still needs electricity.

WiredCPU

TechGoss

Paant.com

Geo-spatial World

Social Media Guru

BBC – on Social Media for Social Good in India – features PowerCutsIndia (video)

 

One thought on “The Power of Us

  1. Congratulations on following through with this initiative. It’s one thing to lament about a problem and another to get prople together to give it a voice. It reminds me of SRK’s light bulb moment in Swades :). This initiative will one hopefully light a thousand bulbs, when needed. Good on you! as they say here downunder. V.

    @VPathak: Thanks for your note and your kind words. We have all suffered the menace of power cuts and now it appears to be a more severe problem for many reasons other than simple supply and demand imbalance. Of course, all of us are working on shram-daan basis so the credit is everybody’s. “The idea whose time has come” perhaps? 🙂

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