Social Enterprise Showcase: How Social Cops uses crowdsourced data to bring about infrastructural change

Tech startup Social Cops believes crowdsourcing is the best way to get accurate, real-time data that can be used to prioritize development.


Isn’t it funny that Facebook seems to know what you want to read, but your city’s mayor doesn’t know what needs to be fixed in your city? Social Cops makes use of citizen data to make sure both the authorities and citizens win – making sure funds are allocated correctly, work is done, and problems are fixed.

Prukalpa Sankar and Varun Banka did all the “right” things: getting scholarships to go to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) where they studied Engineering and Entrepreneurship, and Computer Science respectively, and interned in big investment banking firms and software firms.

But even while working in these firms, they know their hearts were in the interesting space of startups and non-profits. They had done small things until then; Prukalpa was involved with the Joy of Giving Week and Varun had created a very basic website, blogging about NGOs, non-profits, and things that were happening in India.

In the heyday of the India Against Corruption movement, they saw a lot of citizen energy with people holding placards and going to protests, but none of this was necessarily translated into impact. This led to them to thinking of ways in which citizens could actually participate in an impactful, constructive manner.

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But they were still in college and with no connections, so they formed a Facebook campaign to get the idea out and hear what people thought of it. They got an enormous response from people all over the world and that helped shape their thoughts. One thing remained unchanged, the basic question they set out to answer: How can we use crowdsourced citizen data as a system to create change?

They raised about $30,000 USD just taking part in several business-plan competitions. These competitions also got them in touch with mentors and advisors. Simultaneously, they were doing pilots on the ground with their partners in India.

Why crowdsourcing for data

Prukalpa says it’s ironic that Facebook knows what posts to show you or your shopping websites try to predict what you’ll buy next, but there is no real-time data on the important things like where police should patrol, how many functional public toilets or open manholes there are, etc. Crowdsourcing is a way to get accurate, real-time data, thanks to the proliferation of smart phone and data use. “Through Social Cops apps, for example, people can tell our partners (often governments) where they feel unsafe and where there have been crimes and we use this data to tell the cops the most optimized route for patrolling,” she says.

They are a data company and not problem fixers

Social Cops is often confused as an organization that can ‘spot-fix’ or give you a solution. But Prukalpa is quick to reiterate that they’re a data company. They won’t do what they do unless there is a government buy-in for it and it is not acted upon.

Social Cops also works with non-profits to digitize all their data collection- transfer it from paper so it can act as a layer to public data. Apart from helping with collect and digitize data, they’re also looking at a lot of open data, putting in analysis and coming up with insights for decision making.

Their website has a data-station where you can visualize data and see what’s relevant to you – whether it’s ratings of MPs (Member of Parliament), crime rates, or data on mid-day meals schemes.

Data visualisation on the site

Data visualisation for thefts in residences in 2011

Plans for growth

Social Cops plans to launch city wide apps, and are creating one for Bangalore, and integrated this with the local authorities. Say you spot an open manhole, the app will allow you to take a picture of it and feed the picture into the BWSSB’s system along with the location, giving you a complaint number. Ideally, then the commissioner will then allocate resources  to fix these manholes. The idea is to provide data to  allow the commissioner to make a decision quickly and accurately.

This is not just wishful thinking, Social Cops has seen it work in Delhi (mapping road infrastructure), Bangalore (increasing rates for cervical cancer vaccination), and Ranchi (for broken streetlights, where the mayor allocated 2-3 crores just to fix street lights). They’ve seen that data is useful for make decision makers make better decisions. Social Cops also has created an app for Delhi’s heritage sites, making information available to the public, in a fun and engaging way.

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A screenshot of Social Cops’ Delhi Heritage app

The government need not be the only stakeholder, there could also be corporates that are interested in knowing how their social investments are faring—knowing where the money is going, its impacts, and directing it to a more productive use, Prukalpa says they look forward to such opportunities with smarter governments and corporations.

Challenges

“Technology has advanced so much, but sometimes the reality is different in our villages. It’s so easy to sit in your room and make decisions, but when you go on the ground you see it might not work. Our tech guys always test things on the ground, it gives them an understanding os what works and doesn’t. For example, even 2G data is hard to come by in most villages, collecting data through android phones is not as easy as you’d imagine, so we have had to create methods for offline data collection,” says Prukalpa.

“But it is a very exciting space, the attitudes towards data is changing, governments are increasingly interested in data, there is so much talk about the importance of data, we’ve been invited to events all over the world to join in the conversation.”

Making a difference

Prukalpa’s favourite story from her work has to be when they awarded Safai Karamcharis for their work based on citizens’ scoring of street cleanliness. They initially planned to give them monetary rewards but the Karamcharis insisted on trophies and certificates instead, and a ceremony with the ward councillor.

Looking ahead

At Social Cops they really believe that technology is the way to go, so they have a Google Glass and drones in the office. Prukalpa wonders if SMS and voice are on their way out, and if something will replace apps too.

Just two years old, Social Cops has already reached out to about a million people and has won several awards, including Microsoft’s Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition and the UN’s World Youth Summit Award 2013.

Social Cops is also running the Himsagar Fellowship.

Featured image courtesy: Dipanker Dutta | Flickr


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