Collective Intelligence and Citizen Data for Water Management: Reflections from the Chennai Floods

Collective Intelligence and Citizen Data for Water Management: Reflections from the Chennai Floods

World Water Day, celebrated each year on March 22, allows us to focus on this most vital of resources, and the ways in which we can ensure its purity and availability for future generations. This year, the United Nations has selected the theme of Valuing Water, as an invitation to reflect on what water means to each of us.

Water has been at the heart of Indian culture since its inception. The recurring ebb and flow of the Ganges and the regularity of monsoon season have defined life in India for thousands of years. But climate change and water stress fueled by rapid urbanization have complicated the predictable nature of our relationship with water, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in our great cities.

The story of floods and droughts in Indian cities does not follow simple, linear narratives of poor urban planning or callous decision-making. Like most discourses on flooding, it’s complicated. It has become imperative to address flooding and water scarcity simultaneously, as cities with severe water crises are now increasingly experiencing severe flooding, as well. This includes cultural and financial centers such as Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, and Chennai.

The last city to be listed, Chennai, holds tremendous significance for Athena Infonomics. The home to our very first office, Chennai remains the headquarters of our organisation, even as we expand into the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The data scientists, social scientists, and software engineers that support Athena Infonomics’ work use their experience from living in or visiting Chennai to inform the development of programming solutions and data science tools.

For this reason, Athena Infonomics is very interested in the solutions that data—and the proper use of data—can offer to the citizens of Chennai. The case study below illustrates how cities like Chennai are leading the way on innovation that will change our uses of data, and lets us consider how this might alter our relationship with water.

Geospatial Data to the Rescue: The Chennai Flood Map

One might not associate Chennai with flooding. After all, this bustling metropolis of more than seven million people is primarily known for its endurance in the face of acute water shortages year after year. But in November of 2015, citizens of Chennai had a different story to tell, as the city experienced the worst flooding in its recent history. The world outside of Chennai was learning of the emergency unfolding throughout the city, but this knowledge transfer was not occurring through any formal radio broadcast or public warning system. Rather, news was rolling in directly from the residents of Chennai, who were transmitting their whereabouts and observations through tweets, texts, and other technological means.

It was in this crisis that individuals mobilised on social media like never before. Response to the crisis started informally, with one individual mapping the coordinates to rescue requests using a simple Excel spreadsheet. One small group of open-source technology activists, driven by the need for more information on how friends and families were being affected by the flooding, quickly prototyped and launched a reporting tool to crowdsource the location of flooded roads, relief camps, and other geospatial data on an interactive, mobile-friendly map. This tool seemed daunting to many at first, since there was no guarantee that a person who was posting a rescue request would be able to find nearby flood relief camps or other forms of volunteer services. But during its first week of operation, the tool recorded over one million views and collected information on more than 2,800 flooded streets. This effort became a repository through which citizen volunteers and the city government could coordinate post-flood relief work.

Figure 1: The Chennai Flood Map. (Image source: Times of India.)

The Wisdom of Crowds

The success of what came to be known as the Chennai Flood Map lies at the intersection of two revolutionary changes in the digital world that we so often take for granted.

The first change concerns the crowdsourcing of geospatial data, made possible through the ubiquitous use of mobile devices. It is now incredibly easy for citizens to both share and track geographic information—a feature that was once restricted to governments and large organizations. This emergent form of information, referred to as volunteered geographic information, enables ordinary citizens to contribute their local knowledge to a given application. In the context of Chennai, each citizen may have only known about the flooding situation in his or her specific locality. But by pooling together the knowledge from thousands of citizens, the Chennai Flood Map was able to paint a much more accurate picture of the disaster in real time.

The second change—and potentially the most impactful—has to do with the opportunity for civic participation that these tools made available to ordinary citizens at a city scale. A collaborative approach, conceived in a matter of just three days, empowered participants and built a sense of responsibility and ownership among the Chennai community. More and more people joined the Chennai Flood Map project, either out of simple curiosity, or in hope of reaching out to someone who they knew. The toolkit recognized volunteers’ contributions and let people see the impact and power of their work. This sense of community involvement ensured regular reporting and continued use. The Chennai Flood Map stands as a unique case study in how efficient relief operations can function if access to real-time information is facilitated by citizens in a decentralized manner.

Crowdsourcing is often seen as a one-way communication channel, whose use is limited to niche applications such as crisis response. A number of barriers constrain the true potential of crowdsourcing, including: questions concerning the authenticity of the data; the lack of clear incentives for data generators to share data; and an absence of clear and well-communicated protocols around privacy and safety. But these barriers are quickly being addressed, as can be seen in the growing body of literature on new institutional models for data governance that promote the generation and sharing of protocols to incentivize citizen intelligence. One such example is the data cooperative model, developed and championed by Thomas Hardjono and Alex Pentland, which encourages the voluntary, collaborative pooling of personal data by individuals for the benefit of a group or community.

One variation of the data cooperative model, through which fiduciary obligations are made to members, provides a promising direction for individuals’ empowerment through their own personal data. Hardjono and Pentland argue that a data cooperative could “manage, curate, and protect access to the personal data of citizen members. Furthermore, the data cooperative can run internal analytics in order to obtain insights regarding the well-being of its members. Armed with these insights, the data cooperative would be in a good position to negotiate better services and discounts for its members.”

Valuing Water through Valuing Data

The rise of crowdsourcing, geospatial data, and data cooperatives may seem like a foreign concept now, but a time of greater democratization through digital technology and an increased awareness of “data rights” among the general population is on the horizon.

As citizens of the world start to recognize the value of their own personal data, and the need to take control of it, we will inevitably see an overlap with other precious resources—water being chief among them. In Chennai, we learned the hard way that water is not only a necessity of life, but that it is also a powerful force that can put us in harm’s way.

Our basic rights to water, and information on how water is increasingly encroaching on our everyday lives through the effects of climate change, will start to extend into the digital realm, as geospatial data creates a sense of ownership and history that will not easily be taken away. By creating an environment in which our data is valued, we are setting the stage for a true valuation of water—and a recognition of our universal right to it.

Figure 2: The Water Data Impact Cycle

Sabareesh Suresh
Sabareesh’s interests include the application of data science for performance evaluation and monitoring. He also has an interest in strategies for urban resilience, financing urban development and localization of the Sustainable Development Goals.