India, like most developing countries, struggles to bridge the gulf between authorities and the common man. Even the best of intentions come to naught when the benefits of welfare schemes don’t reach the people who need them the most — and those in high places can’t seem to figure out why. There are many reasons for this, such as leakages in the system or plain apathy. But often it has nothing to do with corruption, but simply an administrative matter: decisions that affect the lives of millions of people are being taken with little ground data to support them.
This is the hole that SocialCops, a data technology startup, attempts to plug. It is building a tool that will allow policy-makers, researchers, and journalists to collect, analyze, and visualize data about some of the most daunting social and governance issues in India. For that, it has just raised US$320,000 in seed funding from 500 Startups, as well as individual investors Rajan Anandan, managing director of Google India, and Manoj Menon, managing director of Frost & Sullivan APAC.
Here is how SocialCops works: data from the people on a variety of issues that affect their daily lives – from pot-holes on roads to teacher-attendance in government schools – is crowd-sourced via low-cost internet-enabled mobile phones. It also deploys field workers to remote areas with no mobile connectivity. From the large amounts of data collected, it mines insights, and ensures those reach decision-makers.
Sometimes, the causes of problems like a higher number of crimes in a particular area aren’t obvious from just one set of data. But when you layer many parameters, the answers become evident. For example, when SocialCops mapped crime rates, police patrol routes, and dark streets simultaneously, the correlation between crime and lack of street lights came up. The startup used its findings to push for more street lights in the affected areas, and better patrolling to tackle public safety issues.
Pankaj Jain, Venture Partner at 500 Startups, in a statement announcing the funding, says:
SocialCops is taking big data in a direction that very few companies have been able to do: providing data and insights that can help solve real problems for most of the planet.
As part of its ongoing projects, SocialCops is measuring the impact of government welfare schemes for poverty eradication, social inclusion, and healthcare services in rural India. Leave alone availing the benefits of these programs, most of India’s villagers aren’t even aware of the existence of such schemes. The policy makers at the other end do not get credible feedback that reflects the day-to-day struggle for many constituents. SocialCops is intervening with its mobile platforms (voice and SMS), Android and tablet apps, and web dashboard to monitor these issues, gather information, and push for corrective action by providing authorities with verifiable insights.
Prukalpa Sankar, co-founder of SocialCops, explains what’s lacking:
Even today, important national-level decisions about issues like vaccinations and medication affecting millions of people are made based on sample surveys of 100 people. Google Maps tells you the quickest route home, but what about the safest route home for a girl?
Her aim is to use the power of tech to empower decision-makers to address problems of public health, infrastructure, education, and crime with sound data mined from their societal roots. For this, the startup has partnered with government bodies, not-for-profit organizations, and corporate bodies.
Varun Banka, the other co-founder of SocialCops, adds: “The census in many developing countries occurs only once in ten years and often the data is outdated before it can be used. We want to power even the census on a real-time basis by leveraging our nonprofit partners who reach the remotest parts of the world.”
The marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets of companies have been fueling most of SocialCops’ work so far. The seed funding from 500 Startups and others will help the startup build its data station further, and perhaps, usher in a new era of more effective execution of well-intentioned social welfare initiatives in India.