Students Use MIT Skills For Indian Flood Relief

I arrived in Delhi, like most international travellers, in the middle of the night, when the temperature was a mere 70 degrees. I walked out of the terminal to see a melee of taxi drivers soliciting the custom of shell-shocked travellers with the latest Bollywood hits blaring out of tinny speakers. It was, you know, the usual spring break scene.

But I had a mission. I was there as part of the new D-Lab companion subject Information and Communications Technology for Development (SP.716). I’m a member of one of eight teams working around the world on using IT to solve problems ranging from education to matching workers with employers. My team works with Catholic Relief Services India, a non-governmental organization involved in flood relief in Bihar in northern India.

Bihar is one of the most flood-prone states in India because of runoff from the Himalayas that starts right on its northern border. Since 2002, parts of Bihar have suffered severe flooding every year. Lives and livelihoods have been lost as crops have been inundated and animals have starved. Nine months after last year’s disastrous flood, some of the waters still haven’t drained away.

Here’s the problem: it’s hard to collect information about which areas are hit worst by a flood. The first response (food rations, first aid kits and so on) ought to occur within 48 hours of the flood.

Presently, collecting and analyzing the information and distributing it among various responders takes around a month. Meanwhile, undersupply leads to people going hungry, while oversupply produces corruption and long-term economic problems.

This is where we come in. Our plan is to develop a cell phone-based application which the operatives can use to gather information and send it back to a central server, where instant analysis would make the information available throughout the organization. It’s just the right time to develop such a system — cell coverage in Bihar is good and improving rapidly, and relief workers use phones extensively. Also, donors are beginning to see information and communications infrastructure as a necessity rather than a waste of money.

To be sure, there are problems. Internet access at the CRS offices is reliable, but the electricity is flaky.

Offices are all equipped with battery backups and generators often supply backup power. (Sometimes this backfires. One time the grid went down while I was in the CRS office in Delhi. The generator started, but wasn’t working properly: the overhead lights started flashing and the air conditioner made an ominous rattling noise — it felt like a cheap Exorcist remake! One of the CRS staff ran to turn them off, then tried to reassure me: “Don’t worry — we’ve only had one fire here.”)

I spent several days visiting villages affected by last year’s floods. Nine months later, much arable land remains underwater and hence unusable. Recovery from the destruction of crops and livestock will take a while.

Villagers’ biggest complaint was that they have no warning of an impending flood and thereby no time to get their property and livestock to safety. This is another area where cell phones could come in useful — adoption in rural India is growing rapidly and there’s at least one cell phone owner in most villages.

I was encouraged by how keen Indian companies are to get involved with helping the less well-off. I met with the Head of Corporate Sustainability of a major Indian cellphone operator, and he was very excited about our project.

He suggested using their ubiquitous network of manned public phone booths to collect and disseminate information. He suggested a long-term partnership between his company and MIT — which made a great end to a very productive trip.

We plan to run an initial trial of our solution this summer, in time for the monsoon in mid-June. Our work has revealed an exciting area with rapid growth and a lot of innovation. It’s rare for computer scientists to be able to make a positive difference in the world.