When the lights go out in homes in Delhi’s upmarket South Extension, the low hum of hundreds of inverters kicks in. Back-up electricity costs many times the standard tariff for grid power. When Poinguinim in Goa faces periodic rolling blackouts, its 7000-odd denizens fret as the perishable food in their refrigerators goes bad. Water supply and medical care are disrupted, so is everyday life. When the electricity trips for 21 hours every day in Mettupalayam in the industrial district of Coimbatore, time simply stops. Throughout the expanse of the country, the consequences of power outages range from inconvenience to distress. The eleventh Five Year Plan aimed to establish “power for all” by 2012, but now the target has been pushed back. There is still no centralised data repository that logs information about power cuts in detail so that trends can be identified and steps taken to help people. How many of these power outages are planned? How many are incidental? How is electricity theft to be measured?

Software engineer Ajay Kumar set up Power Cuts in India in May 2011 using the Ushahidi platform to track power outages in the country and display them on an interactive Google map. The data is crowdsourced—gathered from tweets, email, form-based website reports, text messages and reports submitted through mobile applications. Specifics of the outages such as their duration, location and nature are logged, reports are moderated and all the data is licensed to be freely available in the public domain.

Screenshot at Powercuts.in

Map displaying concentration of reports at Powercuts.in

Ajay Kumar says he wanted to create “a platform for people to engage and communicate with each other on the issue”. Powercuts.in started as a nebulous idea on Twitter; tweets with the hashtags #PowerCutIndia #PowerCutsIndia and #PowerCutsIN were logged and reflected on the map. The handle @PowerCutsIN was set up later. It is now possible to report outages using the iOS and Android apps for Ushahidi deployments. Dedicated apps for PowersCuts.in on Android, Nokia, BlackBerry and Java phones have been developed by volunteers. Those without smartphones or Internet access can SMS their reports, which are logged through a cloud-based SMS service. A  crowdsourced document discusses everything from generating usable data to possible use cases to volunteer recruitment. A wiki keeps log of collaboration and documentation.

A glance at the 2,500 reports logged so far reveals Chennai and other areas in south India send in far more reports than the north, and more reports come in the sweltering summers than in the winters. The dataset generated by Powercuts.in can potentially be put to use in numerous ways. Most statistics available about planned power outages and deficits in supply are provided by the government or the power companies. In a country where freedom of information exists, an actively crowdsourced dataset enables comparison between the two sets and tells instances of unannounced power outages, electricity theft, or failure of equipment or transmission. It leads to more transparency and gives the citizens tools to question the powers that be. To take it a step further, it could help correlate the availability of power with the occurrence of crime, disease, elections or even baby boom.

Powercuts.in is arguably the most popular Ushahidi deployment in India. Despite receiving its share of attention in the public space, the biggest challenge for Powercuts.in is that reports are few and far between. It needs further outreach to recruit and retain power cut ‘reporters’. Ajay Kumar and his team of volunteers need more manpower to take care of tasks such as moderation of reports and general upkeep and maintenance of the project. An IVR line was set up in April this year for rural users to call and leave voicemail. It received 100-odd reports until the service provider pulled out; he is currently looking for a replacement. Data analysts and visualisers are needed to help crunch the data and make sense of it. The project also needs coders to make the tasks of gathering and filtering data more efficient.

The tagline at Powercuts.in goes, “Jab bijli sataye toh hamein bataye, aapki aawaaz vyarth na jaye”. (When power drives you up the wall, tell us. Your voice should not go unheard.) With the use of citizen data, the crowd might help power a bright future.

This article is a part of our series of features on crowdsourcing and citizen data initiatives. View the series.

Cover image: Getty Images

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