For many students working a summer job in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, water is something you bring to the table with the appetizers. For Adam Witt, however, it's about changing the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.
In parts of India, millions of people line up weekly for water from tanker trucks, sometimes waiting hours for a few liters or even walking home empty-handed when the tanker runs dry.
Working with TERI University in New Delhi, University of Minnesota civil engineering doctoral candidate Adam Witt, 26, and four colleagues developed a cellphone-based system that sends texts to people in Kooli Camp, near New Delhi, when water is available.
"This is a low-income community of 1,000 people who live on $4 to $6 a day and they have to walk a mile to get water," Witt said.
Despite the poverty, 80 percent of residents have inexpensive, prepaid cellphones, and in India, text messages are free to receive. Witt and his colleagues created a plan to hire runners who would check on water supplies throughout the day and report back.
The U's Institute on the Environment selected the group's business proposal, called TextRA, for its 2011 Acara Challenge, a competition that awards $5,000 and tuition to four teams to travel to India for a program at the Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore.
Several Indian technology startups and investors have expressed interest in collaborating on the project, and TextRA's team has also been selected as a semifinalist in the student category of the Minnesota Cup, an entrepreneurial competition.
"We are waiting to hear back on Minnesota Cup, and we're making progress in India," said Witt. "We're not looking for a major success; success for us would be to create a useful service that would help people save money and time. We'd all be happy with that as an outcome."
Three and out with Adam Witt
- What are the main challenges?
Corruption in the free water distribution system. The government says water is delivered every day, while residents say it's delivered every four or five days -- and there are charges that some of the supply is siphoned off to the local water mafia.
- How have the people of Kooli Camp responded?
Pretty well, but [they] want a concrete number on how much more water or food they will get with this service. That's something we can't provide without a generous amount of data.
- Biggest surprise/shock?
The density of people. In Delhi, you can find groups of people sitting under overpasses, or the side of the road, or on the rare stretch of land that's not developed. [But] to me the most shocking thing is open defecation ... The infrastructure doesn't exist to support the amount of human waste generated. I read that more people [in India] have cellphones than have access to toilets.