Lounge Cool Ideas 2014 | Socialcops
Lounge Cool Ideas 2014 | Socialcops

Socialcops: An ongoing census

How data sourced from the grass roots and insights from it can yield focused and speedy public interest decision making

Socialcops (www.Socialcops.org)

Past life

A bus ride across Singapore and a “random 8pm call" for a dinner date is what got Prukalpa Sankar and Varun Banka, both 22 now, together. Batchmates at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, the duo had never met on campus before 2012, but knew about each other.

Banka, who was pursuing computer engineering, had participated with three others (Harjoben Singh aka Jo, Bhavdeep Singh and Sneha Gururaj) in the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2012, a global technology challenge for students, and had presented a prototype of an app called SocialCops. The Imagine Cup’s Facebook page describes their project as “a civic engagement application that would be compatible with both mobile and Web technology. The objective of this app is to bring transparency to citizens in developing nations, facing corruption and other administrative problems."

“We wanted to win the Xbox, which was the prize for the runners-up team, and we went back with it," says Banka. The project went into cold storage when Singh and Gururaj dropped out, and Banka and Jo could not figure out how to make it sustainable.

Enter Sankar, who was completing her degree in biomolecular and chemical engineering and entrepreneurship. Alongside, she worked with a start-up community—the Singapore Entrepreneurship Challenge that connected students who wanted to intern with start-ups. Sankar had read about Banka and SocialCops’ win on Facebook.

When the two met on the bus, they talked about the start-ups for over an hour and then disappeared from each other’s radars for a few months. Until one evening, when Banka asked Sankar out on a dinner date...to discuss SocialCops. “I want diversity in the project, the right mix of girls and boys. I was right about wanting that because when Prukalpa came on board, things changed," says Banka. “Yeah, these techies needed someone with business sense to push them," adds Sankar.

Eureka moment

The basic idea of SocialCops was crowdsourcing, i.e using an app and the power of people to gather information. As a for-profit start-up which reinvents itself with every new pilot it completes, SocialCops is now focused on being able to collect data from the grass roots, deriving insights from it and influencing public interest decision making into becoming more focused, speedy and accurate.

Genesis

Prukalpa Sankar (standing) and Varun Banka (in chequered shirt) with data collection agents in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Prukalpa Sankar (standing) and Varun Banka (in chequered shirt) with data collection agents in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Prukalpa Sankar (standing) and Varun Banka (in chequered shirt) with data collection agents in New Delhi.

The three of them did discuss “other ideas, easier concepts than SocialCops, because we heard a lot of ‘Oh this will never work’, ‘Governments will not respond’, etc., but then we decided to organize an online crowdfunding exercise in September 2012 and also ask people how they felt about the idea," says Sankar. The results surprised them. Though they only raised $600 (around 36,600), emails from all over the world poured in. “People helping with contacts, giving feedback, telling us to tweak it like this. That gave us confidence about the idea," says Banka.

They did two things in order to raise money for the concept to grow and to sustain themselves after graduation. “We used our student status to the hilt and randomly cold-called people, asked them about difficulties, ideas, and people actually responded. We also decided to participate in student business-plan competitions," says Sankar.

Banka listed 15 competitions they could participate in. “We travelled to Seattle in the US, Taiwan, Bangkok, Hong Kong for these and won most of them," says Sankar. In fact, participating in these competitions helped them sharpen their idea. “We got a lot of feedback and ideas on how to improve the monetization and also found mentors like Anurag Banerjee of Mobilewala (an e-commerce site that sells mobiles), who is now on our board of directors," says Banka. One of the ideas they now use is how to involve local stakeholders in a data collection drive.

By September 2013, SocialCops had its first project. Meera Sanyal (formerly with Royal Bank of Scotland, now with the Aam Aadmi Party) connected them to Anita Bhargava, who heads a New Delhi-based citizens movement, Let’s do it! Delhi. Bhargava monitored sanitation-related activities in the Punjabi Bagh area and knew the ward councillor. “She suggested the ward from where we could launch our pilot study. We met the stakeholders—resident welfare associations, karamcharis (workers), councillor, municipal corporation officers—and tried to understand what was happening," says Banka, adding that that’s when they realized the start-up couldn’t be built in a room.

“We had to be in the field before launching any data collection drive to understand the real problems. For this ward, we sent a simple voice-based phone message on a Sunday to residents, asking them to rate the cleanliness of their street that week. In some cases we even had to take feedback written on chits or sent via SMSes because that is what worked. We had realized early that a Web-based data collection drive would not work here," says Banka.

They collated the information from 80 people (one person per street) over two months and found which street was cleanest. Then they initiated an award for the karamcharis of the five cleanest streets. “It was such a simple thing for us to do, but when we saw the impact it can have, we knew that the conventional route of working with banks and multinational companies was not for us," says Banka.

In May, SocialCops raised $320,000. The investment was led by Silicon Valley-based fund 500 Startups and angel investors Rajan Anandan, managing director, Google India, and Manoj Menon, managing director, Asia-Pacific, Frost & Sullivan.

Reality check

“The idea is to collaborate with as many non-profits in the country as possible, to digitize their data collection and draw insights from previously unusable data. The census happens once in 10 years in our country. We want to power a citizen-led census on a real-time basis, more regularly," she adds.

Data is something people and government are beginning to care about now, but “most people don’t understand it or the power it can yield yet", adds Banka.

Secret sauce

The ability to change and update their idea multiple times.

Plan B

“If this doesn’t work, McDonald’s will surely hire us," says Banka.

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