In many ways, Mumbai’s Mira Bhayander municipal corporation’s (MBMC’s) online and mobile Infrastructure Project Management Tracker and Solid Waste Management applications resemble and function like the popular role-playing video game series SimCity.

Just as in the city-building games, the corporation’s municipal commissioner and officials from the public works department can track over 300 ongoing construction projects in the metropolitan area on a map, using Internet browsers at home or office with real-time text and on-site photo updates from civil engineers. They can even use their smartphones and tablet computers to monitor the routes chosen by garbage-collecting trucks on their morning runs, pinpoint the exact location of neglected dustbins, and even keep tabs on the attendance of daily-wage workers through state-of-the-art facial-recognition systems.

Mumbai-based start-up Spatial Ideas has created these map-based solutions for MBMC, using data from mobile survey apps, and biometric systems that use GPS (global positioning systems) and GIS (geographic information systems) data.

Civil engineers, garbage-truck drivers and solid waste management supervisors are all equipped with smartphones, provided by the municipal corporation that cost no more than 4,500, and run dummy-proof data-collecting applications. Such applications may require the user to either click a button at the end of a task or capture images during the task. The data is then analysed and plotted on a map for quick reference and easy comprehension.

This also means the corporation has all the records digitized for fast analysis, and enables automatic email reports to the commissioner and reminders to contractors about delayed projects.

Electronic-engineer and GIS specialist Vishal Agarwal founded Spatial Ideas in January 2009 to create low-cost mapping software solutions like the Infrastructure Project Management Tracker and Solid Waste Management apps the company made for the government bodies.

The only problem was that the first-time entrepreneur had been away from the country for over eight years—first to complete his master’s in electronics engineering from the Penn State University, US, and later to work for GIS software giant ESRI in California—and didn’t know how and where to start.

Even as Agarwal struggled to get access to civic officials, offers from GIS and mapping software companies in the US and Italy started pouring in. “At this point, you can imagine why my motivation levels to go out and make a difference in the country were at an all-time low," says Agarwal .

In July 2011, a surprise referral through LinkedIn.com forced Agarwal to step outside his comfort zone and work with Terracon Ecotech, an ecological solutions and natural resource management services company. In joint partnership with the company, Spatial Ideas developed Vrukshsharad+, a tree census software currently in use by local government bodies across Maharashtra, including MBMC and the Vasai-Virar municipal corporation.

This would lead MBMC’s then municipal commissioner, Vikram Kumar (now the district collector of Aurangabad), to commission Spatial Ideas to build the Infrastructure Project Management Tracker in June 2012. “We had asked for a 15 lakh fee for this project, but Mr Kumar said all I have is 5 lakh," says Agarwal. “We still jumped on it, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how a city’s engineers go about their everyday work."

By June 2012, projects like the infrastructure project management tracker and solid waste management came under an umbrella product, branded MoEGIS (Mobile Enterprise Geographical Information System). The company has since developed software to streamline the public distribution system with a pilot project running in eight ration shops in Aurangabad city. Shopkeepers and shoppers have access to data on daily stocks (by SMS or tablet computers at the shop) and rations are given using only fingerprint scans.

Their health management system, mSwaasth, is at the pilot stage at two health centres in Aurangabad’s Gadana and Aland villages. Agarwal claims that mSwaasth is their most revolutionary project yet and offers real-time, location-based trend reports on key diseases, both age-and gender-wise, and ensures timely vaccinations and pregnancy guidance by auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs).

While mobile data collection software and applications aren’t new or revolutionary, and NGOs and civic bodies employ similar technology from time to time, products by Spatial Ideas have a clean user interface and an integrated approach to the basic civic issues of health, sanitation, infrastructure and food security. “We work very hard to ensure that anyone who comes in contact with our product loves to use it, whether it’s the municipal commissioner or the collector or daily-wage workers and ANMs," says Agarwal. “If they don’t love our product, then there’s a good chance they won’t use it and we’ll have no data to work with."

Working with sensitive information on food rations and infrastructure projects that can bring corrupt officials and perpetrators of civic crimes into the limelight is no easy task but Agarwal claims there haven’t been any instances of violence or threats so far. “Sure, they can try and delay the implementation of our products, but I’ve got news for them—change is coming anyway," says Agarwal. “The best part about running MoEGIS at Spatial Ideas is that I don’t have to wait until I am 60 years old, when I’ve earned enough money, to give back to my country. I’ve already started."

Get involved: Spatial Ideas tweets at @spatialideas; www.spatialideas.com

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