An AI-based workflow optimizer for last-mile civil work execution and delivery
This is a high-level research-based proposal for a citizen support capability for resolving essential services issues in large Indian cities that are serviceable by ward-level municipal offices under the civil engineering “works management” department purview.
India needs no data presentation or insights to highlight the gross challenges and failure in delivering essential infrastructure support to its citizens. It is easily visible for everyone to see! Essential infrastructure services are those that are generally considered as important for the good living standards of any country. India’s cities are overcrowded with population densities that are becoming unmanageable for civic agencies.
There is value in focusing on a solution that ensures the last-mile delivery of essential infrastructural services (build, support, maintain & repair) that often fail due to lack of funds, poor quality, corruption and timeliness of execution at the institution level. Can Artificial Intelligence (AI) do the trick? If so, how? Let us look a little further into how leveraging AI with the core being digital technology product capabilities can fix services workflows and provide much needed visibility on failure points and project progress, not just for government bodies and citizens, but also to the engineers and contractors who are essential in delivering the right solution at the right time to India’s infrastructure-denied citizens.
Citizen Support Services
Civil works is an ideal candidate for consideration in this scenario. This would include- roads, street lights, water, drainage and waste disposal services. As one can see, these essential services are by and large the reason why a city thrives efficiently or is broken down by inefficiency.
User personas covered
- Engineer (or Assistant Engineer)
- Civil Engineer assigned to and responsible for conducting construction, repair and maintenance work by leveraging external contractors.
- Civil Contractor
- 3rd party entity who takes up contract work on behalf of Municipality by bidding for work or winning tenders. Contractors manage the labor working on the last mile deployment of resources for civil work.
- Residents belonging to a ward under a municipality where the related engineering services work is being conducted or requires attention.
- Municipal Commissioner
- Highest management authority overseeing operations and reporting to various oversight entities in government and public administration.
Use Case Story
The below use case story replicates a real-life situation in the city of Bangalore in India. It helps articulate the complexity of the problem and the challenge that well-meaning solutions can face.
Channasandra road is a major road intersecting the Whitefield area’s high traffic zone at Hope Farm junction. It is a connecting point for traffic flowing from Whitefield and Kadugodi areas towards the city and for heavy vehicles exiting the city towards border regions on the East of Bengaluru.
This road was laid out a year back as part of a major road construction work to ease traffic and enable smoother traffic flow. During heavy rains, the road gets damaged at several points due to water stagnation combined with the constant flow of heavy vehicles. About six months back, a quick patchwork was done to fix the deep potholes on the road. This patchwork didn’t last long in some places as a few spots were dug up for fixing a major electricity issue (BESCOM is the power infrastructure agency responsible for it) and for providing Cauvery river water to a big apartment adjacent to the road.
About three months back, following a High Court directive, the BBMP (Municipal civic agency) went on a drive to fix the pot holes to avoid being penalized. However, about two months back, an entire stretch of the road on one-side was massively dug up for laying out gas pipelines (by a 3rd party responsible for the pipeline layout but not for fixing the dug up road). Citizens are not aware of what purpose the pipeline serves, who it benefits and what is its timeframe for completion. A few weeks later, the dug up roads were covered back with mud by a few untrained men.
Following this, the road remained in similar condition with some intermittent days when another unknown agency covered various spots on the failing and weak footpaths with construction raw material. This construction material was possibly for laying back the footpath, but due to lack of storage capability except for being laid on the footpath, the material has overflown and been damaged. Citizens largely consider this as a routine affair of the city’s increasing mismanagement. They don’t complain or know how to approach the contractors on-site who are working on the pipeline layout or roadwork to extract prompt action.
BBMP came up with an app called Sahaaya that citizens can use to raise a complaint ticket. This ticket gets assigned to the appropriate BBMP Engineer for resolution. It has been observed that generally the engineers are not answerable through the app or otherwise to the citizen and are not held responsible for providing or complying to any SLA, timeline, quality or outcome. Generally speaking in the press, the Sahaaya app has been panned as a failure! Citizen protests organized by activist groups garner better response but it requires a lot of strangers to be organized for a prolonged period of time. It requires an effective action committee to put constant pressure on the BBMP offices and/or the Corporator of the BBMP ward office. Guarantee of success through these measures is doubtful unless there is a threat of civic/civil emergency as a result of lack of action in the near term that will cause political fallouts or unfavorable media attention.
While the above story can elicit several innovative solutions, the focus is to pick the first and most effective solution that can get the best attention and impact to benefit not only the citizen but also help the servicing agencies – BBMP and the contractors. Some salient points to note:
- Several well-meaning people/startups/companies have been toying around with ideas/solutions in this space. The majority of them focus on the citizen and a citizen-centric solution that works. E.g. I Change My City.
- The BBMP and the contractors are usually demonized in civil society as the problem and the cause of the issues faced by the citizens. However, giving the benefit of doubt to these teams due to their stretched resources and budget is necessary. Looking beyond in terms of providing better support, resources, guidance, training or recognition can go a long way in keeping the entire ecosystem healthy.
- Adoption of any well-meaning solution is generally considered to be very LOW both on the citizen and the service-provider side. Apps were imagined to be the best application of tech to the problems at hand. However, too many apps and too many internet-based solutions have confused the user base and left a bad trust-deficit in the overall ecosystem.
- If solutions don’t work to solve the problem ACTUALLY on the ground, then they are considered as a failure and will lose relevance very soon.
- Cooperation from municipal agencies in all matters is doubtful especially if it pertains to data related to contractors, timelines, costs and other factors that usually allow a thorough analytical solution to be built. Working with less data but generating enough good-data becomes the goal.
A first-level solution to address the speedy and timely resolution of civic issues at quality can focus on three key points:
- Avoid re-inventing the wheel for solutions that already exist and have some user adoption. E.g. BBMP Sahaaya app cannot be ignored.
- Bring the user personas together in a very simple, seamless and friction-less manner so that we have all the stakeholders at the same table.
- Make technology do the hard work of connecting the dots wherever possible rather than forcing the users (citizen, BBMP engineer, Contractor) to enter or maintain/manage data or information. Least clicks and field entries is the goal.
This is how the solution will behave from a process functionality standpoint along with potential technology application to make it work:
Note: The solution being offered is referenced as “Broohi” for understanding the workflow below.
The next level state of the solution will work towards integrating data elements from multiple agencies like electricity department (BESCOM), Water & Sanitation dept (BWSSB) and 3rd party contractors for waste management for enhancing the citizen management capabilities. This should significantly reduce the infamous “passing the blame” pointing fingers game that India’s civic agencies play at the expert level.
This by no means is a highly innovative solution. However, in my opinion, many of the government services do not need complicated technology or complex solutions to be in place. The major challenge with most essential services is with timely delivery and quality support. A technology solution that focuses too much on the civic agencies will ignore the citizens in the process, while over focusing on citizens will alienate the civic agencies that deliver services. A middle path is always desired as long as technology can make the necessary connections happen for successful issue resolution. The human connection is more important than the force of technology.