This August an expected 30 million religious devotees, ascetics and tourists will congregate in the Indian city of Nashik for the Kumbh Mela – a 20-day Hindu festival which is one of the largest public gatherings in the world.
The mass pilgrimage of faith takes place every three years on a rotational basis in four alternating cities, and will be returning to Nashik after a gap of 12 years. For the spiritual, the event is a catharsis, where one can purge oneself of sin by taking a dip in the holy water of the sacred rivers. But for technologists, social innovators and urban planners, the staggering increase in human density is a golden opportunity to identify, analyse and study pop-up city problems at scale.
Ramesh Raskar, who spearheads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’sKumbhathon venture, is head of MIT’s Camera Culture Group, conducting multidisciplinary research in optics, sensors, probes and software processing. “The Kumbhathon was conceived as a sandbox initiative to create a prototype ecosystem with the broader vision of game-changing innovation at its core,” he explains. The challenges of the 2015 Kumbh Nashik will be mapped to help address similar issues in refugee camps, concerts such as Burning Man in the Nevada desert and in emerging cities across the world.
The Kumbhathon project is at the vanguard of tradition and technology.
Ramesh Raskar of MIT worked with local innovators, students, city officials, civic groups, the police and historians in his hometown of Nashik to draw up a shortlist of key concerns, from a list of more than 500 issues received through an open crowdsourced platform, for the team to address. “The project is at the vanguard of tradition and technology,” said Raskar.
Over the past year, the Kumbhathon team has held three-monthly workshops and innovation camps to discuss, test and implement a range of smart solutions – from the hi-tech to the decidedly low-tech – to address challenges in the areas of access to healthcare, transportation, food and sanitation, housing and crowd control.
A Sadhu (holy man) celebrates the 2003 Kumbh Mela in Nashik. Photograph: Rob Elliott/AFP/Getty
One hi-tech idea is an app to manage crowds and avoid stampedes – a regular problem at the festival, with at least 39 people killed in a stampede in 2003, the last time Nashik was host city. Modelled on the lines of the world’s largest community-based real time traffic and navigation app, Waze, the app uses mobile phone location data to help local police redirect pedestrians away from saturated areas.
Meanwhile, an online platform, LiveNashik, will dynamically gather and analyse data on taxis, train and bus schedules, free rooms in hostels, and the availability of hospital beds, ambulances and blood stocks. Within that citywide project, a person tracking app, called Milap, aims to address the major problem of children and others being lost during the frenzy of the festival. Under the scheme, individuals can be registered at entry points via a barcode that serves as an identification tool. If someone is lost, they can visit a store, where the shopkeeper can read their barcode with a smartphone – and a match with the missing persons database can be made.
Other hi-tech initiatives include the Epidemic Tracker, which is a combination of a mobile app and cloud-based backend analytical engine to monitor the health of festival attendees in real time. Not only does this serve as a check on potential outbreaks of disease, but also helps medics offer relevant prescriptions and medication.
However well constructed the technology, it depends on what society is ready to absorb and embrace
Tarun Khanna, Harvard
Another challenge being tackled is food distribution, where the team has devised an Uber-like logistical network that connects festival-goers with quality and hygienic food suppliers. This enables customers to have access to information about when and where the food was cooked and make more informed decisions about consumption. According to the Kumbhathon team, this model could be expanded into a multibillion-dollar nationwide service.
“It’s about tapping into smart citizens to make smart cities,” said Raskar. “Citizens watch more TV, carry smartphones and are highly mobile and connected. Their participation is crucial.”
Nashik 2003: Hindu devotees carry brass pots to make an offering in the River Godavari on the first day of the month-long Kumbh Mela. Photograph: Sebastian D'Souza/AFP/Getty Images
The ability of low-tech innovations to bring about greater social impact has been an eye-opening experience for the team. WikiNasik, is one such example, where more than 300 volunteers worked to update Nashik’s Wikipedia page, so that outsiders had access to up-to-date and comprehensive information about the city. “Students took cameras and used pictures to document the heritage and history of the city,” said Raskar. Personal compilations can help enhance the experience for visitors and can also add value in the tourism sector in building an extensive city guide for the future, he added.
Another low-tech solution with high social outcome is a Shops Online portal that displays detailed information about retailers in the city. From specifics on the owner, the nature of the business and the hours of operation, to the location and a profile of the surrounding area, the platform could open up wide-ranging data-mining possibilities. The repository of data is key for potential investors who want to start a business during the Kumbh Mela.
Participants at a Kumbathon workshop talk MIT’s John Werner through their idea
While citizen participation on the ground in Nashik has been significant, the correlation between technology and the public acceptance of that technology must be kept in mind, according to Tarun Khanna, director of the South AsiaInstitute at Harvard University. As part of a team mapping the Allahabad Kumbh in 2013, he was surprised to find that a person-tracking app using photos wasn’t as effective as the age-old solution of setting off a balloon in the air when a person was lost. “However well constructed the technology, it all depends on what society is ready to absorb and embrace,” he said.
Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the Urban Planning and Design department at Harvard, who led the venture for the Allahabad Kumbh, said that technology should not be considered a fix in itself. “Cities are broader, more sensitive and more complex ecosystems in which technology is just one instrument and cannot be treated as an end in itself,” he said.
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