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Photographs by Soumik Kar

Good Businesses 2014

An idea whose time has come
Spatial Ideas creates GIS mapping solutions to improve efficiency in civic administration

Laveena Iyer

"Imagine the revolution that can be brought in the health sector if big charitable foundations can access (civic) information in real time" — Vishal Agarwal (L), founder

You cringe as your car jumps over yet another pothole, one of the many that adorn Mumbai’s streets. The BMC promises to make them disappear before monsoon but corrupt contractors who give the lanes a ‘touch-up’ ensure you have an uncomfortable ride every day. While BMC and contractors play the blame game in newspaper headlines, you are left hoping for administrative efficiency. What if there was a way for the local corporator to check the progress of a project in real time? Would that help in fixing accountability? Vishal Agarwal, the 35-year-old founder of Spatial Ideas, thinks so. His company has developed software solutions to lend a helping hand to municipal commissioners and district collectors in their endeavour to provide transparent and efficient administration. 

Armed with an engineering degree from Amravati University, Agarwal left for the US in 2001 for his masters in electrical engineering from Pennsylvania State University, where he was introduced to maps and what is today known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). “I fell in love with maps and could see myself doing this my entire life. So I took up additional courses in geography and computer science,” he says. His hard work paid off when he landed a coveted job at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) in 2003.

Agarwal also worked at IT firms such as Rolta and Cognizant before returning to India and starting Spatial Ideas in December 2009. “I realised that the challenges in the markets abroad and here were similar and there was potential for growth. I had worked with county officials on civic administration projects at Esri but when I finally started Spatial Ideas, I only knew that I wanted to work with maps,”he says. With ₹1 lakh from savings and a spare bedroom and laptop as accompaniment, Agarwal began trawling LinkedIn for people looking for GIS solution developers. “I would chat with the clients on Skype and get paid in euros and dollars.”  

Mapping success

After bagging some lucrative deals, Spatial Ideas was registered in March 2010 and Agarwal hired his first employee, Nitin Agarwal (no relation), now head of technology. Spatial Ideas has two products on offer — Locobuzz, an online reputation management software, and Viking, a GIS mobile solution software for governments. Since the programmes under Viking are launched as pilot projects, Spatial Ideas is not paid till administrations sanction funds for it. At such times, the steady income from Locobuzz programmes helps sustain operations. 

The company’s first customer was an American digital marketing firm called Deep Target. “We developed an e-mail marketing platform for them. We then signed a deal with the Indian Hotels Company in 2012,” says Agarwal, who now has a nine-member team at the helm. Spatial Ideas recently signed a deal with Audi and counts Mahindra, FedEx, Dabur and Reliance Communications among its clients, as it has tie-ups with agencies using Locobuzz for the digital marketing management for these companies. While Locobuzz contributes 60% to the annual turnover of ₹1.83 crore clocked in 2013, Viking, which accounts for the balance, takes up the team’s time and resources. 

Under its Viking platform, Spatial Ideas has devised web solutions for four major areas — infra management, sanitation, primary healthcare and the public distribution system (PDS). In 2012, the company was working on a GIS-based platform for ecological solutions provider Terracon Ecotech when Agarwal first met the then-Mira-Bhayander municipal commissioner Vikram Kumar. “He told us of the difficulty in tracking infrastructure projects,” says Agarwal. 

Mapping it out

The GIS and GPS technologies under the Viking division are targeted at government institutions

So, Agarwal’s team developed a software through which the commissioner could remotely track the progress of construction. The GIS-based software was built into the phones of 40 PWD engineers at the Mira-Bhayander Municipal Corporation (MBMC). The engineers take pictures of construction sites and upload them on a common map. The software can trace the location of the engineers, thereby curtailing delinquency. It displays details about the funding, contractors and budget for each project and users can track the number of active, completed and delayed projects. “This way, administrators can keep track of projects without having to go to the site,” says Agarwal. Kumar purchased 40 licences for an introductory price of ₹5 lakh and an annual maintenance fee of ₹90,000. The software costs anywhere between ₹20 lakh and ₹50 lakh today, depending on the number of licences issued.

Another successful product is the garbage disposal system software. On the integrated platform created by Spatial Ideas, tiny red dots on a map of the Mira-Bhayander area show how many garbage bins are yet to be picked up; those collected appear in green. Daily wage workers assigned to each garbage truck have to take a picture of themselves with a tablet. Using vehicle tracking and facial recognition, the app ensures that the right person comes to work, and sanitation officers receive real-time data on the truck’s movement. This software costs anywhere between ₹35 lakh and ₹1 crore, depending on the number of licences issued. 

Sambhaji Panpatte, deputy municipal commissioner, MBMC, which bought licences for 80 trucks for ₹20 lakh, explains why it works: “We used to have trouble tracking the attendance of daily wage workers in the past. Now, the chief health sanitation officer can simply track what time workers report for duty. It also ensures our trucks don’t miss any of the 3,000 garbage bins in the Mira-Bhayander area.” 

Tapping the market

The company is also banking on solutions for healthcare centres and PDS. Kumar, now the collector of the 3.6 million-strong Aurangabad district, was facing problems tracking the 50 primary healthcare centres (PHCs) in his jurisdiction. Says Arpit Jain (26), senior software developer, Spatial Ideas, who came up with a solution for this issue, “We spent time understanding the processes at anganwadis and PHCs and identified loopholes in the system, such as data entry operators asking anganwadi workers for bribes.” 

Under the programme, android tablets are provided to PHC auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), nurses, doctors and authorised pharmacies. Nurses feed in patient details such as name, age, gender, village and time, after which doctors access patient history and forward the medication needed to the nearest pharmacist. “We made the app available in Marathi and built a sync engine that works on the 2G network to tackle the intermittent internet services. Data is updated when the network reconnects,” says Jain, who holds two-day training workshops for workers.

Sathlirajarai, a tiny village in Aurangabad, has a single health sub-centre for a population of 7,000. ANM Chhaya Gawli (30), who has been working at this centre for four years, says, “Before the tablets were introduced, we had to manually note down the details of pregnant women, lactating mothers and children to be immunised separately and carry registers for data entry to the PHC in Gadana, 17 km away.” Now, Gawli feeds the details into the tablet, which syncs to the central server at Gadana, and gets reminders on the status of patients. The software also creates disease maps from the data. 

Says Kumar, “Thanks to the software, I can sit in my office and monitor how many PHCs are active, how many patients have been checked, how many beds are occupied and whether doctors are present for the hours they are paid for.” This product is available for three users at each PHC for ₹1 lakh, including training costs. It is currently active in 23 PHCs in Aurangabad, benefits around 1.8 million people and involves the use of 69 tablets provided by the district. Says Agarwal, “Imagine the kind of revolution that can be brought in the health sector if big charitable foundations can access this information in real time.”  

PDS problems

While the government offers direct cash transfers as a solution to plug PDS leakages, Agarwal’s team offers mobile technology. Its software uses a biometric scanner to ensure the person in whose name the ration card is issued gets the allocated quantity of food. “Earlier, fair price shop (FPS) owners would fool the public by claiming that the stock was over. Now, if a villager complains to a district supply officer, the latter can monitor the data live while sitting in his office.”

The software is currently active in 20 FPS in Aurangabad and three in Sangli; both plan to add an additional 100. A look at Sangli district on the software shows the number of FPS in the area, how many people have visited each shop and the stock distributed at each. One can view each cardholder’s name, the number of members in the family and stock allocated and collected each month. Sangli collector Deependra Kushwah says, “We have been able to save 40% of the grains that would earlier have been lost to the black market.” Spatial Ideas is now working on more features to analyse patterns in food distribution and check for anomalies in the system. “On inspection, the link to black markets can be identified and leakages eliminated,” adds Agarwal.

The Aurangabad district has invested ₹13 lakh to acquire Android tablets and biometric scanners for the project and an additional ₹2 lakh for servers and internet connections for the 20 FPS. The software, which currently costs ₹17,000 for each FPS, will go live in four FPS in Nanded on August 15. Agarwal is in talks with the Maharashtra principal secretary to implement this state-wide in a year’s time and then take the technology national. 

Spatial Ideas managed to turn a ₹39 lakh profit in 2013 on sales of ₹1.83 crore, a 90% jump since 2011. Its head of strategy and alliances, Starlene Sharma, a start-up and NGO sector veteran, says, “Many of our Viking products can be modified for private companies. We are in talks with a few private hospital chains that have shown interest in our healthcare products.” Agarwal says such tie-ups could help the company scale up faster and the revenue could be used to invest in more software solutions for civic administration. 

On the challenges he faces, he quips, “Often, we’re not allowed to apply for tenders because we do not have the kind of financials companies such as Infosys or TCS do. We do face stiff competition in this sector, but the integration of all aspects of civic issues to create one comprehensive solution and ensure that everyone in the hierarchy is trained to use it makes all the difference. Our high-end analytics and map-based approach set us apart in this regard.” Even as it helps governments map their problems and find workable solutions, Spatial Ideas’ own road-map to growth looks to be heading in the right direction. 

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