The world’s largest gathering of pilgrims, the Kumbh Mela, is not just an incredible symbol of India’s cultural confluence but also a humongous logistical challenge. Planning and executing it involves truly mindboggling numbers and demands tremendous foresight from those in charge of the administration.
How does one make this pop-up city safe and secure for its temporary residents? How does one control the chaos caused by the massive ebb and flow of people? And how does one prevent deadly stampedes from marring this mega festival?
A Nashik-based teenager may have found an answer for at least one of these questions. Eighteen-year-old Nilay Kulkarni’s solution is simple: it involved an electronic rubber mat that counts footfall and helps in crucial crowd control.
Nilay was just 14 when he started developing software. A self-confessed lover of his laptop and chai, the talented youngster tells The Better India,
“Since my childhood, I’ve always wanted to build things. But there was a big limitation I faced —hardware parts were tough to get and I would need money every time I wanted to build something new.
So I took up programming because to me it was exactly the same as building things, just virtually. It felt like a super power when I realised that I could make anything with it. It was like I had opened a Pandora’s box, I wanted to keep on learning one thing after the other and never stop.”
In 2013, Nilay saw news flashes of how 39 people had died in a stampede during the Nashik Kumbh Mela. Deeply affected by what he saw, he wanted to do something to change the situation. And he got the opportunity to do so during KumbhaThon, a buildathon event organised by MIT Media Lab in 2014 to develop ideas and innovation that would help Nashik during the mega event.
“In KumbhaThon, I wanted to work towards addressing the problem of crowd flow and human safety. Fortunately, I found a team that was also interested in working on the same lines. Using advanced analytics, we collected data — the number of people, the location and the rate of people/min — to understand how stampedes could be predicted ahead of time.
Next, we sought tech solutions that would allow us to measure these three factors. Putting them together with aluminium foil and cardboard, we created a prototype of a pressure-sensitive mat that can count footfalls.
With this data available from multiple points, it would be easy to create a heat map that can predict if a particular pattern of the moving crowd eventually leads to a dangerous density and accordingly, alert the authorities”, explains the self-taught programmer to The Better India, whose parents are both chartered accountants and whose 11-year-old brother is a state-level football player.
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While building this crowd-counting mat (named Ashioto), Nilay and his fellow Nashikkars made sure that technologies chosen for it were simple, practical and not too expensive. They also conducted trials at a widely-visited local temple to check its effectiveness in the field, before approaching the local authorities.
Impressed by the idea and its possible impact, the authorities agreed to try it out during the Shahi Snan in Godavari river. Ashioto mats — connected to a Bluetooth-enabled communication box — were placed in a way that would help them track people exiting after taking a dip.
During the three day event, the system counted more than five lakh people at five exit routes and helped the police take a few crowd-routing decisions, thus proving the viability of the idea!
A similar exercise was carried out at the Nashik Kumbh Mela 2015, the first time a technological solution was used to calculate the footfall at an event as massive as this.
The team also built an app that would make real-time data sourced from Ashioto available on the mobile phones of stakeholders. For example, an on-field police officer placing barricades to control the crowd flow.
This simplicity of application is why Nilay believes that Ashioto can be scaled up and used to effectively manage crowds in multiple areas such as religious places, concerts and big malls. He also adds that these mats can also be synchronised with the train timings (to improve predictions) and placed at railway stations to prevent heartbreaking tragedies like the one that recently happened at Elphinstone’s foot-over bridge.
The young co-founder and chief technical officer of Ashioto Analytics now plans to work with the citizens of Nashik to address other civic challenges faced by the city.
“The best thing about Nashik is that there is a strong sense of community, we all want to adapt and contribute towards improving our city as much as we can. We are also good at uniting for a cause. For instance, there is a strong Twitter user base in Nashik with a lot of citizen-journalists, there’s a big community of cyclists called the Nashik Cyclists.
Also, like other two-tier cities in India, we have the opportunity to learn from certain mistakes committed during the tech revolution in the big cities and avoid those mistakes. As such, Nashik needs to find tech solutions that takes it towards a sustainable future and I would like to be a part of this movement”, says Nilay.
Asked about his journey as a teen entrepreneur, Nilay says that it has been absolutely beautiful and that he is grateful to everyone who has helped him get there.
“This journey has taught me valuable life lessons. In fact, the sense of purpose I gained during it continues to act as a guiding force for my future work,” he says, proffessing that he feels privileged to have got the chance to make a difference.
However, Nilay also adds that he has faced a lot of scepticism due to his age, and though this attitude is slowly changing, he still get that treatment sometimes.
“I would like to tell young entrepreneurs like me that it’s completely okay to fail. We all fear failure. But there’s something much more important in your first venture — putting in your honest efforts and learning from everything.
Act like a sponge, soak in all the knowledge and experience that you get. And listen to the your customers more than anyone else,” signs off the dynamic teenager who was recently invited to the TED talk at New York to present his idea.