Participation in democracy is no longer a once-in-five-years phenomenon. Citizens frequently raise civic issues on social media platforms asking ministers to act upon grievances. Taking a cue, in 2017 Ashish Sharma started CivilCops— a company that seeks to not only streamline complaints regarding day-to-day issues such as waste management and traffic, but can also helps authorities resolve them efficiently with the help of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“While creating digital infrastructure, the government’s priority is not user experience,” says Sharma. While technology companies look to connect the ‘next 500 million’ Indians with cheap smartphones and cheaper data plans, government apps and websites are still tardy. CivilCops does not create more apps to be downloaded, forgotten, and eventually deleted for lack of space in the smartphone. It provides a communication channel between the citizen and the concerned department over apps that already most users have — such as text messaging, Facebook, Google Assistant, etc.
For instance, you see a garbage dump in your locality that has not been cleared. You can just tell Google Assistant about the specific problem and department, upload a picture and enter the location. Next, the company’s city management system will run the information through an algorithm that uses natural language processing to understand the problem and automatically delegate its resolution to an employee of the concerned department. All of this happens real-time, says Sharma, simplifying a process that would otherwise face delays if you used legacy systems.
The Haryana government has availed the company’s services to help resolve grievances related to roads. An earlier app, Harpath, will be replaced by a system that includes a chatbot embedded in Facebook to take note of problems and respond to citizens and a software powered by machine learning to analyse the complaints. CivilCops is also working with individual MPs and MLAs in Maharashtra and Haryana governments to aid them in understanding and responding to civic issues of constituents even as these two states are likely to go to polls in by the end of this year.
In its journey to smoothen out India’s bumpy roads, the startup has faced many roadblocks and potholes. Sharma explains, “Our biggest challenge is not technology itself, but its acceptance. Making older officials understand the benefits of systems based on AI and ML is difficult.” Moreover, governments have procurement norms steeped in red tape and long sales cycles, making the going that much tougher for a startup.
Funding, too, has been a challenge. CivilCops raised $200,000 in angel funding from Innov8 founder Ritesh Malik and Alfa Ventures. However, it has not seen any venture capital. According to Sharma, there’s hardly any craze for civil tech — a loosely defined term for the space his company operates in — compared to consumer tech. “Everybody is sceptical of supporting ventures that have to deal with the government,” he says. In a sense, that’s the pain point that he has to solve to succeed.
What’s the road ahead? The founder says the product took a while to build. It has already been run as a pilot programme with Dubai Taxi Corporation. The company is also looking at on-boarding large corporates which have a big employee or customer base as clients.