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My first time in India was nothing short of sensory overload. From the tantalizing cups of masala chai to the symphony of “happy” honking on the streets, there was not a moment of monotony. My team of five was here as part of the Global Social Impact Practicum, a class comprised of 16 Booth students working to see how to bring a new piece of technology to India for the purpose of social impact.

While the other teams focused on an oral cancer treatment and a water quality monitor, my team was here to address how we could bring the Array of Things (AoT) urban sensor system to India. The AoT technology was developed in the Argonne National Laboratory and has been launched across Chicago – 100+ multi-sensors “nodes” total that capture data ranging from air quality, noise, pressure, temperature, to traffic flows. The nodes cost several thousand dollars each and provide real-time, open-source data for communities and city planners.

We arrived with giddy enthusiasm and also a list of questions: Should we go straight to the government to pitch our sensors for Smart Cities or partner with a startup already addressing the issue? How much competition is there among urban sensors? What is our customers’ willingness to pay? Who are our customers?

Reading about air pollution an ocean away is like having someone describe to you a rainbow without ever seeing it. Reality quickly sunk in as we experienced the urgency of the problem on our second day in India when we drove to Agra for the Taj Mahal and smelled the crop burning on the countryside. When we arrived we saw the gleaming Taj Mahal amidst a backdrop of hazy smog. Back in the city, we saw beggars huddling over burning biomass on the streets to keep warm and remarked on the startling absence of facemasks in use on the streets of Delhi. These were reminders of the seriousness of the problem and how deeply entrenched some of the customs were that led to air pollution are.

The Taj Mahal in India

The work began swiftly on a Monday. In the span of a week, my team had conducted over 15 meetings with entrepreneurs, government officials, and nonprofit advocacy organizations. In Delhi we met with government and NGOs including the Delhi Pollution Board, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, and World Resources Institute. While the team hypothesized that selling these sensors straight to government and NGOs would be the way to go, it quickly looked less optimistic as we were warned in later meetings that government was a fickle creature often entangled with favoritism. On the other hand, NGOs likely would not have the budget to pay and depending on grants was unsustainable.

Nonetheless, we were quickly reinvigorated with hope as we landed in Bangalore and met the optimism of the startup community. One person that comes to mind as especially memorable was a man who started a company employing under-educated women to design websites and now runs major tech conferences connecting investors with startup ideas. Another was the cofounder of Ambee, an urban sensor startup in Bangalore, who talked about how the company started when the founder’s baby was waking up every morning choking from air pollution. Seeing the hope, positivity, and drive of NGOs and the startup community that devote their lives to this work was the highlight of our trip.

Project aside, there were unexpected personal takeaways as well. Learning team norms and the variety of communication styles was an integral part of the GSIP experience. Each day the facilitator of the group rotated so that we could all have a turn leading the team through a day of meetings. Moreover, one of the most striking memories will be touring the holy Yamuna River and seeing it blackened with toxic pollutants. It’s a tangible reminder that whether it is air pollution or water pollution, we have a long ways to go to fixing the issue. Although these issues persist, I left India encouraged that there are heroes on the ground there fighting it every day.

GSIP Group Photo 2020

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