The Problem: The current billing system of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Corporation (NCWSC) is based on regular water meter reading by utility staff. These utility staffers come to a home and read the installed water-meter that shows cubic meters consumed, and this reading is used to compile a bill which is sent to the consumer. The current system is problematic in a number of ways:
- In informal settlements, utility reading staff often substitute estimates for actual readings due to security concerns or the absence of tenants. However, consumers have complained about these estimates being inaccurate, often accumulating to unpayably high “burden bills” See a short video on burden bills arising from wrong meter estimates here.
- In formal settlements, meter reading is often complicated by the absence of tenants who are working during the day and lock their gates/doors so that utility staff can not get access to the water-meters.
- Even when readings are correct, a problem arises from the fact that these are only done irregularly, leading to large one-off bills. This creates a cash-flow problem for the poor who earn and spend small amounts erratically without saving, and are thus often unable to meet large end-of-month bills.
Proposed solution: One solution to this is to allow customers to read their meters and update their bills themselves whenever they want. In principle, NCWSC already allows self-reading of meters, but it currently requires a paper-form to be filled and brought to a central utility office (see a copy of the form here: http://wtrns.fr/1JVOBJwK6Pu6_9). This is complicated, time-consuming and (especially for the poor) almost prohibitively expensive given that informal settlements are far away from central office locations. Moreover, there is still a long delay between the submission of the reading and the updating of the bill, and no reference number is given.
The proposed solution to this is to use an SMS text message or USSD application to submit meter self-readings. This solution should include the following features:
- Core functionality:
- To allow a user to submit a meter reading by text message or USSD, and receive a reference number confirming the receipt of the reading in return.
- On the utility (=recipient) side, the submitted readings should show up on a screen (e.g. via a web-app), categorized by customer account number. At this stage, utility staff will simply read off the received readings and enter them manually into the separate billing software. In the future, integration with the billing software may be possible.
- A number of key variables need to be submitted by the consumer to allow NCWSC to process the reading and match it to a consumer account: (a) meter number; (b) meter reading in cubic meters; (c) account number; (d) date of submission; (e) customer name (optional as double-check)
Possible additional functionality:
- Deal with submissions that cannot be matched to an account e.g. due to mistyped account number (highlight on recipient app, send an error message to consumer)
- Once a consumer has sent multiple readings, compute an average and highlight when a new reading is unusually high/low given the time period since last submission
- Allow utility staff to fill in the updated bill in the app, and have the total new bill sent to the consumer by text message automatically (or alternatively allow online access to the bill).