How open data can help electrify India — and the world

India electricity and data
ShutterstockJorg Hackemann
Laying the groundwork for power infrastructure might not involve heavy duty equipment after all.

Meeting energy needs is about more than supplying electricity. It’s about providing reliable and affordable electricity services to power peoples’ daily lives, and enhance productivity and economic activity. 

In India alone, more than 300 million people (PDF) lack electricity, and even those with access oftentimes receive an unreliable supply. Despite capacity additions in India over the last few years, reliability is still a major issue, with rural areas experiencing about nine hours of power outages every day.

Part of the problem is that most of the information out there is on physical grid connections rather than energy quality and reliability issues, such as frequency and duration of power outages.

Without this data, governments, utilities and entrepreneurs can’t plan for more effective energy systems, and consumers can't hold their suppliers and local officials accountable for inadequate services.

Yet new technologies and data initiatives are emerging to gather this information and improve electricity access in India. Here are two examples:

Mapping the market

A key challenge for energy planners in India, and throughout the world, is identifying where energy demand exists and how to effectively respond.

Market assessment maps provide a visual representation of this information as well as renewable energy potential, based on census and electrification data, access to banking services, asset ownership and households that have the potential to produce solar power. This allows energy planners and entrepreneurs to determine what policy, financing and power supplies can help close the electricity gap.

New Ventures, a global accelerator for environmental entrepreneurship founded by the World Resources Institute, used and analyzed this data in 13 Indian states to create market assessment maps. This information helped researchers identify areas where distributed generation (DG) energy systems — modular systems that generate power close to where it is used — could be most effective, and where these solutions could be maintained by consumers.

With these market maps, energy planners and local officials have relevant, ground-level data to help determine policy and finance options for providing access to affordable, reliable power. They also help legitimize the role of clean energy entrepreneurs by clearly identifying where their services are most needed.

In addition, these maps provide a picture of areas subject to restrictions from development, such as water boundaries and protected areas.

New Ventures is in the process of taking this technology to Africa to create similar maps for Tanzania.

Citizen participation for better electricity supply

Internet of Things-based technologies, which enable data transfer over a network such as the internet, like the Electricity Supply Monitoring Initiative (ESMI) brought the power to influence the energy planning process into the hands of electricity consumers.

This Initiative, created by Prayas (Energy Group), provides evidence-based feedback about the actual electricity supply quality — such as voltage and interruptions — experienced by consumers, through advanced data loggers deployed in urban and rural areas across India. At the heart of ESMI are Electricity Supply Monitors (ESMs).

These data loggers are a simple plug-in device that can be installed without the help of an electrician. The device records voltage by the minute from its installed location and sends the information to a central server. The received data is then made publicly available through a user friendly website,, where consumers and interested parties can monitor the service provided to them over time and compare services to between areas.

The initiative is monitoring 200 locations across 17 states in India, and has collected and published about 1 million location-hours of data. The data already shows the stark difference in service in urban and rural areas: Typically rural areas experience four to five times more interruptions and longer disruptions than district headquarters and cities do.

Electrifying the world

India certainly isn’t alone in its power challenges. Globally, 1.2 billion people lack access to modern electricity services, many of them in Africa and South Asia. Here, too, open data can play a role.

By identifying electricity challenges and opportunities, making problems and solutions more transparent and allowing consumers to hold decision-makers accountable, open data has the power to help bring electricity to those who need it most.   

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