High-tech public health meets ancient ritual at Hindu festival
At an ancient Hindu riverside festival in Nashik, India, the millions hoping to cleanse themselves of sin were also unwittingly helping to create high-tech solutions for crowd control, disease outbreak and public security.
A group of tech innovators launched a digital information platform at the six-week Kumbh Mela, which was set to end Sept. 25, aiming to help maintain order among those camping near the river and piling into the water for one of humanity’s largest religious gatherings.
Twelve years ago, dozens died in a stampede during the same festival. As this year’s event neared its end, there were no such incidents as the crowds waded into the temperate waters of the Godavari River as part of an ancient ritual to seek spiritual rebirth from the Hindu gods.
“We had thought about Kumbh Mela as this gathering of masses, people who are on path of self-discovery. But in a way, innovation and innovators are also always on a path of self-discovery,” said Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, which has been leading a two-year effort, dubbed KumbhaThon, to develop technology solutions to better manage population-dense events.
The digital platform, accessible via a free cellphone app, allowed authorities and festival-goers to collect and share data on food carts, traffic jams, port-a-potties and medical tents, providing an up-to-date record of real-time data.
Compiling data from medical tents, the app could tell festival-goers about any outbreaks of dengue, jaundice and other diseases, though at deadline there had been no outbreaks of note. Using cellphone power data to estimate crowds, the platform also gave officials information that helped them decide when to put up blockades or disperse crowds.
Hindu holy men gather to take dips in the Godavari River.