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Nilay Kulkarni: A life-saving invention that prevents human stampedes

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Every three years, more than 30 million Hindu worshippers gather for the Kumbh Mela in India, the world's largest religious gathering, in order to wash away their sins. With massive crowds descending on small cities and towns, stampedes inevitably happen, and in 2003, 39 people were killed during the festival. In 2014, then 15-year-old Nilay Kulkarni decided to put his skills as a self-taught programmer to use by building a tech solution to help prevent stampedes. Learn more about his invention -- and how it helped the 2015 Nashik Kumbh Mela have zero stampedes and casualties.

- Software programmer
Nilay Kulkarni is the co-founder and chief technical officer of Ashioto Analytics, a real-time crowd flow analysis platform. Full bio

I was only nine
00:12
when my grandfather first described to me
the horrors he witnessed six years earlier
00:13
when human stampedes killed 39 people
00:18
in our hometown of Nashik, India.
00:21
It was during the 2003 Nashik Kumbh Mela,
00:24
one of the world's largest
religious gatherings.
00:27
Every 12 years,
over 30 million Hindu worshippers
00:31
descend upon our city --
00:34
which is built
only for 1.5 million people --
00:36
and stay for 45 days.
00:39
The main purpose
is to wash away all their sins
00:41
by bathing in the river Godavari.
00:44
And stampedes may easily happen
00:47
because a high-density crowd
moves at a slow pace.
00:50
Apart from Nashik, this event happens
in three other places in India,
00:54
with varying frequency,
00:58
and between 2001 and 2014,
01:00
over 2,400 lives have been lost
in stampedes at these events.
01:02
What saddened me the most
01:09
is seeing people around me
resigning to the city's fate
01:11
in witnessing the seemingly
inevitable deaths of dozens
01:15
at every Kumbh Mela.
01:19
I sought to change this,
01:21
and I thought, why can't I try
to find a solution to this?
01:22
Because I knew it is wrong.
01:25
Having learned coding at an early age
and being a maker,
01:27
I considered the wild idea --
01:31
(Laughter)
01:32
[Makers always find a way]
01:34
I considered the wild idea
of building a system
01:35
that would help regulate
the flow of people
01:38
and use it in the next Kumbh Mela in 2015,
01:41
to have fewer stampedes
and, hopefully, fewer deaths.
01:44
It seemed like a mission impossible,
01:48
a dream too big,
01:50
especially for a 15-year-old,
01:52
yet that dream came true in 2015,
01:54
when not only did we succeed
01:58
in reducing the stampedes
and their intensity,
02:01
but we marked 2015
02:04
as the first Nashik Kumbh Mela
to have zero stampedes.
02:07
(Applause)
02:11
It was the first time in recorded history
02:16
that this event
passed without any casualties.
02:19
How did we do it?
02:22
It all started when I joined
an innovation workshop
02:24
by MIT Media Lab in 2014
02:27
called the Kumbhathon
02:30
that aimed at solving challenges
faced at the grand scale of Kumbh Mela.
02:32
Now, we figured out to solve
the stampede problem,
02:37
we wanted to know only three things:
02:42
the number of people, the location,
02:44
and the rate of the flow
of people per minute.
02:47
So we started to look for technologies
that would help us get these three things.
02:51
Can we distribute radio-frequency tokens
to identify people?
02:56
We figured out that it would
be too expensive and impractical
03:00
to distribute 30 million tags.
03:03
Can you use CCTV cameras
with image-processing techniques?
03:06
Again, too expensive for that scale,
03:09
along with the disadvantages
of being non-portable
03:12
and being completely useless
in the case of rain,
03:14
which is a common thing
to happen in Kumbh Mela.
03:17
Can we use cell phone tower data?
03:21
It sounds like the perfect solution,
03:23
but the funny part is,
03:26
most of the people
do not carry cell phones
03:28
in events like Kumbh Mela.
03:30
Also, the data wouldn't have been
granular enough for us.
03:32
So we wanted something that was real-time,
03:36
low-cost, sturdy and waterproof,
03:39
and it was easy to get
the data for processing.
03:42
So we built Ashioto,
03:45
meaning "footstep" in Japanese,
03:48
as it consists of a portable mat
which has pressure sensors
03:50
which can count the number
of people walking on it,
03:54
and sends the data over the internet
03:56
to the advanced data analysis
software we created.
03:59
The possible errors,
like overcounting or double-stepping,
04:02
were overcome using design interventions.
04:05
The optimum breadth of the mat
was determined to be 18 inches,
04:08
after we tested many different versions
04:12
and observed the average
stride length of a person.
04:14
Otherwise, people might step
over the sensor.
04:18
We started with a proof of concept
built in three days,
04:21
made out of cardboard and aluminum foil.
04:23
(Laughter)
04:26
It worked, for real.
04:27
We built another one
with aluminum composite panels
04:29
and piezoelectric plates,
04:32
which are plates that generate a small
pulse of electricity under pressure.
04:34
We tested this at 30 different
pilots in public,
04:38
in crowded restaurants,
in malls, in temples, etc.,
04:42
to see how people reacted.
04:45
And people let us run these pilots
04:48
because they were excited to see localites
work on problems for the city.
04:50
I was 15 and my team members
were in their early 20s.
04:57
When the sensors were colored,
05:01
people would get scared
and would ask us questions like,
05:06
"Will I get electrocuted
if I step on this?"
05:09
(Laughter)
05:11
Or, if it was very obvious that it was
an electronic sensor on the ground,
05:12
they would just jump over it.
05:16
(Laughter)
05:18
So we decided to design
a cover for the sensor
05:19
so that people don't have to worry
what it is on the ground.
05:22
So after some experimentation,
05:25
we decided to use an industrial sensor,
05:27
used as a safety trigger
in hazardous areas
05:30
as the sensor,
05:33
and a black neoprene rubber sheet
05:34
as the cover.
05:36
Now, another added benefit
of using black rubber
05:38
was that dust naturally
accumulates over the surface,
05:41
eventually camouflaging it
with the ground.
05:44
We also had to make sure that the sensor
is no higher than 12 millimeters.
05:47
Otherwise, people might trip over it,
05:53
which in itself would cause stampedes.
05:55
(Laughter)
05:57
We don't want that.
06:01
(Laughter)
06:02
So we were able to design a sensor
which was only 10 millimeters thick.
06:04
Now the data is sent
to the server in real time,
06:09
and a heat map is plotted,
06:11
taking into account
all the active devices on the ground.
06:13
The authorities could be alerted
if the crowd movement slowed down
06:16
or if the crowd density
moved beyond a desired threshold.
06:21
We installed five of these mats
in the Nashik Kumbh Mela 2015,
06:24
and counted over half a million people
06:30
in 18 hours,
06:32
ensuring that the data was available
in real time at various checkpoints,
06:34
ensuring a safe flow of people.
06:38
Now, this system, eventually,
with other innovations,
06:40
is what helped prevent stampedes
altogether at that festival.
06:43
The code used by Ashioto during Kumbh Mela
06:47
will soon be made publicly available,
free to use for anyone.
06:50
I would be glad if someone used this code
06:53
to make many more gatherings safer.
06:55
Having succeeded at Kumbh Mela
06:58
has inspired me to help others
who may also suffer from stampedes.
07:00
The design of the system
makes it adaptable
07:04
to pretty much any event
07:07
that involves an organized
gathering of people.
07:09
And my new dream is to improve,
adapt and deploy the system
07:13
all over the world to prevent loss of life
and ensure a safe flow of people,
07:17
because every human soul is precious,
07:23
whether at concerts or sporting events,
07:26
the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad,
07:28
the Hajj in Mecca,
07:30
the Shia procession to Karbala
07:31
or at the Vatican City.
07:33
So what do you all think, can we do it?
07:35
(Audience) Yes!
07:37
Thank you.
07:38
(Cheers)
07:40
(Applause)
07:41

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About the speaker:

Nilay Kulkarni - Software programmer
Nilay Kulkarni is the co-founder and chief technical officer of Ashioto Analytics, a real-time crowd flow analysis platform.

Why you should listen

Nilay Kulkarni started developing software at the age of 14. In collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, he used his skills as a self-taught programmer to build a simple tech solution to prevent human stampedes during the Kumbh Mela, one of the world's largest crowd gatherings, in India. Now 17 years old, he is the co-founder and chief technical officer of Ashioto Analytics.

More profile about the speaker
Nilay Kulkarni | Speaker | TED.com