The better the question. The better the answer. The better the world works.

How ancient traditions extend their reach via digital transformation

By digitalizing almost every aspect of the world’s largest event in 2019, the Government of Uttar Pradesh transformed the visitor experience.

Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad Uttar Pradesh, India
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The better the question

Can digital help one event deliver 240 million human experiences?

Outreach, engagement, organization and experience had to be better than ever – and digitalized.

All over the world, people are using digital services and devices to organize and enjoy their lives. This is driving new expectations: today’s citizens want their public services to be as personalized and responsive as the apps on their smartphones and the services they get from businesses.

As a result, governments need to reimagine how digital can be used to enhance their citizens’ end-to-end experience of public services. The tools, technology and data available to governments are growing exponentially and one country that is embracing them is India – for example, in Smart City projects funded by the central government.

One of these Smart Cities is Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh – a region that hosts a legendary event.  

The Kumbh Mela, held every six years, is the largest gathering of humans on the planet and an example of world-class public administration. Over 49 days, hundreds of millions of people descend on the “Sangam” – the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – to bathe and thereby cleanse their sins.

In 2017, Uttar Pradesh welcomed a new H’ble Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. Soon after assuming office, he announced his vision of a Divya Kumbh, Bhavya Kumbh for 2019 – a “Divine and Grand” Kumbh Mela.

This meant that the administration wanted to extend high-quality services to citizens attending the Mela – and extend the invitation to visitors across the globe, and from more diverse backgrounds.

The whole focus of our planning was user experience – safety, security, sanitation, and inclusiveness. We wanted to give visitors an experience that they have not had at previous Kumbh Melas.
Dr. Ashish Goel
Divisional Commissioner, Prayagraj, Government of Uttar Pradesh

Digital was the means to attract these more diverse visitors, and deliver high-quality experiences to them. Amenities, facilities, security arrangements, and the overall visitor experience had to be elevated to an unprecedented level. Technology and IT interventions were the backbone on which these improvements in overall planning and management of the world’s largest gathering of humans could be achieved. And in the process it would also reinforce trust and satisfaction in the new administration.

“The ambition of the government of Uttar Pradesh was to take the Mela to the global level,” says Pragyal Singh, EY India, Government & Public Sector, Consulting, Urban Development. “They were looking for some new digital technologies and sustainable practices that could be incorporated along with the normal infrastructure, as well as maintenance and operations of the whole event. But we were very cautious not to hurt the religious sentiments and beliefs that have been practiced for ages.”

The desired increase in visitor numbers would also bring higher expectations: such as parking, accommodation, navigating with smartphone apps, wifi and cell access, and better sanitation and signposting.

Establishing the world’s biggest temporary city is a monumental task. To begin, the administration passed the Uttar Pradesh Prayagraj Mela Authority, Allahabad Act, 2017, which allowed for the formation of a permanent authority to manage all future Melas.

Everyone involved in the Mela wants an unforgettable experience that is safe, clean and incident-free – the true measure of success would be a smile on the face of every visitor as they depart.

The Kumbh Mela also has to be repeatable for decades and centuries to come. This meant having a clear vision for bringing the mela into the digital age. The event needed a complete digital strategy and transformation, involving user experience design and program management, that would be fit for the future. This transformative mindset was the starting point for orchestrating a whole new level of engagement and would inspire innovation.

This prompted EY to ask, can digital help one event deliver 240 million human experiences?

 

 
Aerial view of residential tents at Kumbh Mala, Allahabad Uttah Pradesh, India
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The better the answer

Digitalizing the divine

A new digital model had to be implemented without affecting the tone and tradition of the pilgrimage.

A large-scale public management event of this size and significance requires incredibly detailed planning. Visitor numbers were estimated to be 150 million, which in itself would make it the biggest Kumbh Mela ever. In fact, actual numbers were 240 million, including 1.3 million overseas tourists, up from 350,000 in 2013.¹ All for a city whose base population is 1.1 million-1.2 million.

The program required extending everyday city life to a temporary city for just seven weeks: clean water, sanitation, accommodation in tents, civil supplies, health care, transportation, lighting, wifi and more.

The approach to reinventing program management and the user experience was a digital transformation, orchestrating technology and teams, accelerating the end-to-end planning process, and designing, testing and iterating better visitor experiences through personalized user journey mapping.

The first step was to experience the Mela personally. In 2018, there was a smaller event, the Magh Mela, and members of the EY team spent months camped on-site. They met many saints and spoke to hundreds of pilgrims, and discussed their requirements for an improved Kumbh Mela experience.

All of this informed the approach to improving the pilgrim and visitor experience in 2019. This activated all of the user journeys, which were segmented into four different personas, as well as different age groups, all of whom had different interests and expectations – for example, 18 to 24 year-old visitors may want to find the best spots to take a selfie, whereas devout pilgrims would need to know the locations and timings for their holy dip.

More than 40 plans were prepared, and all had to be envisioned and executed.

Digital site planning

Previously, every Mela has been planned on paper. But because of monsoon season and the changing river courses, there are only two months available to set up the temporary infrastructure of the Kumbh Mela. So one of the first and most urgent steps of digitalization was to create an AutoCAD Layout map of the Kumbh Mela site with geotagging of land parcels, identifying who was allotted plots of land to facilitate planning.

The nature of the site makes it impossible to navigate using Google Maps: yet this would be a major expectation of many visitors. Temporary structures such as hundreds of miles of steel roads or pontoon bridges installed for the Mela cannot be added on Google Maps, so the EY team submitted many “points of interest” to Google Maps to enable public navigation.

Online engagement

To deliver on the ambitions of the “Divine and Grand” Kumbh Mela, a bilingual website and app were designed and built, for the first time, to offer a single online location for all event information. Content creators combed through reams of literature and historical information about the mela, to produce content for the website and inform an entire social media campaign to engage visitors for almost a whole year.

The website was designed to create a positive perception of the Mela, especially for people who had never visited before, while the app was a more lightweight practical guide to events and arrangements. The website had more than 3.5 million visitors, and the Facebook page attracted over 250,000 followers. Across all social media, the #Kumbh2019 hashtag reached more than 71 million people globally.

Inclusiveness was a key consideration for digital engagement, and that meant serving users across the digital spectrum, from smartphone to brick phone. So the authority also initiated an SMS campaign to citizens, sending out 10 million messages in three waves to inform potential visitors about some of the arrangements and facilities at the Kumbh Mela. The SMS campaign also offered concise guides on each day of the Mela, which aided crowd management.

The community participation agenda for the Mela was further promoted with the “Paint My City” campaign. This saw nearly 2 million square feet across the city of Prayagraj painted, and photos shared to give a glimpse of Indian culture. It drove 240,000 interactions via the #PaintMyCity hashtag on social media, and reached number two in Twitter’s trending hashtags in India. It also enriched the visitor experience, as one Twitter user commented: “Best thing I like about #Kumbh2019 is “Paint my City” campaign. I think pictures are the best way to represent Kumbh… It shows our rich cultural heritage to the world.”

Social media platforms played a pivotal role in the user experience, and the focus was on being proactive rather than reactive. Social media sentiment was a key metric for the campaign, with a target of 90% positive engagement. Social analytics software were deployed to gauge feeling about the Mela, and tracked keywords that would indicate both positive and negative feedback from people’s posts. The campaign achieved a 93% positive sentiment.

Security and surveillance

The Prayagraj Mela Authority brought in resources from India’s Smart City Corporation to establish a command and control surveillance center for the mela, with 1,100 cameras installed around the site to monitor security. EY managed the relationship between the two organizations and also helped set up a dedicated toll-free helpline for emergencies in the Mela area.

In a typical Mela more than 50,000 people get lost and are reunited only by people shouting descriptions of missing persons through a loudhailer. Fifteen digital lost and found centers were established, relying on connected cameras and digital analytics to make reunification faster.

For the first time, the lost and found process was digitally integrated: visitors uploaded a photo and description of missing persons, which were then displayed on digital screens distributed throughout the mela site. This enabled 77,500 people to be reunited via the centers.

Signposting and crowd management

As part of the command and control center, the administration installed many digital message boards to help the police and other members of the administration to direct and inform crowds during the event.

The 13 primary institutions or sects of Hinduism all have massive followings, and many people want to bathe alongside the saints from their sect. So on each peak day, the administration circulated a set time by for each group to proceed in an organized manner to the focal point of the Mela.

Distribution of food

Many visitors received temporary ration cards for basic food that is subsidized by the government. As part of the overall digital solution, a platform was set up to establish and monitor the public food distribution system. This had numerous benefits, for example using QR codes to track food supplies and ensure they were not pilfered.

Sanitation

In previous Mela, there were 30,000 toilets for visitors. But if not managed properly, no-one will use them – and open defecation is a public health hazard in such a densely populated area. EY worked with the administration to estimate the numbers and orchestrated the process of procuring over 100,000 toilets.

EY also helped envision the technology required for an app to aid monitoring and maintenance of all the toilets: with the vendor and workers onboarded, any team member could take a photo of a toilet that needed attention, scan its unique QR code and initiate support from the appropriate resource. This easy-to-use digital method of maintenance helped keep facilities clean and in full working order – even on Mauni Amawasya, which saw 50 million people take a dip in a span of three days.

There were no reported incidents of open defecation, and over 200 tons of rubbish were removed from the Mela area every day, with none left to burn, bury or fester.

Traders and institutions

There are thousands of shops in the Mela area. For the first time, a complete digital plot allocation database of every vendor and their economic activity was identified and created, as well as institutions that establish camps in the area. Some sub-letting was prevalent at previous Mela, so this introduced tighter controls. In addition to efficiencies in the process of allotting the shops, digitalizing the inventory of shops and vendors’ database also led to significant revenue gains for the client.

Payment of temporary staff

The thousands of temporary workers brought in have previously been paid in cash. Monitoring this was becoming an issue as their numbers were increasing, particularly sanitary workers in line with higher sanitation standards. This meant that the payment process could have been vulnerable to fraud. An association with a digital bank was set up that mapped and registered all temporary workers so they could be paid directly through their digital accounts.

Digitally enhanced experience

Visitors were treated to a large-scale laser light and sound show on the wall of Prayagraj fort. And for the first time the Mela offered the opportunity of a virtual reality (VR) experience: 10 stalls were equipped with VR headsets in which visitors could relive key moments of the festival via interactive videos.

 
Sunset at Kumhb Mela, Allahabad
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The better the world works

A better pilgrim and visitor experience for years to come

The Mela’s ambitions were rewarded with higher visitor numbers and the best ever experience.

This was the largest co-ordinated effort in history, with an unparalleled standard of public administration. The 2019 Kumbh Mela shows how governments can deliver a digital transformation of even the world’s largest event, and by doing so, transform both citizens’ experience of public services and their perceptions of government.

Almost six years in the planning, EY and the Government of Uttar Pradesh helped establish the world’s biggest temporary city and deliver a transformed visitor experience for the 49 days from 14 January 2019. The Kumbh Mela is now a 21st century event, but with centuries of tradition undisturbed. Sanitation, security and the managerial capability of the administration were lauded globally.

In future years, there will be a standard operating procedure in place, backed with numbers and data, all hosted on a dedicated digital platform. And now that all organizational data has been digitalized, there are automation opportunities for the next event to be held in 2025.

Close formal relationships are now established with over 35 Central and State Government departments including the police, public works, railways, surface transport, health, irrigation, urban, food supplies, tourism, power, IT, public relations and intelligence. “(The) Government couldn’t have found a better team to deliver on its exacting requirements,” said Dr. Ashish Goel, Divisional Commissioner, Prayagraj.

Religious groups, foreign tourists, journalists, students, volunteers, celebrities and government officials including the H’ble Prime Minister, all enjoyed the festival safely and securely, with no incidents. The transformed user experience created word of mouth publicity, which led to increased footfall even toward the end of the Mela period when crowds usually begin to thin.

A true digital transformation is not just a project, but an ongoing continuum of strategy, design, development and deployment at scale. In 2019 the State of Uttar Pradesh Government achieved its ambitions of attracting more visitors from home and abroad, and delivering a safe, clean and memorable experience for everyone involved.

 
The outcomes that we have seen, the excitement, the passion that we have witnessed from every visitor, will live with me forever.
Pragyal Singh
EY India Government & Public Sector, Urban Development Consulting Leader

By leading with a future-back approach to innovation, the multidisciplinary engagement team helped redefine the relevance of the Kumbh Mela to prioritize what’s next and drive action in the now. For every Kumbh Mela to come, the spiritual and the digital are now aligned to facilitate a transformed, and transformational, event that hundreds of millions of pilgrims and visitors can enjoy.

To succeed in the digital future, governments must be able to imagine how people’s lives will change in the new connected world, understand how this change will affect them, and take measures that will enable them to meet these new needs and expectations. The only limit is our imagination.  

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