Entire team of Real-Time Biosurveillance Program (RTBP)
Entire team of Real-Time Biosurveillance Program (RTBP)

When floods ravaged the state of Uttarakhand, technology buzzed to the rescue. Vodafone India set up help desks from where people could call the government helpline numbers or their family. Not just the helplines but other Vodafone users in the region also got a free emergency top-up for their prepaid numbers, so that they were not stranded. Helplines and mobile charging units were also set up in the local helipads, allowing free calls by the rescued to their families.

Even as Vodafone demonstrated timely use of tech infrastructure, Google came to the rescue by conjuring up apps to help rescue teams. It launched a crisis map of the flood-hit state to provide quick information on places affected, relief centres, medical centres and road closures. It also activated a Person Finder tool—a Web-based application that helps feed names of people you are looking for, as well as share information about somebody who has been found or rescued. When there is a match for a person being searched for, it is displayed.

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These are topical examples of how technology comes to the aid of society in times of need. At other times and places, other situations have motivated other technologists and entrepreneurs to develop solutions with social spins. These are the silent tech heroes of this world. Some have risen to a celebrity status, others do their job quietly but continue to benefit society and be satisfied with the outcome. Some companies develop such solutions as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) charters, and some technologists do it for personal satisfaction, while other entrepreneurs manage to implement such socially-beneficial solutions with a profitable business plan—
although this calls for a fine balancing of reach and pricing.

In this story, we quickly scan such technological solutions that have a social spin, from the perspective of motivation, technology and business.

Social media platform to connect charities and volunteers
Social tag: Charity
Tech tag: SAP HANA, social media, cloud, mobile

SAP’s Charitra stands for ‘Charity Transformation.’ It was designed in 90 days as a social network, and presently connects social causes posted by NGOs or individuals with potential volunteers or donors, so that they can contribute their time, skill or materials for the cause. It also helps NGOs, CSRs and others to organise their relief efforts and engage with other organisations in the relief efforts.

“Charity is becoming an essential element in people’s lives and individuals are more conscious about being charitable. Not knowing how to channel donations is a key issue for people wanting to participate in acts of charity. Social media is an increasingly effective strategy for all industries to connect with external stakeholders and in no way an impediment for charities to engage with. It has the power to personalise communication, establishing direct connections with stakeholders,” says Suraj Sudhi, product owner, SAP Labs India.

NGOs and volunteers can sign up on Charitra (www.charitra.in) for free. NGOs can then post their project details including descriptions and requirements, which go online after moderator approval. Donors or volunteers can sign up to know about various projects or causes to participate in. If they are interested in a project, they can register their ‘promise’ to donate or participate. However, the actual fulfilment of the project requirements is offline, with the NGO and the volunteer deciding together how to deliver on the promises made.

“We believe technology is a key enabler for bringing about change, which drives positive impact beyond businesses. Taking this thought forward, the SAP Labs team in India developed Charitra—one of SAP’s first consumer applications using ‘design thinking.’ Design thinking is an approach that views a problem from three key angles: desirability, feasibility and viability. Charitra is also built on the SAP HANA platform and runs on the cloud,” says Sudhi.

Harnessing the capabilities of SAP HANA, as well as cloud and mobile technologies, Charitra helps to drive positive impact in people’s daily lives. Charitra, since its launch towards the end of 2011, has over 17,000 users, 100+ NGOs and 80+ educational institutions as part of the system.

Mobile solution to detect and cure epidemics
Social tag: Epidemics, spread, information, cure
Tech tags: Mobile app, simple forms

Startled by the outbreak of Leptospriosis in Sri Lanka and Chikungunya in Tamil Nadu around 2007-08, researchers from IIT Madras’ Rural Technology Business Incubator (RTBI) and LIRNEasia in Sri Lanka set about exploring whether the mobile phone, which was gaining ground during that time, could be used to detect the outbreak of an epidemic and also send out information pertaining to its cure to health workers across geographies.

Village health nurses undergoing training about RTBP
Village health nurses undergoing training about RTBP

Detecting an epidemic requires identification of similar cases reported across a region. This is quite difficult with a system that relies mostly on paper-based records.

“Health workers, especially nurses in rural areas are quite over-worked. On top of that, they are burdened with a considerable amount of paper work too. But by the time these papers reach the concerned officers, get fed into a system and analysed, the epidemic would have blown up,” says Suma Prashant, deputy director and senior vice president (exploratory initiatives) of IITM’s RTBI.

The research, funded by a grant from the International Development Research Centre of Canada, was called the Real-Time Biosurveillance Program (RTBP). It aimed to introduce the latest technology to health departments in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka to complement the existing disease surveillance and notification systems.

“With great support from the secretary of the government of Tamil Nadu and the deputy director of Health Services, Sivaganga, during that time, RTBI set about exploring various alternatives including the tech architecture, the kind of phones to be used and so on. We piloted the solution in the Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu, with four public health centres, 25 nurses and 200 villages within its purview,” says Prashant.

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The RTBP system involves digitising all clinical health records and analysing them in nearly real time to detect unusual events, and forewarn health workers before the diseases reach epidemic levels. At the heart of the solution is the mHealthSurvey mobile phone application, which enables health workers to feed information such as patient case, disease and syndrome, using a very simple form on a low-cost Java-enabled mobile phone.

This information is fed into the T-Cube Web interface, which is a browser-based software tool that uses the T-Cube data structure for fast retrieval and display of large-scale multivariate time series and spatial information. The interface allows the user to execute complex queries quickly and run various types of comprehensive statistical tests on the loaded data.

The Sahana messaging/alerting module is then used to disseminate information to health workers and officials if any suspicious trend is spotted. The system can also be used to share information about cures for the same.

Although the pilots were successful, the implementation did not take off to scale but currently, they are in a position to implement RTBP in any location, if required, and are also exploring ways to use a similar system for other public healthcare services such as disease notification, treatment adherence system, and maternal and child health in rural areas.

Ensuring employees reach home safe
Social tag: Employee safety
Tech tag: Mobile app, location services, GPS, maps, SMS

Employee security, especially women’s security, has become a key social concern in India, especially in light of recent tragedies. Closer integration with the operations of global counterparts, business process outsourcing and the emergence of call centres have made the 9-to-5 schedule impractical these days, and employees in many industries have to work in shifts or stay back till late in the night. Their safety and security until they reach home has become important for many companies. This is the inspiration behind Persistent Systems’ new employee safety solution.

“Over one-third of our workforce at Persistent Systems is composed of women. We want to provide the best possible means to ensure their security, and technology can play an important role in that. Modern technologies, especially mobility, location services, and easy availability of content and information, have made it feasible for companies like us to look at building a solution that can reduce the risk for employees,” says Shivesh Vishwanathan, senior consultant (Mobility), Persistent Systems.

While there are general security solutions available on mobile devices, they do not cater to employees specifically or to the Indian context. What companies need is a solution that is well-tailored to their needs.

“Our solution looks at the holistic picture for employee safety. The security staff keeps track of individual cabs and the route being taken by them. They can also be alerted in case of route deviations, etc. Notifications to a few emergency contact numbers and to the security are sent as SMS. Attention to detail and simplicity of user interface are critical for such applications to be useful and widely adopted. For example, with our app, the employee can shake the device in a particular movement to raise an alert in case of emergency,” says Vishwanathan.

The solution has been built with a backend on Rails framework. The mobile app has been built for Android devices currently, and the iOS version is slated for release soon. The app uses the smartphone’s GPS capability to identify location and integrates with Google Maps on the backend for the user to define routes before leaving and show any deviations from the decided path to be taken by the cab.

The solution puts location, messaging and maps to innovative use by tracking the employee/cab location, recording route deviations and sending alerts in case of an emergency or distress.

“We have piloted the solution at Persistent and are currently rolling out the front-end mobile utility on Android devices for our employees in a phased manner. There are companies in Pune for whom we are customising the solution and running pilots,” says Vishwanathan.

‘Safety’ orientation, across the mobile value chain
Social tags: eve-teasing, women safety
Tech tags: SOS button, mobile app, network services, SMS, GPS, social media

Last year saw quite a few solutions to handle eve-teasing smartly, and interestingly the options are spread across the value chain—built-in phone features, apps and network-level services.

One such solution is a simple mobile app called FightBack developed by value-added service provider CanvasM—a collaborative venture between Motorola and Tech Mahindra. FightBack is a small app that can be installed on Android, iOS, Windows and BlackBerry phones. A user simply needs to download the app and configure it with the required details. It uses GPS, SMS, location maps, GPRS email and the user’s Facebook account to inform loved ones when the user is in trouble and presses a ‘panic’ button. The SOS alert also includes location details of the person in distress, so that people can rush to the rescue.

Going to show that network operators can also do their bit, Bharti Airtel announced an interesting safety tool for women, which can be setup initially by dialling the toll-free number 55100 from Airtel phones. The emergency alert solution allows customers to send an alert with their geographical location to ten close contacts, with just one call, facilitating access to easy and quick help in times of need. Additionally, users can send a ‘safe’ message to the pre-defined group to periodically update them on their safety.

At the manufacturer level also, there are examples. The newly launched Jivi 2010 is targeted at Indian women and has a dedicated SOS button. This phone is priced at below ` 2000, in order to reach the masses. The solution is also quite easy to use. In case of an emergency, the user needs to press the SOS button for a few seconds, and the phone starts calling five pre-defined numbers one after the other. In case any of the numbers is busy or does not take the call, an SMS message is sent to it, before the phone proceeds dialling other numbers.

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There is also a Mobile Tracker, which can be used to trace the person in need. The same feature can also be used to trace a lost phone. The phone also includes a folder lock feature so that unauthorised users cannot access the content in such folders.

Connecting educators to rural education centres
Social tag: Rural education, inclusive growth, skills development
Tech tags: Internet of Everything, cloud-driven platform, real-time interaction

As part of their Internet of Everything initiatives, Cisco’s India centre recently launched a rugged and cost-effective remote education platform to facilitate rural education centres with access to top-class learning resources and expert educators. There is a gap in the quality of education in urban and rural centres and the aim of Cisco’s Education Enabled Development (CEED 2700) solution, codenamed Dwara, is to bridge this gap by using their collaborative, cloud-based video interaction solution to deliver education and skills development courses across the country.

Cisco Dwara
Cisco Dwara

The main goal of this solution is to enable rural populations to access expert teachers and trainers. A teacher can combine multiple classes in remote areas and teach them complex concepts as if he or she were right in the classrooms. The students can also ask real-time questions as if the teacher was in their classroom. The cloud-driven solution also enables access to hosted resources. Since the device acts as a router, Wi-Fi access point, computer and projection device, it also allows multiple students using devices like the Akash tablet to share a single Internet connection and access other well-known education portals.

The solution is a high-quality package, with international compliance certified under FCC, CE and UL Labs. It is rugged and can work even in rural schools and can handle erratic power conditions, according to the company.

Aravind Sitaraman, president, Inclusive Growth, Cisco, says, “We are very proud to have developed this product from our site in India, realising our vision to bring cost of technology in education down to a very affordable $1 per child per month.”

Using ‘voice’ as a universal medium of info and service delivery
Social tags: Speech-based access to services, information
Tech tags: Mobile phones, voice biometrics, vernacular speech recognition

Despite the deep penetration of mobile networks, a large illiterate and semi-literate population of India is still unable to access information and services on the phone, because they cannot read or respond to SMS text.

A spark from Prof. Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras sent mobile VAS entrepreneurs Ravi Saraogi and Umesh Sachdev along the social route; and after extensive field research they realised that the only way information and services could be delivered across India’s socioeconomic spectrum is using ‘voice’—the only universal medium of communication and the most intuitive way of interacting with a phone. However, traditional interactive voice response (IVR) systems can be long, unintuitive and inhuman, putting off many people. What the entrepreneurs had in mind was quite unlike such methods; they were focused on ‘speech recognition,’ which enables natural, dynamic conversations between the application and the user.

“When looking at the various technologies that work on basic feature phones, we resolved that speech technology was the best option. In a country like India, nearly 40 per cent of the country is illiterate, and cannot interact with text-based communication. Moreover, up to 90 per cent of the country is not English literate. Most phones in India are incompatible with local language typography. Therefore up to 90 per cent of the country would not benefit from SMS-based marketing and outreach. Speech recognition, on the other hand, can communicate with people in their local languages over voice—the medium in which people are most comfortable interacting with their mobile phones,” says Sachdev.

So Saraogi and Sachdev came up with an enterprise-class mobility platform that uses vernacular speech recognition and voice biometrics to enable automatic information delivery and capture to people on their mobile phones.

Uniphore builds mobility solutions using two primary technologies: multilingual speech recognition and voice biometrics. Speech recognition enables businesses to deploy mobile solutions that understand and carry out the user’s naturally spoken commands. Uniphore’s technology interprets and responds to the particular characteristics of 14 Indian languages and over a hundred dialects. The speech-based applications use background noise cancellation, semantic interpretation and grammar specification to offer the most state-of-the-art products and services. The result is extremely high voice recognition accuracy that enables natural, human-like conversations and satisfying mobile interactions.

Uniphore’s voice biometrics system captures the unique characteristics of an individual’s voice in order to provide businesses with a secure and efficient speaker verification system. To enrol in the system, the user creates a ‘voiceprint’ by speaking a certain set of words. The voiceprint is as unique to the users as their fingerprint, consisting of 32 different elements of the user’s speech pattern—both behavioural and physiological. It is used as the digital representation of their voice and as a standard of comparison when they call in the future.

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“Using these technologies, our solutions enable businesses to send outbound calls to their constituents/customers in their local languages. The user can authenticate their identity through voice biometrics, then speak interactively with the speech recognition system to get the information they require. All the responses of the users are converted to text on the backend, and entered into the enterprise IT systems for analysis,” says Sachdev.

Today, Uniphore has the widest deployment of speech recognition applications in the country, with nearly two million end users. It is being used by NGOs, governments and enterprises to reach out to people in every corner of India.

Training on taking photo of diseased part of the plant— RTBI’s agricultural initiatives
Training on taking photo of diseased part of the plant— RTBI’s agricultural initiatives

The Agriculture department of the government of Tamil Nadu, which is in a sanctioned partnership with RTBI, has taken Uniphore’s solution and customised it to deliver specific information to farmers about weather conditions, market prices, etc. Several banks and healthcare organisations have also used Uniphore’s solutions to benefit rural populations.

Using technology to aid farmers
Social tag: Information delivery to farmers, bridging gaps between farmers and the agricultural value chain
Tech tags: Voice-based systems, dashboards, multimedia conferencing, backend databases

Current systems of information delivery to farmers are mainly at the block level by extension workers, and do not deliver information personalised to the farmer’s field, crop, crop status, etc. As a result, most farmers are ill-equipped to handle changes in crop, weather, market conditions, etc and incur huge losses, which often push them off track.

Under the National Agro Innovation Project (NAIP) funded initiative, RTBI set about exploring ways to improve information delivery to farmers regarding weather, crops, market prices, etc, irrespective of the language or literacy levels, and means to connect the farmers with other elements of the agricultural value chain right from suppliers up to the market. They designed an interactive, multimedia, agricultural advisory system (AAS) for this purpose.

The AAS combines information collection through field workers, voice-enabled inputs and mobile apps; a farmer-specific dashboard that gives all details including historic information on crops cultivated by the farmer, plot properties, etc; a call-centre for information delivery and quick expert advice; and multi-party conferencing between farmers and experts.

What was taken up as a project under NAIP (2009-12) is now being continued at RTBI as research in selected blocks of a district in Tamil Nadu. The call centre has been set up and currently covers selected farmers from two blocks, providing support for mainly paddy and rice fallows. This research initiative will soon be explored to scale.

In yet another significant milestone, in January 2012 RTBI entered into a sanctioned partnership with the Tamil Nadu government’s Department of Agriculture. This partnership reached out to 200,000 farmers across the five delta districts situated along the banks of the river Cauvery in Tamil Nadu. It delivers customised information to farmers through pre-scheduled voice announcements about schemes, input information, pest and disease management, seed preparation, etc. The system integrates with a farmer management system on the back end, so that each farmer receives information personalised to the crop cycle and geography.

The unique aspect of this service delivery is the real-time feedback mechanism that is appended to the voice message, thereby collecting feedback from farmers instantaneously. The information collected is then analysed and given as input to the government for improving the service delivery. Farmers largely benefit from the timeliness of the messages and the government benefits from the immediate feedback and effective utility of their messages. It is a win-win for all involved.

Social entrepreneurship gaining ground
RTBI incubates several social enterprises, and their wares are used not only in RTBI initiatives but also provided to third-party clients, to ensure profitability and growth.

“We believe that technology-based entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to drive a nation’s development. However, one must ensure that the ventures are also profitable at the same time. Profit leads to scaling and therefore it is a must. Scaling is most important. It should drive business and economic development of the nation,” says Prof. Jhunjhunwala, who drives many a social venture through RTBI.

Of late, social entrepreneurship seems to be gaining ground, and that is a wonderful thing. “This space is sure to become even more active in the coming years, thanks to the government’s mandate that 2 per cent of average net profits go under CSR, and that funds are provided to technology incubators. This is an exciting opportunity wherein the role of incubators is recognised and considered crucial for mentoring new businesses, especially the small and medium ones,” says Suma Prashant.

There are other organisations like RTBI helping entrepreneurs with a social orientation. One example is Villgro (www.villgro.org), which provides seed funding, incubation, advice and training to social enterprises.

Another different kind of example is Doing Social—a social-purpose enterprise focused on capacity-building programmes that enable people and groups to set up and participate in viable social and community ventures that address local poverty issues. They work with social incubators, housing associations, community colleges, universities and other community-based organisations, and were awarded the Social Enterprise Mark in January this year.

“I, and the others at RTBI, love what we do. This is a very satisfying work, provided one understands that social change does not happen overnight. It could even take a decade—and you should hold on to your faith and patience and continue making strides till then,” says Suma Prashant.


The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai

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