Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Better Society, Thanks to Technology

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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

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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.

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.

“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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