Bridging The Gap

Published Date
01 - Apr - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Apr - 2006
Bridging The Gap
Much of rural India lives in what can be termed "Media Darkness"-where people do not have access to facilities like television or radio, and in some places, there's no access to newspapers either. Lack of access to information has been one of the impediments to development, and lack of development, in turn, further alienates the rural sector. In a bid to breach this vicious circle, an initiative called Project i-Shakti has used technology to provide information based on demand, via a network, to villages in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Where It All Began
Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) began a programme for rural empowerment called Project Shakti. Project Shakti aims at creating entrepreneurial opportunities in villages all over India so they do not need to rely on agriculture alone for their livelihood. Most of the individuals who have registered with the programme are women, and are called the Shakti entrepreneurs.

"When Unilever developed an interactive dialogue technology, we considered its purposeful implementation and integration with Project Shakti. Thus was born Project i-Shakti. We decided to begin the venture in AP as the state had already initiated an e-Seva programme, and we tied up with them to launch the services we had conceived under i-Shakti," says Rohit Harirajan, head of the project.

What Is iShakti?
The i-Shakti venture seems simple enough when stated out aloud: it is a kiosk-based interactive dialogue system that contains a computer terminal and offers free informational services aimed at education and community development in rural India. The aim of the project is to create an IT-based rural information service so that the population has access to critical information via the Internet, such as updates on farming practices and hygiene. In view of the fact that Andhra Pradesh (AP) has a total of 7,500 predominantly agriculture-based villages, the task at hand was monumental.

YonEarth interactive, a Mumbai based IT-enabled marketing solutions company, was hired to design, develop and manage the venture.

"Every one knew it was an extremely uphill task," says Vivek Marolli, Director, YonEarth Interactive. "It was completely untreaded territory. Making such an ambitious project work in far-flung villages across rural India, under difficult conditions such as sporadic power supply, heat, dust, poor computer literacy and almost non-existent or very slow Internet connectivity, would indeed be a challenge. We had to design a system that would beat all these barriers and work in ways that were never thought possible before."

After a study of the requirements for the project, and a year spent on designing and building the software, the system was ready to be launched.  While building the ICT-the Integrated Circuit Technology-the aim was to have a villagers get their hands on a computer rather than employ a kiosk owner as the interface between the technology and the user. Hence, the project emphasised on using a voice- and video-based system, and uses "rich media"-software designed using Macromedia Flash-besides being database-driven, so that all the intelligence can be built on it.

This easy to use interface has "talking " icons

A voice system would eliminate the necessity for the user to read off the screen, hence  making it easier for an illiterate user. It was also important to have a system that would allow the central servers to connect to these kiosks through the barriers of poor Internet connectivity, and enable large volumes of rich-media files and information to go back and forth between the Mumbai office and thousands of such kiosks on an everyday basis. Finally, the users   had to be taught to use and understand  what they stood to gain by  using the system, besides being trained to use the mouse and keyboard.

Making such a project work in far-flung villages, under conditions such as sporadic power supply and poor Internet connectivity would indeed be a challenge
Vivek Marolli,Director, YonEarth Interactive

Each i-Shakti kiosk is owned by an individual, and it comprises a desktop PC system that operates independently of all other kiosks on the network, but is connected to the central server to which it can synchronise data through a dial-up connection. The i-Shakti software needs to be installed on  PCs with suitable configurations.

Once deployed on the PC, it acts as a kiosk, and the owner of the kiosk is expected to synchronise the data and transfer it to the central server once a day. The kiosk owner also helps new users register and guides them when they use the system. The central server communicates to thousands of such kiosks through a specially-developed Compressed Data Synchronization-based Dialogue Technology, which allows the kiosks to work in offline mode. This reduces the cost of operations to the kiosk owner, and at the same time, he can connect to the Central Server every day for two-way data updates. Technical support teams, which have been set up all over AP, also monitor and solve any problems on the kiosks within the state. For every forty kiosks, there is a technical manager who tackles any  problems that the kiosks face.

Currently, every one of the i-Shakti kiosks in AP has various channels of interactive rich-media information created by culling various sources such as opinions of agriculture experts, the Internet, and government agencies, on topics such as health, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, employment, women's issues, and entertainment. As a registered user, one can visit the i-Shakti kiosk in his village six days a week and access information and services. Since there are experts who are a part of the project-some on a payroll and some voluntary-the villagers can also post questions on a query mailing system.
Why i-Shakti?
How is such information critical to the villagers? Well, most villages are isolated and independently-functioning entities, and they rely on their existing means of information and resources to aid their everyday activities. This implies that in case of an illness, they have access only to a local doctor, and possibly no chance at a second opinion. With i-Shakti, the villager has access to information that comes to him from a recognised government source, and is an authorised voice-most of the experts on the panel of i-Shakti are people employed with various agencies all over AP. For example, the expert on wheat might be an agricultural scientist at the University of Vijaywada. Besides, the information is free, and one can gain insights in any  developments in a  particular  section such as health or employment right from the kiosk in his village.

The i-Shakti system is designed as an easy to use, "talking" voice-based system in Telugu, the state language. All information on various topics is in the form of audio or video, and the user does not necessarily have to read off the screen. The graphical user interfaces are designed such that icons speak when a mouse is scrolled over them. Once a user knows what area he wants information on, he can click the relevant icon for further information.

An i-Shakti kiosk set up in the owner's house

For example, on the Agriculture icon, there are subsections titled Wheat, Paddy, Cotton, and so on. Once a user scrolls over an image of, say, cotton, a voice announces the name of the crop in Telugu. He can then click on the Cotton icon to access information on types of cotton, seasons for growth, pest control, fertilisers, and so on.

"We have avoided making the Internet available to the villagers to keep costs down. The Net is only used to synchronise data and mail it to the office in Mumbai. We monitor each and every bit of information that is passed back and forth and between user, expert and kiosk owner. Even this data comes in during the synchronisation. Hence, we can keep a tab on everything from our office in Mumbai and run things efficiently," says Marolli.

How each member uses the data is also tracked and recorded. The system is constantly monitored for the most frequently-visited sections and the duration of the visits. Based on usage, there is a lucky draw each month for the person who uses the system most efficiently. Besides, relevant offers and rewards are given to other  users who use the system effectively. For example, if a member visits the Education section regularly, he might be offered a discount on stationery or books. This offer directly appears on the computer screen when the user logs in, and this system encourages members to use the system. Besides, the fact that the information is free is an incentive by itself.

In less than six months since i-Shakti's launch in September 2005, the network has grown to about 970 kiosks in 21 districts in Andhra Pradesh, with a registered customer base of 1.5 lakh users.

One of the kiosk owners, Shantamma, says, "The programme has created a stir ever since it began. We have people from all age groups using the system. Practically all are registered users, and we have six to seven users coming in every day."
"The system is designed such that it can be set up and configured for use in different languages. The groundwork has been laid to take the initiative forward," says Marolli.

The people of Nallagonda, AP, where the first kiosk was set up, are not unaware of the opportunity that is at their doorstep today. Provided with resources, these people are apt to make the best use of them.

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