Date: Saturday , March 31, 2007
Towards technology for wealth-creation
The first International Conference on Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) Solutions for Socio - Economic Development (ISED – 2007), organized by the ICT Research and Training Centre of CDAC Bangalore concluded on March 13. The conference brought together development practitioners, researchers, and technical and social scientists who dwelt on the possibilities and prospects of using ICT for development of the standard of living of particularly the rural masses.
The conference did much in terms of providing an arena for knowledge sharing, with many like Peter Knight, director e-brasil project (who came all the way from Brazil), pleased to have found a platform that looked at the issue of use of technology for societal upliftment. For many though, it failed to spur thoughts on how such technologies could have more of a people focus.
Swami Bhaveshananda, faculty member of the Ramkrishna Mission’s Vivekananda University said, “Hardly any of the models (of pilot projects showcased in the presentations) focused on the human resource development component.”
Dr. Baharul Islam, Chairman and CEO of South Asian Development Gateway, seemed to agree, “India’s greatest strength is her human resource. Unless ICT finds a way to generate wealth, primarily among the youth, all this talk of bridging the digital divide is senseless.”
Incidentally, his talks were among the most hard-hitting and had recall value. While one of the talks focused on the ills (corruption, political vendetta et al) in the name of community information centers in the North Eastern states of India, the other sought to address the skewed government policy of developing ICT as a sector rather than focusing it on developing people’s economies.
In terms of people-inclusive models, K.M. Sharma of NABARD showcased the e-grama project, currently running in Davangere district of Karnataka. Under the project, Village Information Centers are established by educated unemployed youth of each village, which in turn employ other people at the local level to dole out various service offerings.
Dr. M.V. Ananthakrishnan, faculty member at IIT-Bombay, on the other hand, shared his experiences of developing educational resources for the rural sector, using the repository of examples from the recipient’s surroundings to teach them basic concepts. “The excitement on part of the children of having learnt via interactive multimedia, and that too using examples from the environment around them was a treat,” he says.
Among other presentations that left an impact was one by Prof. P. Krishna Reddy of IIIT Hyderabad on e-Sagu – an IT based agro-advisory system piloted in Andhra Pradesh. The project employs educated locals as village coordinators; they visit farms and take photos of the crops/ pests, send them across to IIIT-Hyderabad (where the project is being run from) by courier. The pictures are uploaded online, remedies/ views sought from agricultural scientists and the same is sent back to the coordinator who then hands out the ‘solutions’ to respective farmers.
The presentation set off discussions among the audience members, who debated on the sustainability of the model, since it sought to charge the farmer for the services. It was a few of the presentations though that went beyond the scope of technology development, into the self-sustainability arena.
The conference was divided into various sessions viz. ICT Interventions in Education, Agriculture and the rural sector, e-Inclusion issues and Technical and Infrastructure Challenges for ICT Usage, and was accompanied by a poster competition and an exhibition of various technologies developed by participating agencies and NGOs.
Addressing the information-knowledge chasm
When a member of the audience at the panel discussion on ‘The impact of intelligent infrastructure on human resources and the Indian economy’, organized by EMC Corporation argued that it was time IT shed its elitist outlook and focused on uplifting living standards of the common man, panelist Prof. S. Sadagopan, founder Director of the International Institute of Information Technology shot back, “Just because the discussion is taking place in a 5-star hotel, it cannot be deemed elitist.”
Visibly agitated, he stated, holding up his cell phone “This simple device has helped fishermen in Kerala get a fair price for their prawns.” He stated that now since the technology was in place, the key to upliftment lay in tapping into ‘information resources’. Citing the example of the fishermen, he noted how, after cell phone companies deployed their towers near the shore, Keralite fishermen, still at sea, were able to interact with buyers as soon as they netted prawns. It eliminated the involvement of middlemen, and has contributed to one of the highest average revenue per unit among fishermen in India.
Extrapolating his ‘tapping into information resources’ statement to broader trends, he stated that the shift from carrier to content was inevitable—while road building (i.e. carrier) was profitable 40 years ago, the pie now lay in transportation (similar to content). Similarly, in IT, the carrier, i.e. technology, in terms of storage devices, mobile networks, processors et al was already there now; people just needed to harness ‘information at large’ to better their lives.
Dr. S. Chandrasekhar, Director-IT, Fore School of Management, and also part of the panel further stressed on the need for analyzing information. He drew the audience’s attention to India’s weather prediction mechanism: The Indian met office issues weather forecasts using a measly 80 variables, against the 1500 that can be collated based on the humungous amounts of data at hand from its 1400 weather monitoring base stations.
“The crux lies in converting information into knowledge,” he noted, stating that accurate prediction of monsoons could go a long way in uplifting the standard of living of 60 percent of the country’s population still dependant on agriculture.
“Further, over 50 percent of the country’s rural women are engaged in various income generating chores. There is a huge amount of tacit information available, in terms of the work they do; the key is to capture, analyze and disseminate it as knowledge, which could be put to use while implementing microfinance initiatives,” he said.
Comparatively silent throughout the interaction, the third panelist Tom Clancy, Vice President, Global Education Services, EMC Corp. insisted that training people to read intelligence into information was the key to addressing the information to knowledge chasm. Agreed Prof. Sadagopan, “An average student identifies a domain with the corresponding course (viz. networking with a course from Cisco, databases with an Oracle course). It is time information analysis and management also had a similar association.”
As if taking a cue from Prof. Sadagopan, Manoj Chugh, President-India and SAARC, EMC Corp., moderator of the discussion stated that EMC was trying to bridge that gap, through its EMC Academy Program.
In summing up the discussion, he reiterated Prof. Sadagopan’s viewpoint; that presently, all information lies dormant. Unless it is rendered living – 24/7 – through mining and analysis, no progress can happen. And the onus to enable that progress lay firmly in an industry-academia alliance.
Cricket mania in techie land
Unusual and sporadic loud, cheering, emanating from the cafeteria breaks the silence pervading over the cubicles at Insilica Technologies. “Cricket,” explains somebody and scampers towards the commotion.
With the sounding of the conch at the calypso, ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 made its way into the subcontinent and took everyone under its spell, including the corporate houses and few tech firms, which have gone that extra mile and put up television sets or large screens so that the employees can enjoy the matches at work.
“It’s an effective way of recreation during work,” says Suzan Supriya, HR manager Insilica. The TV set that has always been there is now a mini cricket stadium for the techies, but only during their breaks. She joins the race of HR managers who feel that this activity would increase cohesiveness among the employees. There are some others who opine that this could curb employees from taking leave from work during important games!
Surprisingly, majority of IT firms don’t indulge in the World Cup craze. ‘The employees didn’t ask for it,’ is their response. Also, since the matches are aired during the latter part of the evening, most companies that have day shifts don’t see the need for airing them at work. On the other hand, BPO sectors seem to have taken advantage of this time span and are making special arrangements for the matched to be aired for their employees in the night shift.
“Airing cricket during work hours is an unnecessary distraction as employees will watch the match because they can,” feels Poornima S.P., HR Manager Intuit. Agrees Ravi Kyran, HR manager of Texas Instruments, “With over thousand employees and the match on, we can’t expect too much of productivity.” Let alone airing the matches, TI and Intuit don’t even have a TV set for the employees. The scores can be checked online, they reckon.
However some executives beg to differ. They feel that the tournament is more than a significant productivity drain. It clogs company bandwidth and opens networks up to spyware threats when the employees log in to check the scores.
“No techie has so far shown an interest in watching the matches this time,” says an HR executive from Yodlee, adding that team India’s early exit could be a cause. Last year, the company had set up large screens in a resort and invited all the employees to enjoy the finals of the FIFA Football World Cup. “Maybe, if India had gone through to the Super Eights, we would have done the same,” she adds.
While HR managers battle out the pros and cons of airing the games at the work place, techies too have varied views. “Knowing that we can go see the score once in a while would keep us less distracted,” says Raja Rajeshwari, a cricket fanatic, from Siemens Technology.
However, some techies feel otherwise. “Cricket should not affect work and companies should not be airing the World Cup matches,” is the stoic comment from Karthik Naidu, an engineer at a leading tech firm. His company does not air the matches and he feels that it does not affect the employees at his work place. “We are here to work and I think everybody is professional enough to understand that.”