Engineering Social Inclusion Through Tablets

N K Sinha, Commissioner, Commercial Taxes Department; Principal Secretary – Information Technology, Government of Bihar

Many Indians are finding themselves cut-off from the digital revolution that is currently underway because they lack the financial capability for gaining access to the hardware, software and the connectivity. Hence it is important that the government should take steps for ensuring that digital exclusion does not become deeply rooted in society and the common citizens, especially those from the socially backward and economically deprived sections, have equal opportunities for accessing modern devices and even going online

Modern digital technology has brought great advantages to our society, but it has also heightened the risk of social exclusion. It is the poorest of poor who face the gravest risk of digital exclusion. Digital exclusion is something that we should not take lightly as it can lead to the perpetuation of poverty. Lack of access to the digital technology is related to deprivation of other basic items such as  medical treatment, social contact, good education and appropriate housing. Digital exclusion can be an indicator of deep social and economic inequality.

An ability to know how to use any particular device is a boon by itself. However, mere access to a device and the knowledge of how it works does not guarantee learning; a learner can be like a child, who can waste hours before the dig ital device without learning anything new. In our view, it is the “social envelope” in which the device comes that is more important than just the hardware and the software. The “social envelope” is the factor that relates to critical needs of the rural population to whom the device is being provided.

Taking Digital Technology to the Grassroots Levels

Today we are living in a world which is growing ever “smaller” and where, as a result, it would seem to be easier for us to come up with hardware and software solutions that are not only small enough to be held in the hand, they are also reasonably priced and versatile. The Government of Bihar recognizes the fact that digital technology is capable of delivering changes unimaginable. We see computer proficiency as a fundamental learning skill. In the initial stages the poorest citizens could be provided tablet devices that can provide them the facility of some fundamental learning skills and information on most critical social, financial, and healthcare related issues. The point is that if the tablet device has the qualities that will enable it to serve certain needs of the local population, it will be deemed useful by the common citizens and it will serve the purpose of curbing digital divide.

A Paradigm Shift

Such innovatively designed tablets will serve as vehicles for engineering a paradigm shift for jumping straight away from illiteracy to digital literacy. These devices can serve as tools for providing digital literacy to 3 crore households. The Department of Information Technology in Bihar is currently working for developing a project for promoting digital literacy and social inclusion through tablets. Under this programme, innovatively designed tablets will be distributed to women from poorer sections of society.

These will not be ordinary tablets that we find in the market today. These tablets will be incorporated with a range of features that will make the devices most useful for rural women. The home screen will have apps that are tailored to serve certain needs. For instance, there will be apps for telling the village women how to teach the children, or how to cook, or how to find the remedy for some common ailments. By launching the relevant app, the village woman will be able to ask questions in her own language and the tablet will provide the answer in the same language.

The variety of learning tips and information that will be provided through the tablets might not seem too important for someone who is living in urban areas, where all kinds of services are available, but it will certainly seem helpful to the rural folks whose options are quite limited.

Training for Digital Literacy

We realize that the women will have to be taught how to use the tablet and how to ask the proper question. For that we can rope in the
Common Service Centres, Aasha workers, and volunteer groups like Jeevika and others. In any case, our experience shows that the illiterate village women are capable of picking up the skills for operating a tablet within a matter of few hours. Common Service Centres, Aasha workers, and volunteer groups like Jeevika, can be given some preliminary training about the ways by which they have to impart training to the village women. In other words, they will serve as the master-trainers.

We have already tried to train the illiterate village women in use of modern digital technology and in this we have achieved some astounding results. In fact, we have now engineered a paradigm shift from the idea that there should first be literacy and only then there can be digital literacy. We have gone about exposing these totally illiterate women from Jeevika groups in Bihar to tablets for one or two days and we are surprised with the results. These women are capable of mastering the art of using tablets in a matter of few hours. We are thrilled by the response. Each one of these ladies is able to operate and navigate through the tablets.

The village women are highly enthused and  willing to use the tablets in their day-to-day lives for dealing with issues likes education, animal husbandry, agriculture practices, healthcare related information, etc. They don’t need to read the text in order to navigate through the tablets.

They can navigate by seeing the icons that are present on the tablet’s home page. But we also must realise that only three-four items will not be needed for this device to start playing an important role in the life of the village women. The device will have to be incorporated with hundreds of applications. But if the village women are not able to shift through the maze of hundreds of these applications, then they will find themselves uninterested in this campaign for digital literacy of women through which we also intend to  enhance their quality of life and their literacy levels.

Once the village women get trained, they can help in imparting training to other women living in their villages. Thus the system becomes self perpetuating, as one set of women train another set of women, and so on and so forth, till complete digital inclusion is achieved.

Voice Activated Systems

So what we are planning to have in the tablets is voice activated presentation of choice of icons on the tablets. For instance, if some lady tells in Hindi, “Pashu-Palan,” then, depending on the accent of the woman, the device may be able to recognise that she needs information on ‘Pashu-Palan,’ or ‘Pashu-Chikitsa,’ or something else, which are all similarly sounding words and the relevant apps will become highlighted on the home screen of the device. With this method it will be easier for the lady to find out what application is best suited for her needs.

The Government of Bihar recognizes the fact that digital technology is capable of delivering changes unimaginable

The tablet that we are envisaging will also have the dialling facility to put the village women in touch with the call centre, where trained workers can answer their queries on agriculture, healthcare, education and any other issue. It is indeed a fact that good  communication helps us to know one another in a better way and grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. The tablet in the hands of the women living in the remotest areas will be helpful in not only providing the right answers to the village women, it will also serve the propose of bridging the urban and rural areas closer.

It is possible that the lady may not be in a position to dial the doctor. So the tablet should have features that will allow it to understand voice commands for dialling particular numbers. When the lady says, “dial the doctor,” in her local language, the tablet will connect her to the call centre that has access to the doctor. Also, we are moving away from text based inputs in the device to voice based, picture based and video based inputs. In case of someone being sick in the lady’s house, there can be some symptoms that she may not be able to decipher or describe. The requirement would then be that with very little bandwidth, which may be provided either through
GPRS or WiFi, available at the nearest Panchayat Bhawan, she should be able to transmit the picture or video of the sick person to the doctor. The doctor also may give instructions online by sending pictures or videos.

Under the National Mission for Education Through ICT we have already developed a software that is capable of facilitating high quality
video conferencing even in situations where very little bandwidth is available. This system can be used for providing Internet facility to these tablets.

Information on the Fingertips

The tablet will have other features for receiving text based messages regarding agriculture, weather and other things on which the lady
might need information. Then there is the issue of fulfilling some of the most common needs – like booking a train ticket. How does a lady in a village book a train ticket by using the tablet? The call centre is available. She can simply tell the device, “Connect to train ticket booking,” in her local language. She will be taken to the call centre where she can request for the train ticket to be booked. How does she pay for the ticket? We have already issued biometric cards under the e-Shakti initiative. There can be integration between the e-Shakti cards and the tablet so that the money for the train ticket can be directly debited to her bank account.

It is also important to ensure that the tablet has biometric authentication systems so that those people who do not have the authority to use the tablet are unable to access it. This will also help us ensure that there is less likelihood of theft or deliberate sale of these tablets. As of now we have lot of work to do in terms of developing the right kind of software and the content that can go inside these tablets. Once we are able to do that we will be able use these devices to revolutionise the rural areas of Bihar by digitally empowering the village women, many of whom are illiterate, through these devices