India’s right to information movement had tremendous success in making strategic use of transparency for securing government accountability. Thanks to this success, demanding and disseminating information are among the most used tools in the work of activist organizations in the country today. Public records are typically demanded on paper and disseminated manually, making the process costly and slow. Over the last few years, governments have started making relevant information available online.
At the same time, the availability of mobile phones has exploded with more than half the households in India owning a mobile phone - even in India’s poorest states. As the census commission soberly put, more families have mobile phones than toilets in India today. The project seeks to make use of these parallel developments to assist credible activist organizations to collect and disseminate information through the exploding network of mobile phones.
The recipients will be able to provide feedback and submit official complaints through a simple interface on their mobile phones, and the feedback can be used by activist networks for advocacy and collective action. Relevant and timely information is already an important part of the activist toolkit, and the project is based on the premise that this power can be significantly expanded through the use of technology.
To take an example, India has a public distribution system with over 600,000 shops that distribute subsidized food grains and other essential materials in villages every month. In the state of West Bengal, the entitlements to the beneficiaries can change every month, and can be different in each district. Due to this variation, beneficiaries often do not know how much rice, wheat or kerosene they are entitled to making it easy for them to be cheated by the dealers. This information can be easily accessed through a photocopy from the state government, and the team has helped its partner organization disseminate it in rural areas through mobile phones.
Simple measures like these can add to the bargaining power of the poorest people in rural India, at least when they are organized through strong activist networks. Recognizing the power of such information, most activists spend a considerable amount of time looking at government policies, examining accounts and understanding detailed rules and regulations. For many activists who are located far away from state capitals, getting information is a challenging task. In addition, a considerable amount of their time goes in communicating information to the constituents. Despite best efforts, most of these resource-constrained organizations do not have the capability to communicate such information regularly to people in geographically dispersed villages.
In addition to disseminating information, this project is developing a system of getting feedback from people in order to help the organizations monitor the performance of these programs over a wide geography. The feedback mechanism will be coupled with a ‘grievance forwarding’ mechanism wherein the respondents will have the option to file a formal grievance with the administration through the phone-based system so that they can avoid making a costly trip to the district headquarters to file complaints with responsible officials.
A pilot of the project has started in four states of India - Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal - covering issues such as health, education, food and employment. The focus of the pilot stage has been to develop technologies that suit the organizational model of the partner organizations, and also on dealing with the socio-technological challenges including: poor connectivity, gendered ownership of phones and understanding the socio-political context of the intervention. Once the model of intervention is established, the team plans to examine the impact of the project on corruption, timely availability of entitlements to beneficiaries and other program parameters using a combination of randomized control trials and ethnography.
Vivek Srinivasan: Vivek is the academic research and program manager at the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. He has over 13 years of close engagement with rights based movements in India, which includes several years of full-time work coordinating one of the largest socio-economic rights campaigns in India. It is his experience with campaigns on education, hunger, health and corruption that led him to the current project. He also has a multidisciplinary Ph.D. in social sciences from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, and a MA in economics from the Delhi School of Economics. He serves as the lead researcher of the project.
Aaditeshwar Seth: Aadi is an assistant professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the head of ‘ACT4D’ or The Appropriate Computing Technologies for Development research group. He works on low cost computer networks and ICT systems for rural areas, content based networks and participatory information sharing on social networks. He is also one of the founders of Gram Vaani, a social tech company founded with the intent of reversing the flow of information bottom-up rather than top-down.
Aditya Sanyal: Aditya graduated from Symbiosis law school with degrees in Business Administration and Law in 2009. After a brief stint at work in the corporate world he joined Azim Premji University where he studied Masters in Development. He is currently based at Chhattisgarh where he is leading the project in Surguja district.
Amarjeet Sing: Amarjeet got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UCLA and he currently teaches at Indraprashta Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT D). He works on sensing and mobile computing with applications in critical domains such as healthcare and building utility (energy/water) management. He also works on systems that support effective data collection and modeling.
Dipanjan Chakraborty: Dipanjan is completing his PhD in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. His work looks at different ways through which the power of computer science can be brought to improve accountability in government programs. In this project, he will be looking at an intelligent crowd-sourcing model to identify major problems in public services provisions.
Nidhi Vij: Nidhi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Public Administration at Syracuse University. She has a master's degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics, and she has also worked for many years with the Ministry of Rural Development that is in charge of implementing many of the programs of interest to this research project. She is currently examining how women in a remote tribal district can learn about maternity entitlements through a phone based system, and if this will enable them to avail the entitlement more effectively.
Pushpendra Singh: Pushpendra is an assistant professor at the Indraprashta Institute of Information Technology, Delhi and he works on mobile systems and applications in domains of information access, healthcare and energy conservation. He obtained his PhD in engineering from INRIA-Rennes, France.
Rajendran Narayanan: Rajendran obtained his Ph.D. in statistics from Cornell University and taught briefly at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta. He joined the team as a full-time program manager based in Andhra Pradesh.
Rajesh Veeraraghavan: Rajesh is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of information at UC Berkeley. He is currently studying an ambitious open-government project in Andhra Pradesh. Prior to this, he worked with Microsoft Research in Bangalore, an internationally acclaimed research group in the field of ICT for development. As a part of MSR, he developed one of the earliest SMS based information dissemination project for farmers. He also has masters' degrees in engineering, economics and management.
Siddharatha Asthana: Siddhartha is a doctoral student at IIIT-D, and his specialization is Interactive Voice Response Systems.
Sudha Narayanan: Sudha is an assistant professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Bombay. Sudha got her Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell University, and also has a masters in economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She is the author of numerous articles on agriculture and the right to food in India, and has also co-authored a book on the subject. Prior to this, she has worked with IFPRI and with the Right to Food Campaign.
Vibhore Vardhan: Vibhore left his Embedded Software Systems job at Texas Instruments to volunteer in rural India. Starting with education, his journey evolved and led through other domains like micro-finance, energy, alternative education, and finally, activist organizations. He joined the project as the first full-time member in 2012, starting with exploring field partnerships and appropriate technology, eventually taking ownership of the technical development. He received his MSEE from University of Illinois in 2004.
Updated: October 2013