Bill Thies on leveraging technologies for citizen journalism, education, and healthcare in India

Bill Thies described his group's work to develop projects that utilize those technologies that are already present and familiar in poor Indian communities. He focused his talk on three current projects:

Citizen journalism: Chhattisgarh is a state in central India with very low levels of literacy and poor communications infrastructure.  It contains many Gondi speakers, a language that has no written literature. The challenge for Bill's group was to find way for people in Chhattisgarh to share and discuss news in their own language. Radio is not an option because news broadcasts are illegal for all but the government run stations in India.

The team designed a system for mobile phones to be used as a platform for citizen journalism. Working with local NGO media partner CGnet, project Swara provides a simple system whereby anyone can call in and record a news update from their area. Stories are moderated by CGnet's journalists and then can be heard by calling the same number. They are also posted on CGnet's website.

The project is in its early stages, but initial analysis shows that around half the posts are in local languages, providing the very first news outlet in Gondi in any form. Content ranges from reports of social concerns and local news to singing.

Since the system is open to use by anyone, one inevitable concern is the reliability of reports. However, Bill argued that voice gives a level of authenticity that may make people more reluctant, or less able to lie convincingly in their reports. There are also distinct advantages of voice over text, for example the extra information that is gained by hearing the emotion that accompanies words.

Education: Only 14% of schools in India have a computer, and where they are present, they are often under-utilized due to a lack of expertise or familiarity. Older technologies have much higher penetration; 60% of Indian households have a television. Bill's group has begun working with DVD players, which have a penetration of 13% - this is expected to rise to 25% by 2013. They have developed DVDs that contain thousands of Wikipedia entries that can be navigated in a similar way to the chapters of a movie. The DVDs are being piloted with college students in Bangalore who want to do additional research but lack access to PCs.

Healthcare: A quarter of the two million people who die from Tuberculosis each year are Indian. While the disease is curable, treatment requires taking four different drugs, three times a week for a period of six to eight months. A system of directly observed therapy has been put in place in India to ensure that patients take medication. However, the current system means that health workers who perform the checks are only rewarded once a whole treatment cycle has been completed and their interaction with patients is not efficiently tracked. Bill's group has created a biometric terminal for TB clinics which uses a fingerprint reader to verify the interaction between health worker and patient. The day's reports can be uploaded via SMS and the data quickly visualized, enabling better measurement of health worker performance. This is currently being piloted in partnership with the NGO Operation ASHA in two clinics in Delhi.