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View from India: New technologies for grassroots change

Social innovators Sanskriti Dawle and Karibasappa MG have each used technology for scale. They now hope that their respective innovative and patented solutions addressing pan-society issues will percolate to the masses at large.

As engineering students, Sanskriti Dawle and Aman Srivastava wanted to do a socially relevant research project. An insight revealed that the visually impaired segment is perhaps less explored. This led to the weekend Braille project. As the project unfolded, the duo realised that technology can help solve low Braille literacy in India. Gradually, it shaped up as an educational tool for Braille literacy. The tool, as we know it, is called ‘Annie’, named after Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s instructor.

‘Annie’ is Thinkerbell Labs’ flagship product. Previously Project Mudra, Thinkerbell Labs was formally instituted as a startup in Bangalore in 2016.

It was founded by Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani graduates Sanskriti Dawle, Aman Srivastava, Dilip Ramesh and Saif Shaikh. “I was studying at the BITS Pilani Goa campus when I decided to do a research project that would be useful for children,” remembered Dawle. The thought led her on till she learnt the basics of Braille and conceptualised a working module with a keyboard.

The prototype has undergone modifications. The tactile hardware modules are developed in-house. A human voice guides students through gamified, collaborative and interactive coursework. Annie does away with the need for handholding. Its analytics gives an overview of the student’s performance, while metrics such as content completed and performance in lessons help the educator understand the student’s progress. Content can be customised through a companion app.  

In its present avatar, Annie is believed to be the world's first Braille self-learning device that comes with reading, typing and writing modules.

Classroom situations had challenges. “The teacher has to handhold the student while teaching Braille to physically impaired children. Annie has morphed into a smart teacher as the device is integrated with artificial intelligence (AI) and automation,” she reasoned. Being a self-learning device, the students can learn even without a Braille teacher. The teacher can review the progress on a digital dashboard. Though Braille is taught up to standard VII, at times, all students may not be benefitted. In such cases, Annie provides the required assistance, as students can learn from start.

Annie has been deployed in Rajyakrit Netrahin Madhya Vidyalaya, Harmu, Ranchi in Jharkhand. This government school has 24 visually impaired students aged between 6 and 18 years old. Two teachers conduct hourly Braille lessons. Given this student-teacher ratio, it’s understandable that students have taken a long time to learn Braille. Consequently, 20 Annie devices have been set up to teach students Braille.

Annie will be deployed in a school in Bangalore in April. It’s intended to roll out 500 Annie devices across schools nationally.

Meanwhile, it may be difficult to imagine that the pomegranate fruit has opened out new vistas for Karibasappa MG. He was otherwise happy nurturing a variety of plants on his 4.75-acre farm in Davangere, Karnataka. Things changed when insects began to eat into his pomegranate fruit crop. It turned out that no insecticide or pesticide could offer a solution and the annual yield saw a downslide. Notwithstanding that, a loan amounting to Rs 3.5 lakh weighed Karibasappa down. He was left with little or no choice until one day he saw a few insects being drawn towards his solar light. “There was no power, so I had switched on the solar light. I was surprised to see insects hovering over the light. I felt I could use this tactic to drive away insects to some extent,” Karibasappa said.

This went on for some time, until he was fully convinced that solar lights are a means to get rid of insects. A few brainstorming sessions with agricultural officials and researchers at the Davangere Krishi Vigyan Kendra convinced him to pursue this. “Professional expertise helped fine-tune the experiment. This led to coloured LED lights,” he explained. The lights in bright tones of blue and orange were switched on from 6-10pm, during which time they attracted a sizeable number of insects that were otherwise eating into various plants. After swarming the lights, the insects eventually fell into a basin filled with water.

The experiment became the beginning of an insect trap, which has been tested at many institutes including Shimoga’s Nut Research Center, Dharwad-Shimoga Agriculture University and Horticulture College of Munirabad. Christened as the ‘MGK Solar Insect Trap’, the device is making the rounds in agricultural circles. Rust and water resistant, the device has been developed by Karibasappa and his team.

The automatic solar insect trap works by leveraging LED technology. Ultra-violet rays emitting from the device helps attract flying insects. Consequently, the dependence on poisonous chemical pesticides in agriculture is reduced. Being a solar energy device, it is eco friendly and increases productivity on farms.

Gradually, word-of-mouth publicity took over. Then, a social media presence helped spread the word further. Both marketing strategies have brought farmer communities to the doorstep. The MGK Solar Insect Trap has evolved into a pest management tool sought after by 3,500 farmers and agricultural university institutions in Karnataka. “This year, it’s intended to reach out to as many farmers at the national level. There have also been enquiries from organisations in the UK, Malaysia and Korea,” added Karibasappa.

Both Karibasappa MG and Sanskriti Dawle were winners at the recent Aarohan Social Innovation Awards 2018-19, presented by Infosys Foundation. Karibasappa MG, along with team members Dayananda K and Anil Kumar MK, won an award under the jury ‘special mentions’ category for developing a solar insect trap for agriculture. Sanskriti Dawle won the bronze award for developing ‘Annie’, a device to address low Braille literacy in India.

Infosys Foundation is the philanthropic-corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of Infosys. The Foundation honoured 12 social innovators for their breakthrough innovations and awarded total prize money of Rs 1.70 crore. Sudha Murty, chairperson, Infosys Foundation, stated: “The Aarohan Social Innovation Awards were conceived as a means of creating impactful change at scale, by encouraging people to address social challenges in India.”

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