Working magic on a slate

GAME CHANGER

Working magic on a slate

Imagine a microfinance self-help group that meets every week in a remote village somewhere in Orissa. Now imagine an accounts writer, who maintains a ledger, and the sheer pressure on him to ensure that the entries are error-free, especially, because some of the members could be illiterate and want to be told how much they have saved.

Bangalore’s very own researcher Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan has been witness to such a scenario and has presented a digital slate as the solution.

She is no software developer herself, but a researcher interested in social sciences who looks to new technologies as one of the ways to offer solutions to problems.

Today, the low-cost digital slate solution, along with a hybrid paper and pen, is being tested in parts of Orissa and West Bengal.

Talking about the solution,  Aishwarya (29) explains that she has always been interested in economic development and issues surrounding poverty and its alleviation.

The device, developed in association with her fellow researchers at Microsoft Research India, Bangalore, and a software developer, digitises data immediately, stores the same and ensures that it is accurate.

What’s more, it has an audio announcement in the language customised for a specific state.

“This feature was a huge hit with the villagers,” says Aishwarya, who has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and International Development from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge.

The device has caught the attention of MIT’s prestigious Technology Review magazine, which releases an annual list of TR35, young achievers below the age of 35, who have come up with emerging technologies that can affect the bottom-of-the-pyramid users. And it has found a place on the elite list.

Aishwarya is glad to have won this recognition, more because of the attention the device will get, rather than for herself.

Her kajal-lined eyes light up as she demonstrates the device that is still being tested for 100 per cent accuracy. This includes looking for a solar option too, to make it more viable in rural areas.

“We saw a solar lantern that doubles up as a phone charger in one of the village shops, and thought we could use a similar solar option to charge the device. We are also trying to fine-tune the device and make it as cost-effective as possible,” she says.

What’s interesting about the device is that it doesn’t exactly disrupt the way self-help groups are already noting down entries in the ledger. One has to place the ledger on the slate, and with minimal intervention and a hybrid pen, the slate reads every entry one makes.

“It is also fool-proof. In case the device goes missing or is non-functional, you still have the paper records with you. So, the technology is built on existing workflow and has an easy interface,” she says.

Aishwarya explains that the field visits have been great learning experiences for her. “The villagers are such warm people. There are areas where is no electricity even, and no televisions or other gadgets, but they all took to this device, after the initial apprehensions,” she adds.

Research drives Aishwarya, who has other plans too, including a social science project that focuses on how households transition from one level of social and economic wellbeing to another. The study will look into what characterises high upward mobility from disadvantaged conditions. It will focus on the IT sector, bureaucrats and institutions such as engineering colleges, for instance. It will also focus on who the outliers are, for instance, and what propelled them to do what they did, she explains.

When Aishwarya is not immersed in research at Microsoft, what does she do? There is no typical day, she smiles, as she talks about research, writing, field visits et al. But, this Malleswaram girl is very particular about making time for her family.

“One of the reasons I moved back to Bangalore in 2005 was to be able to pursue Bharatanatyam (she performs at least twice a year) and be close to my family,” says this Kannada-Tamil speaking girl.

She also loves to travel to nearby places, apart from being a biker. She zips across the city on her 125cc geared motorcycle.

It’s definitely not research all the time for Aishwarya. She loves her music, dance and books.

She recalls the time when she was part of a folk music band when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in Economics from Wellesley College, Massachusetts.

Or the time when she was on internship in East Africa and was smitten by their dance forms, “which are spiritual and inward- looking, much like classical Indian dance forms”.

And, most of all, she loves her city. “And this part of the city, Malleswaram...Eighth Cross,” she adds, as if to underline what she means about her love for this part of the city.

Her heart, it definitely seems is in India, and in research, for now.

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