Friday, August 29, 2008

Visiting Farmers

One of the best, perhaps the best, thing about the work I do is going to the field to visit with farmers. Over the last year I have become fascinated and enthusiastic about agriculture, but particular in the people who engage in it. I love farmers. I put farming up with teaching as the two positions in society which should get extra high pay because their work is for the public good: teachers because they create an educated society, and farmers because they care for the land.

The best part about working with farmers is that they are amazing people. Incredibly warm, generous, humorous, and humble. It is really easy to stay motivated to work hard on a daily basis when you know you are doing it for such people. You just want to return the warmth they so naturally and effortlessly show you. So far I have done only a little work for farmers in Gujarat, but they are very appreciative of even that. It is something special for them to know that of all the things in the world an NRI Gujarati kid can do, he has chosen to come back to do work that tries to help them. This summer, I caught wind that I have become known amongst a wider circle of farmers than I have met myself, some have discussed our work amongst themselves. Pareshbhai, one of my co-workers at DSC, even mentioned that this summer's work will make my name known throughout rural Gujarat. How amazing!

Over the past two summers, I have gotten to know many farmers. In fact, I would venture a guess and say I personally know about 100 farmers in Gujarat. And among them are some of the most thoughtful and progressive farmers in all of India. I've written about Sarvadamanbhai before, who I believe has the most advanced farm in Gujarat. I've visited big farms, small farms; organic farms and chemical farms.

A couple weeks ago I did a field visit with Pareshbhai and my manager from IBM, who visited DSC from Delhi for a few days. My manager afterwards said the day (which went from 6am to 1am) was "a lifetime experience". I know what he means. Anyway, I wanted to tell in words and pics about some of the memorable stories from the field.

We traveled about 600 km in total in the day, and went to really remote villages. At one point we were 25KM from the Pakistan border!

Our goal for the trip was to meet with farmers and discuss how they access information about their agricultural practices, what information they need, how best to deliver it to them, and challenges they currently face in accessing it. We did this in many ways, including free-form discussion, and a questionnaire I had prepared. We went to three villages, and in each place local farmers had organized meetings so that we could address a group. This pic is of the biggest meeting of the day, in a village called Beyok in Banaskantha jillo (district):

Notice how they set up the cots and sat around us in a circle. Also interesting was that the ladies, whom we expressly invited to be a part of our meeting, all sat on the ground outside of the circle.

We also discussed the radio program and what they thought about getting information over the phone. Then we went into specifics about our project. I prepared a paper prototype of the voice user interface that we have designed:

We had a bunch of flash cards with each of the voice prompts that the user would hear when they dialed our system. We asked the farmer to put a phone to his ear (which was off) and sit with his back facing Pareshbhai, who would act as the voice on the phone. Notice that we purposely had Pareshbhai speaking from behind to block any visual communication. I acted as the "computer", handing flashcards to Pareshbhai based on the participant's utterances. So if the user said "question", I handed Pareshbhai the prompt that said "Ok, you have chosen to ask a question. About which crop?" And so on. Explaining what we were trying to do itself was a challenge. It takes the ability to abstract in a particular way to understand that this was a mock version of a real system we would later build. We ended up calling it a "naatak" or "play performance".

We did the naatak several times, with some very interesting results. People were nervous, and some didn't get what we were doing, but on the whole we concluded that the basic interaction is going to work. In our third village, we met a women-only group and did the naatak:

This was totally fascinating. We learned that the ladies don't own phones themselves, and rarely use them. Moreover, they are very intimidated by the phone, expressing that they were not educated enough to even dial a number.

Doing the naataks made me wonder whether we were doing something completely new. After thinking about it some more, I've come to believe that we are designing the first ever voice interface in the Gujarati language. Cool!

The final story I wanted to share is about a farmer named Babubhai. Babubhai is 18 years old. He has been featured on DSC's quarterly magazine, Divaa Dandee (meaning "Lighthouse", a name given by a farmer) many times for his progressive farming practices. He has given speeches in front of high-level government bureaucrats without flinching in meetings organized by DSC. But the thing that amazes me most about Babubhai is that he is a born leader. Watching him interact with the other people in his village is a sight to behold. He commands the all-out respect of each and every person in the village, from the youngest to the village elders. He is a peer amongst the grown men in the village. They all go to him for advice about their farms, and he has no hesitation about telling them what to do. Also, it is clear that each and every person in his village are gushing with pride for him; they recognize that he is very special.

Babubhai is also an inventor, and he showed us the latest thing he has built:

It is a insect trap that he puts out in his field. It is actually three traps in one. There is at the top a water bowl to attract birds, who in turn hunt around for bugs on the plants. Then there are posts on the sides to hang faramine traps. In the middle he has fixed a small light bulb that attracts insects, and right underneath it is where he puts a bowl of another trap which the bugs fall into. He told us that he wants to take his invention and share it farmers around the world.

I would consider Babubhai a genius, in the mold of Ramanujan. He is a diamond in the rough. I feel lucky to know him and work with him. Despite having only a gradeschool education, Babubhai plans on going to college and studying social work. I have very little doubt that he will eclipse anything I will ever do for the upliftment of rural Gujarat.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


A couple weeks ago I went to Baroda for the long weekend to visit my Masi. I also took a day to visit the Vinoba Ashram where I lived last summer, and Jatan Trust, an organization working out of the ashram which I interned with. The heart, the soul, the engine of Jatan is Kapilbhai, who was eagerly awaiting my visit. Kapilbhai is one of my very few living personal heroes. His principles, the way he works, the way he lives, all deeply resonate with me and I admire him very much. Together last summer we developed an organic certification system for small farmers in Gujarat. Besides being the first and only organic certification in the Gujarati language (which means for the first time ever Gujarati farmers can actually read their issued certificate), there are many other aspects of the system that make it unique in all the world.

Just being back at the ashram and talking with Kapilbhai again in person, to be in his presence, gave me a wonderful feeling. I also enjoyed hearing him introduce Jatan and our project to some visitors who happened to be there that day. A highlight of this summer was when we were all sitting together, Kapilbhai looked at the visitors and said, "Neil is a great man." I was speechless and barely managed a reply: "No, I'm just lucky". It was one of the most meaningful compliments I've ever received.

I have rarely felt the pride for something I helped create like I did while listening to Kapilbhai talk about our work's guiding philosophies and how they have set us on a different path from what's been done before. To illustrate, he explained that in most certifications, organic agriculture's definition is reduced to farming without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But JCS has a scoring system that we use to go way beyond this grossly simplified notion of sustainable agriculture. He explained as an example one of the criterias in our scorecard, which says that if your farm uses a tube well, you get 3 marks; if you use a canal, which is a little more sustainable way to get water, you get 5 marks; if you have a farm pond or check dam, that's even a better way to water you field, so that's 8 marks; if you don't water your field at all (that is, it is sufficiently fed just through rain), then you actually have the most sustainable (and advanced) irrigation system, so you get 10 marks. No other certification system in the world tabulates how 'organic' a farm is in this way.

Through the course of the day, there were a couple other nuggets of wisdom that Kapilbhai left me and this group of visitors, which stuck with me:

  1. "No one is poor until they sit in a car and drive around". This quote sounds weird because I don't remember the whole context of the illustration he was making, but the point was that poverty is a conception, an idea in the mind. You are not poor until you decide that you are poor. In India, as Kapilbhai pointed out, "many people go to sleep at night with an empty belly, but they are happy." To a western person's ears, this is a heinous comment, blasphemous. But I think there is something deep in it. The very definition of happiness, what it means for each person on the earth, is a very relative thing. We assume that a person must have a certain way of life to be happy, but happiness is a slippery thing. Sometimes you mean to bring about 'development' in a community, but you may introduce as many (or more) problems than you solve. Like in the "Gods Must Be Crazy".
  2. "If you've achieved short term success with a rural development project, you've done something wrong." Kapilbhai believes that working with a rural community is a lifelong task. It takes giving yourself fully, giving your life, to the cause and die trying to make a difference. For him it's the only way to roll: all out. I wouldn't take his quote literally, but what it means to me is that this work is not about cute little summer projects. If you are really commited to farmers and making a difference for them, you need to live with them and work as one of them. There are no shortcuts, and you shouldn't be in it for the awards or recognition or anything else like that. I couldn't agree more. I know that my way of working is exactly what he's railing against, and I am just too damn attached/scared/egotistical to go all out. But maybe one day.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Stuff Indian People Like #1

Lots of indistinguishable wall switches.

With these astonishing control panels, you can easily fall into the tedious ritual of toggling every damn switch to find the single one for the fan that you want. I wish there was a electricity-wastage impact study on this when multiplied by the millions of such rooms all over India.

And yes, you guessed it: this is the blogosphere's most exciting new running segment. We are going to give those white guys a run for their money.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Paying the Bills

This is my least favorite post to do, but it needs to be recorded for the sake of completeness: What am I working on this summer?

As I mentioned earlier, I am interning at IBM research Delhi, working with a team there that has developed a pretty interesting technology. The premise is the following: The WWW is great, but to really leverage it you need the Internet as well as the ability to read and write (...English). But believe it or not, most people in the world don't have one or both of these things going for them (the number of illiterate people in the world is more than double the number of those online).

But what a lot more people have access to is the telecom network in the form of cellular connectivity. So while the text-based web has a lot of reach, a voice web could give access to billions more. By voice-web (the IBM team calls it 'spoken web'), I mean content accessible through a mobile phone that is audio only; instead of websites, there are VoiceSites. For example, imagine Wikipedia set up as a VoiceSite, where instead of reading about check dams, you can listen to an audio version. VoiceSites can be linked to one another, and can be navigated with a broswer using HSTP (HyperSpeech Transfer Protocol).

The IBM team I am interning with has developed this technology, and I have come in this summer to try and understand how such technology might be applied in concretely useful ways. My previous work has been in the domain of agriculture, so I started looking there. One of the things I've known for some time is that agricultural extension, the process of adapting agricultural research to local contexts through farmer education, has for some time been utilizing radio as an effective medium for information dissemination. Radio isn't the sexist technology, but it is quite well-suited for rural development: it is cheap, flexible (hardware is lightweight, portable), familiar, can be localized (through community radio), and works well in oral and non-literate communities. But a big challenge is to make radio more interactive. More generally, it has always bothered me that in social/NGO sector, rural communities are only looked at as consumers; consumers of services, products, even information. But how can they also be made producers? Many farmers I've met have a lot of useful wisdom to share, and even at the the base level social services should be getting feedback from their constituencies on whether they are delivering their services satisfactorily.

So this idea of spoken web + community radio + feedback channel developed, and we are now working on a project that tries and make this vision come to life. Specifically, I am working with an NGO in Ahmedabad called Development Support Center (DSC), which among many activities centered around promotion of natural resource management practices in Gujarat, has a weekly radio program called "Sajjata no Sang... Lave Kheti Ma Rang" (Sajjata no Sang is a network of development NGOs in Gujarat... "They bring color to the farmlands"). Our goal is to develop a model for social communication (sharing of knowledge and experiences within a community) and information access through interactive community radio. Using the spoken web technology, we will create a system for farmers to call in and leave any feedback (questions, comments, personal experiences) to DSC. Other farmers can listen to the feedback and respond as can DSC staff and/or any interested expert scientists. Conversations can build amongst farmers and with experts, experiences can be shared, and questions can be answered in a distributed manner. Additionally, we will provide an interface for the farmers to access all of the last 2 years worth of radio programming content; the information is now at their fingertips. Finally, all the feedback submitted to the system is recorded for DSC radio broadcasters to later export and play straight away on a future radio program; this sort of completes a loop where before, the radio program was a one-way broadcast. A more engaging experience and a greater sense of ownership develops now that the farmers hear their own voices. This sketch is something I presented early on to describe this full-circle vision.

As a researcher, my goal will be to design a voice-UI that is simple and user-friendly for the farmers. The spoken web system should be intuitive and navigable all through simple spoken voice prompting. We will to the furthest extent possible involve farmers themselves in the design of the interface, testing our system and incorporating their feedback early and often.

Working with DSC has been great. It is my first experience working in a formal NGO (office, 50+ staff, etc.). Every day there are mandatory chai breaks at 11am and 4pm. It is a time for the group to sit together, chit-chat, bond, etc. There is a dining area where most people eat lunch from home-brought tiffins. Sharing food is the norm. People even feel offended if their contribution was not finished by the rest of the group.

I'm living as a PG (paid guest) in a bungalow just 5 minute's walk from my office. I am staying there with one Indian guy working in Ahmedabad, and Kareem, another DSC intern. Kareem is from Canada and just graduated from college. He's here on a project dealing with participatory irrigation management and will be staying for 7 more months. He hasn't been to India, and he's a relatively timid person, so I've tried to show him the ropes. In some sense I've taken him into a mother-child relationship, making sure he's fed, getting his clothes washed, helping him get items for his room, etc. I'm a little worried about how he's going to survive, but hopefully I will have helped him get stuck in by the time I leave.