Beyond Numbers

Abhishek Gupta
4 min readMay 24, 2016

Internet penetration in India is estimated to be around 34%. With a population of more than 1.25 billion people, while 425 million people can benefit from internet, a staggering 838 million people out there can’t access and worse, might not be even aware about such a thing.

Smartphone penetration is pegged a little lower at 30% of the population. 870 million people don’t have a smartphone against the 220 million who have it.

Both of these numbers may be improving quickly, but with a population at this scale (266 million people in India still don’t have electricity) we can be sure that for years to come a gargantuan size of population will be left of these “necessities”.

Under OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and similar schemes, lots of (sub 200$ price) laptop devices were distributed to children with an aim to educate them. After laptops, our focus shifted to tablets such as Aakash with the cost efficacy and plethora of apps out there. While OLPC is recommended by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and Aakash Tablets are promoted by the Government of India. The trends in tablet prices are indeed promising, and “usable” sub 100$ doesn’t seem like a far-fetched reality. There are already some, which are close enough.

Yet we aren’t even close to where we would expect ourselves to be. The reason for the mild performance of these devices are

a) lack of good content

b) poor or no training of trainers who facilitate the learning process

c) little or minimal internet connectivity

Interestingly, these issues have little to do with the hardware specs. Indeed hardware issues exist when we look for low-priced solutions, but is a question of where does the fit between the financing and hardware specifications lie.

Pratham, is trying to find answer and work on solutions to these three problems. There is a lot of work being done on teacher training by a lot of organisations and hence I wouldn’t go into details. In general the training needs to be extensive and teacher student ratio needs to be keep as low as possible. Simultaneously, building platforms with as low dependencies on trainer as possible would be useful. Eg. Khan’s adoptive missions to train learner about a specific topic like algebra.

For other problems, one of the solution proposed (shout-out to Nishant Baghel, Pratham) is to create Intranet where learners could consume content, get some needed free basics (I am not talking about here :P), engage with each other, ask questions, explore and endless other things. (If you are a Net Neutralist activist and this tickles you, Intranet is outside the ambit of Net Neutrality. At least, so was I told by a friend who is himself one!) The range would be limited but in villages there are “chaupals” or public spaces which people visit frequently enough.

Let’s rephrase the problem.

You have a raspberry pi and say 100GB storage (Linux enthusiasts would argue they have everything ;) They wouldn’t be far off if we are talking about powering of Intranet). Okay, we would need a power cable for the pi as well before we power the Intranet, but okay, I know you have got the point. We can install our favourite server, use our favourite language, put Wikipedia’s dump and give a hang of internet to someone without any restrictions of data while using this small part of the walled internet.

The content will be served in two formats — through apps and a minimal HTML5 interface. Apps to provide the best experience for those who have android smartphones and an HTML5 interface for inclusivity of all platforms. Sounds fun?

So, that’s what we have to do. While Pratham is developing some of the content, and some we can find online with appropriate licensing (e.g. Wikipedia dump or Wikipedia for Schools) we need to develop an end-to-end platform to deliver that content through android and HTML5 apps. Moreover platform needs to develop an understanding about the user, his knowledge, his strengths, etc. to suggest him better content and apps (Adoptive Learning).

For a user, when he would connect to our Intranet he would be redirected to an app store. Depending on the apps’ abilities users:

  • can either use the HTML5 app, or download the Android app at his/her choice
  • can sync a module to be consumed later or consume it then

Above two concerns are because of the fact that users may be using low end devices and that intranet’s range will be limited respectively. The apps that we are going to build will stick to above, but there might be some existing apps which would be used with/without modifications and might not adhere to above constraints.

It would be worthwhile to note that multiple apps can be installed to make the user aware about the same content. For example, Google Playstore would have multiple alarm clock applications while the basic function will be the same. We can perhaps change the content delivery and a new app may be created. Clearly, we would need to prioritise what we are going to build first as building anything robust takes time.

If you feel interested in the project all you have to do is ping me at abhishekgupta.iitd on gmail/fb. We are going to start development of this project starting today. Order your raspberry pis and get ready for some action!

Few shoutouts:

  • to lead this project in villages across India
  • All of us who are going to contribute to this project
  • by Prof. Aditeshwar Seth, IIT Delhi. Just wanted to mention the great effort.