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Amarjeet – Assistant Professor, IIIT Delhi

7 August 2013 201 Comments

Hi All,

The last few months have been very very hectic for me. I have changed base from London to Bangalore. Today I have resumed the interview show.

We have Amarjeet from IIIT Delhi, who is doing phenomenal research on application of technological innovation to improve the lives of people. Through his work, Amarjeet is impacting the lives of many many folks around us and he is our role model today! The website is here: http://www.iiitd.edu.in/~amarjeet/

Me: Sundar Rajan G S

AS: Amarjeet Singh – Asst. Professor, IIIT Delhi

Me: Amarjeet, welcome to the show on CWS. Can you please talk about yourself, your family background, childhood and education?

AS: I am currently an Asst. Professor at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi where I joined in December 2009. Before joining IIIT Delhi, I completed my MS and PhD from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I did my undergraduate from IIT Delhi in 2002 and thereafter worked at Tejas Networks in Bangalore, before I joined UCLA. I am born and brought up in Delhi in a middle class family with father retiring from accounts department in MCD and mother being a primary school teacher.

Me: How did you choose your research stream. What inspired to work for social improvement through technology?

AS: I have never been very passionate about social issues. In fact while at IIT Delhi, I took NSS where I had to complete 100 hours. However, I did mundane things like blood donation and republic day celebration rather than doing anything meaningful. It was only after going to UCLA, and joining the Los Angeles chapter of Association for India’s Development (AID-LA) that I got exposure to the social issues being addressed by some great social workers in India. During the next 4.5 years at UCLA, I eventually decided that I should return to India and work in developing technology for development.

Me: You have spent 3 months travelling all over India to understand the ground reality. Can you share some anecdotes and top 3 learnings from the trip?

Since I wanted to work in technology for development, I first wanted to understand what is the thing I should start with. For deciding on one domain, I thought that I will travel around, meet up with people already engaged in this domain and try to understand where is the void that I can try to fill. I had made some contacts over 4.5 years of work with AID-LA. Leveraging on those contacts and getting more contacts for people working across diverse domains such as social entrepreneurs, academics, government agencies, activists, social worker and for-profit organizations. Top three learning from the trip are:

1. If you really want to help people, technology comes in much later. There are several basic issues that need to be addressed before technology comes into picture

2. There is a space for diverse opinions for addressing the same problem to co-exist. Example those working in the primary education space, can either think that school education in its current form is not good and hence no one should send their kids to the school. Similarly some can be of opinion that government has already spent significant money on creating education infrastructure, so it may be useful to exploit that infrastructure by creating programs within the existing programs. There is indeed space for these seemingly opposite approaches but together they need to be tried to possible create new future for primary education. If you try one approach (or feel one of them is better) do not look down upon methods that others may have taken

3. Do not rush into deciding on what you want to do in the social sector space – people would most probably have seen many enthusiasts like you before who would never turn up within them again. So they would just speak what you would like to hear in order to get immediate benefits without looking for what is good in the longer term.

Me: What are the top 3 most used technology in Rural India. I am sure mobile will figure among them. What are some of the innovative uses of technology in Rural India?

AS: Sources of entertainment and information figure high up in technology use. These include mobile phones, TV (including dish antenna), community radio (emerging now) and e-kiosks. Further, these days many technologies are emerging for providing electricity (e.g. solar or hand-cranked or biomass based) and water purification. I think the most innovative uses are that emerge from local problems which are solved with local “jugaad” solutions.

Me: How enthusiastic are people to embrace technology in day to day life? Are they open? or do they resist the change?

AS: If people see value, they will embrace. The value may not (and in most cases actually does not) come from directly impacting their family income. Everyone has a vision of what a more developed person looks like and they want to be that person. If you try to force upon your solution to “their” problem, it will only work till the time they are not paying for it and hence will not be sustainable. As an anecdote – In our field study involving CVD detection, we trained a health worker for using an expensive touch screen based phone. To our surprise, she quickly learned the use (in just one sitting) and even improvised upon what was taught to her when she was explaining things to others. She mentioned that no one in her community has such a fancy phone. Having an opportunity to keep the phone for a few days was a motivation for her to quickly learn and perform well.

Me: You have worked on “Use of Cell Phone for Detecting and Controlling Infectious Diseases”. Can you please share some of your findings in that?
AS: The idea in this work was that since mobile phone is becoming ubiquitous, can we use it to track the spread of infectious and communicable diseases such that appropriate measures can be taken to control them. Mobile phone is used as a medium to collect some of this information (e.g. location) in an automated manner while some can be taken as direct input from the user (using a built-in mobile application). While this one is still underway in Gujrat, a similar study was done for reliable and early detection of Cardio-Vascular-Disease (CVD) without the need to go for expensive pathological test. The primary finding (which is also intuitive) from that study was that when a new health based approach is to be developed, a lot of it depends on the context which can be very complex. So, some approach that is shown to work for population in the USA may not directly be applicable to population in Punjab. Therefore it is important that we create easy to use approaches to collect useful data that can be used to develop contextual inferences which may be more applicable in a given scenario.

Me: You also are working on technological solutions for improving healthcare, energy and utilities. Can you please share some of your findings?

AM: Since joining IIIT Delhi, I have been involved in developing technologies in the application domains of building utility (water/energy) monitoring and healthcare. Some interesting learning from this experience thus far are:

1. Solutions that people will use have to be very simple. As a result there is a lot of engineering involved that can be easily done by students at the undergraduate level.

2. Developing such technologies by these students serves dual purpose – giving students an exposure to what it takes to develop something that actually gets used rather than developing something for pure academic consumption; and sensitizing them to the issues around them.

3. It is important to develop meaningful relationships with end user collaborators who can take the technology solutions to the field. Even beyond the effort of creating a simple to use and useful technology, there are several social/cultural/political barriers that need to be crossed. This stage takes significant effort and those that are involved in developing technology solutions may not be adept with all it takes to overcome these barriers. This is where end user collaborators – NGOs, government agencies, industrial partners come in handy

4. Do not try to get into the maze of developing technology solutions and then trying to find solutions where they fit them. I call such an approach “push” based where we try to push our technology to people and tell them how it will be beneficial to them. “Push” approach is not sustainable in the long term. Instead, what we have found to be useful is to tell people different technologies you are adept with and suggest some examples of how they can be inter-mixed to create useful solutions. Beyond it, let end users (people/organizations) come to you and propose why they would need a certain technology from you for solving some of their daily problems.

5. Education is one of the very useful ways of creating impact – it provides a way to sensitize larger number of audience to these issues of critical importance and hence create a bigger workforce in this domain for tomorrow.

6. Patience is the key: There are several challenges/hurdles that come in unanticipated which cause unnecessary delay in technology outcomes planned. It is important not to get bogged down by these delays and keep a list of improvements that you can do in case things on the field are getting delayed.

Me: What is your view on technology divide influencing the rich-poor divide? Do you think technology can help bridge the gap in our country?

My perspective on this issue is that wide adoption amongst rich/middle class makes things affordable for the poor, which may eventually help in bridging the gap as well. Therefore, it may be a good place to even address some of the societal requirements in urban settings since they will directly influence the rural environments as well. Wide penetration and affordable costs of mobile phones, which started off from the urban environments, is a perfect case in point. Further technology can indeed result in wider reach-ability which is otherwise quite difficult – e.g. internet connectivity vs road connectivity. With technology penetration, access to useful information becomes much more prevalent thus helping in bridging the gap as well. While there are several such benefits of technology, it should not be taken as a holy grail. Unless deeper societal, religious, political etc. issues are addressed, any such technology advancement will just be something good to talk about on paper and not having any real influence.

Me: What is your advise for Indian youngsters?

AS: 1. Try different things in life to understand what is it that you really like doing – don’t worry about spending a few years in this exploration because if you really found that thing that interests you, for the rest of your life you will not be working but will be enjoying

2. Get into the depth of what you do – Do not do things superficially. Try to understand why things are happening the way they are happening. Spend enough time, have focus and do enough hard work to develop expertise in what you are doing.

3. There is no shortcut to hard work – be prepared to put in a lot of hard work to achieve what you really want in life

4. Try to make the best use of youth days – you have a lot of energy. Channelize the energy. Do something that when you look back upon, you should be able to say “Wow – i really did that!”

5. Look around for role models – We tend to replicate our previous generations but the evolution comes from replicating the good things and shedding off the bad ones. Look around to see how people from older generation work for in the issues that concern you as well. Select who amongst them you want to be 10-20 years from now and then try to do things accordingly.

Me: Thanks a lot Amarjeet! Those are indeed valuable pieces of advice. Wish you good luck in your endeavors.

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