COWMesh Ranikajal #2 – The School In The Valley

(…continued from Part 1)
13924867_1059980900746734_8740613872229136920_nThe first time I visited the Ranikajal Jeevanshala, it was almost peak summer and the hills were baked a reddish brown from the merciless sun. Returning in the middle of the monsoon, I found the very same hills covered in a fine carpet of varying shades of green. Madhya Pradesh is an excellent place to watch nature at work across seasons. The change in colors is very stark, as stark if not starker than the fall colors of the north eastern parts of the United States.

This time around school was in session as well, meaning that in addition to the staff and their children who I had met on my last visit, this time there were an additional 200 children.

Those of us who do not run rural schools or participate in the running of them cannot begin to comprehend the kind of balancing that people who do run rural schools do on a daily and weekly basis. Managing food and lodging for 200 growing children is much much tougher than it appears.

Moreover, the region suffers endemic malnutrition, since deforestation has left most of the land un-arable or at least unsuitable for cultivation of high nutrition crops such as vegetables. This is the story across rural India. We found similar circumstances in rural Karnataka. Most of the vegetables that grow in villages are earmarked for sale in wholesale markets in the largest nearby town, which may be as much as 50-60 kilometres away.

13007262_1063843960305355_5051762933802997458_nAs a result, the local population get precious few nutrients and those usually from animal sources such as reared goats, hardy animals that can increase muscle weight even on a diet of scrub grass, and fish.img_20160827_181719

The Narmada is nearby and the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river has resulted in some stark changes in the river fauna, not the least of which are oversize prawns and silver fish. Meat and fish though require refrigeration to build a supply chain around and currently it appears that fishermen must gauge demand carefully to not end up with a catch too heavy to sell.In an environment where food is scarce, proposing a connectivity network seems almost ludicrous. All the more so for a school community that has 200 growing children to feed on a regular basis.

However, to my surprise, the school community not only insisted on paying for their own network in terms of infrastructure, they also offered me a fee for my time spent in setting up the network.

This in contrast to every other community I spoke to in the last year ( and there were many!) who found themselves unable to participate unless we, The Mojolab Foundation and associates, were willing to help raise resources to fund their participation.

I suppose it is not surprising that the school is run by and caters to the Bhil community, an indigenous Adivasi community of central India. The Adivasis I have known have always been the earliest and most responsible adopters of practices of value.

Thanks to the Ashoka fellowship program, my time was available without charge and the community was required to pay only for the hardware and the cost of my travel to the location.

I doubt there has ever been a network deployed that had to compete rupee for rupee on expenditure with nutritious vegetables and school infrastructure for under-served children, but I certainly hope there will be more.

It would be useful here to demonstrate via a thought experiment, how we think about providing value. At the Mojolab, we have a little thought experiment that we do when we need to get in the right mindset to provide value in such scenarios.

We imagine a hypothetical gram sabha, the smallest community recognized by the government of India for administrative purposes, composed of the minimum required population, i.e. 300 adult voting individuals. We further imagine that these 300 adults are all productive and employed for remuneration and all earn at least INR 32 per day, as this is the minimum amount guaranteed by government unskilled labor employment programs currently in operation in India.

Doing the math, this gives us a collective purchasing power of INR 32 X 300 individuals = INR 9600 per day.

We then design solutions and price them such that they can be expressed in number of days of earnings that each member would need to contribute in order for the community to collectively own the solution and the number of years such a solution would be expected to last based on life of components and maintenance requirements.

This of course is merely a thought experiment, since such perfectly sized situations almost never occur in practice. However, by engaging in it, the solutions architect can get into the right mind set to provide value in a community ownership scenario. The idea is inspired by a short note called “Gandhiji’s Talisman”, that used to be part of all NCERT text books when I was still in school (not sure if it is still fashionable, but have linked for the interested none the less).

Based on the specific use case, the architect may also include comparisons with existing solutions that people are already paying for.

Finally we pitch the idea to the community as an offer and proceed based on their reaction.

The real work, of course, begins after the community has accepted the offer.

In the next chapter, read how these ideas played out in the Ranikajal COWMesh story.


COWMesh Ranikajal #1 – The Biology of Connectivity

The Internet is fast establishing itself as the central nervous system of a newly evolving entity, i.e. connected humanity. For the first time in the history of our planet, a species has built a mechanism that allows members displaced over great distances to communicate instantly, using electricity as the medium. This is no smaller feat than the evolution of the central nervous system in life forms on this planet, which is the basis of identity and self awareness.

This new central nervous system interacts with the existing systems already in place, which are also electrical in nature, i.e. the biological central nervous systems in living beings.

The internet stimulates more and more of our senses every day, by making it possible to transfer entire experiences instead of just messages. However, in this race to communicate, some members of the species are being left out, almost as if marked for extinction by the larger organism.

The poor, the primitive, the aboriginal, the weak and the non-aggressive in all parts of the world are being increasingly left behind in the race to connect to the mainstream. This is not so much a sign of discrimination amongst individuals and communities, but a sign of sickness and malnutrition in the super organism being created by the inexorable advance of the internet into newer and newer dimensions.

This organism can no longer afford to grow centrally, simply because it is finding it too costly to extend a central nervous system to all parts of the species.

There are therefore two pathways from this point on.

Either the single organism that is represented by the current centralized internet will dominate and those members of the human species who fail to connect to it will simply become extinct.

The other possibility is that those who are left beyond the pale of the mainstream internet will find ways to build their own networks and find ways to interact with other networks.

Until recently it looked like the former would happen. We at the Mojolab Foundation finished the first prototype of a local wifi network model in partnership with Janastu and Servelots at Hale Kote in Karnataka sometime in the middle of 2015. However, given the cost of equipment and the gap in skill availability to use and manage a network of this sort on the ground, we spent the last year searching for the first community who would actually IMG_20160409_181253find it worthwhile to buy, own and operate a network of their own. We explored many groups, ranging from urban low income housing communities in Bangalore, to elite IIT-JEE training facilities in rural Maharashtra to members of both the tourism industry and the development community in Uttarakhand, but we were unable to establish a usecase for any of the communities that warranted expense and effort by the community themselves. It seemed that those disenfranchised by the telecommunications industry had given up hope.

IMG_20160411_165015Finally in October of 2015, we had a communication from Indore, from Shri Rahul Banerji, an Ashoka fellow and a long term grassroots worker in the Central Indian region.

Rahul da is associated with the Ranikajal Jeevanshala, a small, partly residential school run by and primarily for but not limited to the Bhil community in and around village Kakrana, District AlIMG_20160411_171810irajpur.

The school is run and managed by Shri Ninga Solanki, the headmaster and Shri G Kemat, the director along with a dedicated staff of teachers some of whom live on campus with the children. Connectivity is almost non existent as the school is in a valley and no cellphone signal reaches it.

The Mojolab Foundation’s Arjun Venkatraman visited the school in the summer of 2016, to assess the need and suggest a minimal network strategy to link the school to the Internet. Based on field experiments at the time, it appeared that the school received an intermittent 2G network signal from a mainstream ISP at one location on a hilltop within the campus. By placing a mail server relay at the network hot spot, we were able to send the first email from the school. Based on this proof of concept, we designed the #Ranikajal #COWMesh

(….see more in Part Two)

From Pyramids to Meshes – 2006 to 2016

Recently I was looking back at the origins of our work here at Mojolab and I came across an old pair of documents from 2006. At the time I was a fresh engineering graduate working two jobs and trying to get a fellowship at Stanford to work on building what I called at the time, an “Alternative Information Architecture” for Chhattisgarh, which was a focus area for two generations of my family. At the time, this is the definition we had of an “alternative network” –

Introduction to Alternative Networks
For any community aiming to share information efficiently with a view to participation in
development, an efficient communication network is mandatory. Communication networks are
usually perceived as being a set of hardware to perform the physical transfer of data and a set of
protocols, which govern the transfer. However, in most definitions of communication networks the user’s significance is somewhat suppressed. The individual using the network is perceived as an external agency, not really a part of the network. The developments that may occur as a result of human interaction with the system are also seldom taken into consideration at the time of design. The result is that the benefits from incorporating each user of the network as a network
component are overlooked. Alternative networks, which aim to diverge from the existing traditional network models, can be of many types. The common factor among all such networks is that they aim to de-centralize and make informal the process of communication.

What’s interesting to note is that while I was able to articulate that the type of network needed would be an “alternative”, I really didn’t have a clear articulation of why it was an alternative or what it was an alternative to. If I was to rephrase myself today, I would call it a hybrid mesh network consisting of multiple channels at multiple layers/levels of the network each connecting to one or many nodes as an alternative to a network of stars or a tree with clearly laid out hierarchies.

The means of change from a hierarchical model to a networked peer driven one would be superseding rather than breaking the hierarchies already present by creating new interlinks complementary to the existing ones.

The notion of incorporating the user would remain as is, though I would further elaborate that the role of the user would be to simply increase his/her own data acquisition and dissemination capability by learning more skills. The measures of this could be the number of channels that a user is adept at using for communication.

At the time, the essential or defining characteristics that I could come up with for any such alternative network were as follows:

Definition of an Alternate Information Architecture
The most attractive fact about an alternative architecture is that it is extremely conducive to
The primary concepts that this alternative architecture will use are
• Layering
• Self Organization
• Self Sustenance
• Robustness and Self Healing
• Collective Intelligence

In hindsight, the layering model I had in mind at the time was somewhat limited by my limited field experience. As a result, the descriptions of the layers below end up taking a rather hierarchical form, which is counterproductive to the goal of decentralization.

Tier 1, Information Gathering
Grassroots level information gathering, by “barefoot journalists”, who would be trained minimally.
The data at this stage could be in audio form, or, if the “barefoot journalist” is educated to some
basic level, then written formats could also be used.
The skills required by the members of this tier would typically include: a) an ability to recognize
information relevant to the community, b) self-motivation and enthusiasm and c) basic aptitude
towards learning.
The members at his tier could also be involved in making efficient use of the oral tradition of the
region to disseminate information.
Tier 2, Compilation and basic editing
Compilation of information gathered by “barefoot journalists” into digital form and basic editing.
This would involve conversion of audio material into text for dissemination on the Internet, basic
editing on the text matter to ensure that relevance and consistency is maintained and finally
categorizing the information. The skills required by members at this level would be a) ability to
use a computer with reasonable proficiency b) ability to analyze large amounts of data c) basic
aptitude for editing d) ability to recognize relevant information
Since this tier is intended to be involved in basic editing and compilation, a fundamental level of
error checking would be required. Also on the information dissemination side, this tier would be
responsible for some routing of the information to the various sections of the community.
The members at this tier would also be responsible for spreading awareness about the usage of
the architecture to obtain information. They would be required to demonstrate the website use to
other members of the community. In addition to this, they could be involved in the dissemination
of audio-visual content in areas where literacy and connectivity is low.
Tier 3, Planning, Management and Dissemination
Collection of compiled data from Tier 2, classification of the data into different sections for easy
user access and dissemination through the CGNet website. This level would involve some degree
of technical know-how. The skills required for this tier would include

  1. ability to create and manage web content,
  2. basics of local language computing and
  3. ability to present information in a manner that can be effectively received and used by the community.

This tiered architecture was in fact implemented in the form of CGNet Swara by 2010, where the Tier 1 participants reported and listened to content using mobile phones, which require a minimal amount of training to use effectively. Tier 2 consisted of a verification and moderation network and Tier 3, i.e. the online tier was social media.

This implementation was key in helping us understand the inherent limitations of the hierarchical layering structure. As the diagram below shows, the flow of information in a hierarchical structure is vertical. pyramidWhile this does not prevent horizontal information flows, it also does not acknowledge or leverage them. As a result, the costs of information transfer in a hierarchical system rise as the system scales since all information must first rise from the bottom to the top and then descend again, ostensibly in a filtered and value added form. However, the cost benefits of such value addition must be compared to the cost benefits of horizontal information transfer where members are free to share information irrespective of their position in the hierarchy and the “quality” and “credibility” of a source is based on peer review rather than hierarchical accreditation.

The other issue with the model as described in the paper is that it assumes a uniform access to the Internet. Considering that I wrote this in 2006 and Internet access still remains very fragmented even 10 years later, clearly shows the fallacy of this assumption. Further more, while the model takes into account the effort in curating incoming information from the grassroots, it does not acknowledge or measure the effort in sending information to the grassroots.

Given the condition of Internet penetration and the asymmetry of useful information vs noise on the Internet, the data dissemination cycle needs at least as much effort as the data acquisition cycle.

When one takes this into account, it becomes evident that any entity that implements equal rigor in data collection and dissemination can only be a peer with the other elements of the network and the efficacy of an entity as a network member would be measured not by hierarchical certification but by the number of channels it operates in. In other words, PiFiTV-FullMesh2the credibility of an information source would be based on number of people it interacts with and number of people who interact with it, rather than by how effectively it talked about its “processes” and how many people it “certified”.

The result will likely be much messier…but much more colorful!

The full paper and abstract are linked below. I will be posting further updates to this train of thought as the analysis continues.


CGNet RDVP Abstract

CGNetIA Project Proposal

Barriers to Scale – Growth vs Replication

growth vs repThis time in 2014 I was working the Ashoka Globalizer team in preparation for the Globalizer Summit in Bonn in June of that year to evaluate the work we were doing in terms of its readiness for global scale. The Globalizer exercise came with the great privilege of working with a world class consulting team comprising of one global entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow and two analytical experts from McKinsey and Co. Working with this distinguished team, we crunched up the numbers from our work with CGNet Swara, a pioneering citizen journalism effort and our flagship project at the time. Our goal had been to analyze whether the model, i.e. using a localized interactive voice response system to create a voice based bulletin board or “audio portal” for newsgathering and community interaction from remote areas where media and the Internet had not penetrated, was ready for global application and scale.

The indicators at the time seemed to suggest that it was, since we had replicated the technology successfully for use-cases in Afghanistan and Indonesia. However, on analyzing the numbers we realized that while the model was very successful in terms of bringing content out of and into media/connectivity dark regions, the cost at which it did so was not strictly sustainable unless an external party or parties were willing to support it.

While differential costs of communication and data access as well as policy plays a major role in determining the cost of a technological intervention of this nature, an equally significant role is played by the design of the system and its intended scaling strategy.

For a system that seeks to retain its character through the course of scale, whether in the interest of maintaining quality or preserving brand value, the costs of scaling are significantly higher.

In the case of CGNet Swara, what we learned was in line with what we had been told by experts from Google fairly early on. The two major impediments to scale were 1) the fact that the project sought to remain completely free for access by users, on the pretext that they would otherwise find it too expensive to use and 2) the need to maintain a centralized moderation strategy that filters content prior to release.

Both of these strategies were initially employed to engage users and maintain quality.

To attract a largely low income population to use the system, the design was set up to respond to a “missed call” placed by end users with an outgoing call from the system. The end user therefore ended up paying nothing. Had a telecom operator been supporting the system, this would have been infinitely sustainable. However, the project was paying retail prices to purchase telephone airtime, which while infinitely cheaper than broadcast media was still quite expensive at scale, resulting in a large cashflow requirement. Had this been distributed by encouraging more replications, the costs of data collection could have been distributed.

Since the platform was initially implemented by individuals who were solely liable for the content being released, the choice to filter certain content was made to ensure continued operation of the platform free from state intervention. What the team failed to take into account was that this was relevant only as far as the platform was publishing news anonymously on behalf of callers. When the decision was made to publish the users name in the interest of transparency, the responsibility of the content was already on the user. At this point, the filtering mechanism could have changed from a “screen and release filtered content” to “publish and remove reportedly offensive content”. The requirement would have been to explain the liability of publication clearly to users via a terms of use communication.

Had these two mechanisms been employed, the system could have evolved to being an aggregator of content from several replications, which would have been a far more sustainable and scalable option.

We have seen similar patterns in most other technological interventions. The need to maintain centralized control and ownership often prevents organic scale that could come from free replication.

With this learning, we have since been working on ways to enable more replication than growth in our projects. The growth element is now redirected towards growing capacity as well as enabling growth in numbers of replications rather than growing a single system

For example, with our COWMesh project , we have taken the approach of not directly implementing solutions for communities but to enable communities to set up their own systems after observing what is possible on demonstrative systems which Mojolab maintains and travels to community locations with.

Given the gap in skill availability at the grassroots and skill requirement to use open source tools, we have simultaneously been working on setting up mechanisms to train more and more people at the grassroots who can then utilize their skills locally. This element of our work is where we currently need the most support.

We therefore invite collaboration from anyone who wish to improve skill availability at the grassroots.


Red Queen! – Low Tech Dev in a High Speed World

redqueenI’m currently fighting a battle with a hardware vendor to get a piece of equipment replaced. The particular equipment in consideration is a router to be used by a school in remote rural Madhya Pradesh that has been functioning for over a decade with very little resources. Should my efforts be successful, they get email access. However, at the moment, the device in question is refusing to cooperate with the design I am trying to implement with it, resulting in my needing to get a replacement or a resolution from vendor or manufacturer. Should I fail to get such replacement or resolution, I will be left with a choice between absorbing the loss of a router (i.e. INR 7000) or passing it on to the “customer” i.e. the school.

In a regular commercial scenario, this would be a no brainer. The dealer/vendor NEVER absorbs a loss. However, commercial scenarios often assume peer relationships where none exist. For a   corporation or research lab with a large technical budget the loss of one piece of equipment would not be a huge one. Collateral damages of research are considered an acceptable expense head in most cases. For low budget exercises on the other hand, each setback represents real expense and loss of opportunity to use the same resources elsewhere. As a result either I as the researcher or the school as the consumer has to take a hit.

Our current situation points to an increasingly prevalent situation faced by people who implement technology for low income/low commercial consumption groups. Open source technology, while cheap and free to use is seldom stable enough to be used by consumers with limited skill. The situation is not made easier by hardware manufacturers who sometimes by design and sometimes by accident develop hardware which does not meet existing standards, resulting in new development being needed before the hardware can be used with open source systems. Development, irrespective of who does it, comes at a price measurable in person-hours, which adds to the cost that has to ultimately be borne by the end user. Finally, governments have been increasing the level of control that they exercise on technology steadily, meaning that several open alternatives are now simply unavailable by statute.

As a result, groups like the Mojolab, who are at the border of technology development and usage are faced with the need to constantly evolve strategies and often use non intuitive means to achieve intuitive ends. It is akin to running very fast simply in order to stay in the same place. In evolutionary terms, this is called the Red Queen phenomenon, inspired by the Red Queen’s chessboard sequence in Alice in Wonderland

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Lewis Carrol, Through The Looking Glass, Chapter 2



ये हार्डवेयर सौफ़्टवेयर क्या है?

स्मार्टफोन और लैपटाप के सस्ते होकर जन समुदाय तक पहुंचने से हिन्दी भाषा में दो नये शब्द भर्ती हो गये, हार्डवेयर और सौफ़्टवेयर | पर मज़ेदार बात यह है कि अधिकांश लोग न तो इन शब्दों का सही अर्थ जानते हैं, और न ही इन शब्दों की उत्पत्ति के संदर्भ मे ही उन्हे कुछ ज्ञात होता है |

Continue reading “ये हार्डवेयर सौफ़्टवेयर क्या है?”