The Social Media Network Saving Lives, No Internet Needed
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
At one of India’s most prestigious tech universities, IIT Delhi, assistant professor in technology for development Aaditeshwar Seth has been spearheading a social media network for the country’s rural and largely poor population—no Internet required.
Using non-data feature phones, his Delhi-based enterprise Gram Vaani is connecting India’s remote populations in Jharkhand and Bihar—two underdeveloped states—to critical resources such as information on women’s safety campaigns, health programs, and farming techniques. In the process, Gram Vaani also collects data on the country’s hard-to-reach populations, making it a valuable tool for international NGOs, foundations, social enterprises, and corporations.
A native of India, Seth moved back to his homeland from Canada in 2008. “The inequity hits you immediately,” he says, looking back. So he decided to explore a critical question in his research: “How do we build technologies for the marginalized communities to voice themselves?”
With a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, Seth established Gram Vaani in 2009. The social enterprise uses radio and mobile phones to inform and connect India’s poor. Operating community radio stations, however, became a challenge largely because of bureaucratic hurdles such as the long wait time to get a license from the government to operate, according to Seth.
Access to mobile phones, meanwhile, has only been growing in the country: India today has 970 million mobile phone users, even in the most impoverished and hard-to-access areas. Realizing it was the perfect platform, Seth developed Mobile Vaani, Gram Vaani’s flagship product, which uses the popular “missed call” system in India.
Users simply dial Gram Vaani’s number in Bihar or Jharkhand and the call goes dead; within a minute, the user gets a call back with a greeting in Hindi that’s quickly followed by the latest news including weather, virus outbreaks, immunization requests—all public messages that would otherwise be relayed via television or Internet-based social media in urban parts of India. For instance, the Bihar Mobile Vaani number is currently urging listeners to beware of the risk of malaria as temperatures increase each day. “Watch out for symptoms of fever, chills, weakness,” the network says in Bihari English.