Principles behind Developing Tech Solutions for Rural India

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Oct 13, 2020
by Aparna Singh
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Principles behind Developing Tech Solutions for Rural India

Salzburg Global Fellow Aparna Singh reflects on the need to promote open-source technologies in India which governments and social enterprises can use independently Photo by Praveesh Palakeel on Unsplash

COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to imagine ourselves as digital-friendly citizens who can deliver upon the low-cost technological solution to bridge the rural-urban divide in India. It accelerated the use of technology, which the social sector had seen for the past few years.

Earlier this year, on March 25th, India witnessed the migration of several millions of workers back to their villages from cities with the announcement of the lockdown. Mobile phones and the Internet were going to be the only link to the external world. This wasn’t just as a means of keeping in touch with people we care about, but also in working from home, accessing the essential facilities such as digital payments, messaging, medical consultations, education, general entertainment, and the running of all the government bodies.

With millions of people missing access to essential facilities, the pressure and the need to not let them go disconnected has intensified. To assist the government in drafting evidence-based plans for better administration and to help people on the wrong side of the divide, several social enterprises, civil societies, and foundations have come forward.

As they came forward and quickly jumped on to bridge the gap to aid the government, several online remote data collection drives, digital and tech platforms catering to different sectors such as health care and education, were launched.   

The pressure and need to react at the earliest, more often than not, creates a space where we miss out on the “hows” of implementation. Technology often falls under the “How.” It is not exactly the solution but the core aid provider in solving the problem. Enterprises, especially in the initial stages, missed crucial pieces of information leading to avoidable on-the-ground issues arising out of tech implementation.

I have worked - and still, work - in the social enterprise space around applications catering to the needs of people in rural areas of India. With this in mind, I’d like to share a few principals around building sustainable technological solutions. The ambition here is to promote open-source technologies that social enterprises/governments can use independently.

  1. Reuse, scale, and deploy tech platforms;
  2. Capitalize on the state-led tech infrastructure:
  3. And provide quality assurance.

Reuse, Scale, and Deploy Tech Platforms

Technological solutions should be reusable, scalable, additive, and deployable. We should identify and maintain a list of different open source tools that helped create the first generic product serving the purpose. We can save time in digitizing complex data by utilizing the available editable sector-specific forms. Most of these services have a cap, but it is high enough that a good number of free users can still use the service. Unfortunately, many of these services are not known to the wider public, but a bit of research can save both time and money.

We should prototype with different use cases and function specifications. This helps in imagining all the requirements that may pop up. For example, while building an education chatbot for underserved kids, you may realize adding the audio option would be necessary here. Kids study under the supervision of the parents, and in the case of the underserved community, most of them are illiterate. Adding an audio option will help them engage further and understand the child study requirements.

Once the product/tech platform is ready, this should be customizable across different domains and segments. For example, an enterprise working toward imparting digital education would want to venture into skill development. The right platform would enable the enterprise to build upon its existing education app quickly. The key features of any tech platform, irrespective of the vision of the enterprise, should always be customizable, such as the basic user interface.

The product should be deployable and accessible across all platforms. With the diversity of devices and mobile phones, enterprises have to ensure their technology is not beholden to individual system updates. The software should be uniform across the highest number of operating systems and devices.

Capitalize on the State-Led Infrastructure

All state systems already have the infrastructure that we can utilize when building and implementing any tech platform. For example, the Human Resource Management System (HRMS), having existing data from employees, helped speed up the building process of an app converting the payment delay data of India’s largest social protection scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA), into an actionable format for the government officials using it. It helped us track the transfer of the officers and prepare the list of officers for whom the application will be useful.

Hence, the key takeaway here is to build products that can leverage the existing government systems and reuse the services instead of building different systems. This also gives a further advantage of involving the government for better on-the-ground implementation support and a better sense of information across fundamentally different systems.

Provide Quality Assurance

People have said no product or tech platform can be bug-free, but we can still avoid the avoidable, as far as we can, to ensure the product actually works in real-time. We have to choose the right network, test on different devices, assess the offline data quality, and put our tech solutions through user testing. These are a few examples of the different tests we can do to ensure the quality we envision.

Launching any tech platform in India’s rural areas deals with the challenges a general urban consumer application does not face. From a feature draining more battery to a product not fitting in the screen size of the device used in the launch area, tech solutions are bound to undergo several iterations. Thinking through these principles and keeping a check on them will help attain long-term and cost-effective tech solutions and a collaborative learning environment to help us live up to our expectations in serving the unserved.

Looking Ahead

In a world of uncertainty and unknown dimensions, a meaningful and disciplined approach, when taken towards harnessing these principles, will help us chart the path to the next horizon. The symbiotic relationship between technology and social innovation is akin to creating more contributions toward renewing new age citizen engagements, providing local solutions, economic incentives, decision making, and the possibilities of new collaborations.

As an advocate for technology and innovations, I find the implementation of these principles critical to multi-disciplinary, creative, cost-effectiveness approach and stimulating the intent to provide local solutions.  

With technology as the driver, this will create a technical agility driving value and helping organizations realize their strategic vision and information flow required for seamless impact creation and citizen engagement.

India celebrated its 74th Independence Day this year and marked 25 years since the Internet was first made available for public use. The Internet was first used in India in 1986 but was only available to a limited educational and research community. It was thrown open to public service for the first time on India’s 49th Independence Day in 1995. With urgency hitting, it is the time to create meaningful technology platforms and connections to erase the digital divide altogether.


Aparna Singh is a Salzburg Global Fellow who is currently taking part in the Japan-India Transformative Technology Network, a program held in partnership with the Nippon Foundation. Sign up for our newsletter here to receive updates about this program.