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techies put their mind to social activism

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India has a lot of talent and if channelized in the right direction can be of immense help to the society, Bhanu Priya Vyas goes into the world of a few techies who have taken up social activism.

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SmartCane is the brainchild of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumnus, Dr Rohan Paul.

A vibrating cane that  enables the visually impaired to move around freely in the city; urinals that don’t need any water to maintain cleanliness and hygiene; a mobile radio service that acts as a social media platform for rural communities; and an online directory that brings thousands of medical and scientific experts together to discover drugs that can cure diseases like tuberculosis and malaria … These were the four handpicked technological innovations showcased at the recent India Social Good Summit in Delhi, supported by United Nations Development Programme.


“Tap, tap and I can sense the vibrations of objects I can potentially collide with,” remarks Bharti Kalra, 23, a computer instructor in Delhi and daily user of Smartcane, the brainchild of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumnus, Dr. Rohan Paul. Kalra is one of the fortunate few visually impaired persons who can move around the busy national capital with ease, courtesy her newfound tech-savvy “companion”.

According to Paul, Co-founder of Assisted Technologies, a group comprising IIT Delhi faculty, research staff and students, “Ninety per cent of the world’s visually impaired people live in the developing world and, therefore, we need an inclusive attitude while designing solutions.”

The SmartCane is just that – it is a technology-equipped cane that detects the presence of objects in an area and gives out sensory vibrations to the user. So, whether it is another person, a vehicle or a big sand hill at a construction site, s/he can perceive its presence within a distance of three metres thereby averting collision.

Created with the help of inputs from the National Association for Blind, the SmartCane has some key features that set it apart from an ordinary white cane. The electronic device that uses ultrasonic ranging to detect objects can be easily attached to the top fold of a compatible white cane; it has an adjustable detection range – three metres for outdoors and 1.8 metres for indoors; an ergonomic grip; and in-built rechargeable battery that provides a 10-hour back up. “For now, the SmartCane can be bought from one of the 30 regional centres run by organisations working with the visually impaired across the country for Rs 3,000. It is also available for a subsidised rate of Rs 400 through donations,” informs Paul.

Although the device is gender neutral, Paul believes that it can empower visually impaired women, who bear the “burden of dual disability”. He observes, “Visually impaired women are generally confined to their homes as family members are wary of sending them out alone. This, in the long run, diminishes their self-confidence and the ability to negotiate with the outside world on their own terms.”

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Dr Anshu Bhardwaj is responsible for the design and implementation of the online platforms of Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD).

For young women like Kalra or the Mumbai-based Indirani Sankari, who “feels great” that she is able to move around independently, the SmartCane is a real boon. When Kalra traverses a distance of nearly 30 kilometres one-way everyday, braving unruly crowds on the city transport, to reach her workplace in south Delhi, she feels a sense of happiness. “I am no longer scared of stepping out alone, day or night,” she smiles.

If Paul has used his technical education to provide mobility to the visually impaired, then scientist Dr Anshu Bhardwaj has put her degree in Bioinformatics to good use by being part of the team that has built the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) platform where the world’s best minds, scientists and hospitals collaborate to finds ways of providing affordable healthcare for the developing world.

The OSDD platform, which uses online crowd sourcing to discover new and indigenous drugs, has come up under the leadership of veteran scientists like Dr Samir Brahmachari, Dr T.S. Balganesh and Zakir Thomas. Disturbed by the fact that no new drugs had been discovered to treat tuberculosis, the global pandemic that kills nearly one person every 25 seconds, the illustrious researchers came up with a workable solution in 2008 in the form of the OSDD, which today has transformed into a “Facebook-like virtual directory of experts who develop lifesaving drugs”.

Explains Bhardwaj, who works with the Industrial Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, “The OSDD has over 7,000 members, including 1,000 active members. They share their published work, which we assess independently by performing the said experiments in our partner laboratories. Once the verification is complete we move on to the next step towards drug discovery.” The main purpose of all this is to do away with the Intellectual Property (IP) model of research followed by the established pharmaceutical companies. “Our website uses a common licence model wherein all the work shared belongs to everyone,” adds Bhardwaj. This, in turn, speeds up the process of research. Currently, the group is in Phase Two of clinical trials for discovering an effective TB drug. “The process that usually takes a minimum of two decades has happened in just six years using the OSDD platform,” she says. While the government is providing them with funding, to minimise costs they have joined hands with various scientific research centres in India.

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For young visually impaired women, the SmartCane is a real boon as it allows them to move around freely in the city. The vibrating cane can easily detect obstacles above knee-height and help them avoid collisions.

Of course, this initiative is having another interesting impact – it is allowing several women scientists to pursue their passion for research. “Many women PhDs are not able to continue research once they settle down. Through the OSDD they can work from home, share their research, read other people’s works and sustain their quest for science,” shares Bhardwaj.

Another interesting development is Gram Vaani, a unique medium of information dissemination. Started in 2009 by Aaditeshwar Seth, this social tech company based at IIT-Delhi, runs a mobile-radio service that acts like a social media platform for rural communities. A simple process of information gathering and relay has been adopted, central to which is an interactive voice response (IVR) system. When people call the toll free Gram Vaani number of their region they are connected to the IVR that gives them the option of either leaving information or listening to relevant news. As far as innovations go, the one that is being promoted by Prof Vijayaraghavan Chariar of Ekam Eco Solutions has the capacity to solve India’s acute problem of poor sanitation.

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