Taking Free Software to the Farmers and Fields of India

FLOSS is behind an Indian Web site that brings together farmers and agricultural experts to exchange ideas and information.


Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its
original publication.

Thanks to work done by the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology
(IIT-Bombay) and its partners, IT-savvy and knowledge-hungry people across
rural India now can find relevant, demand-driven farming knowledge on
the aAqua.org Web site. So
far, the site has been a great way to bring together people such as
Prasad Kaledhonkar, who has a clue about what the white patterns emerging
on tomato plant leaves are; farmer's daughter Niyatee Nilesh, who wants
advice on buying agricultural land; and Shirish, from rural Maharashtra,
who wants to learn about using waste water from the school kitchen to
irrigate gardens and crops.

aAqua stands for "Almost All Questions Answered". Dr. Krithi Ramamritham,
IIT-Bombay's head at the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology,
said, "It used to be called Aqua. We added a small 'a' in front of it that
stands for 'almost'. We want to be as realistic as possible."
Dr. Krithi Ramamritham
In addition to connecting users, aAqua.org also provides crop
recommendations archived by keywords, a search tool to see if a particular
question already has been answered and a "crop doctor" with photographs of
diseased crops, archived by keywords. The bhav
puchiye
(ask the price) feature has practical use. Market rates
from across India are displayed for farmers and agro-traders.

The aAqua Web site contains several forums in Indian languages (Marathi
and Hindi, currently) and in English. These forums deal with crops,
animals, officials' recommendations, market information and schemes
for farmers. The site now has 940 members, 1,364 topics and 3,321
posts. "What we've done is sign up experts from various Krishi Vigyan
Kendras [the network of farm-extension services in India]", Ramamritham
explained. Anyone wanting information can sign up through a simple
process and start asking questions.

The aAqua project has brought together some diverse groups. To build a
solution that works in the field, IIT-Bombay merged Indic text input,
iconic interfaces, meaning-based searches, digital libraries, community
forums and water-quality sensors. This work brought together skills from a variety
of disciplines, including e-pedagogy, multimedia content, computer-based
training, education and light databases.

The project members have been working in an area in the
central Indian state of Maharashtra, around the Baramati, Pabal, Pune
and Khed areas. Work on the first aAqua prototype began in November
2003. Interestingly, the project got its start in a school
course. "We started working on it in real earnest when we saw its full
potential", Ramamritham said. "We now are trying to scale up. Our
challenge is aAqua's reach should be larger", he added.
Tomcat, MySQL and mnvforum
When asked if Free/Libre and open-source software made the aAqua project
possible, Dr. Ramamritham said, "Very much so." The software behind the
aAqua Web site is based on lab-developed algorithms for translation,
caching and the like that use Java, JSP and Java Servlets technology.
The application currently is deployed on a Tomcat Web server, version 5.
The software also can run from any Servlet container that is compatible
with JSP 1.2 and Servlet 2.3. The Oracle 9i database, with Unicode UTF-8
support, is used as the site's backend software.
aAqua at Work
aAqua also has been configured to work with MySQL, with
Unicode support (version 4.1 onwards). aAqua can be viewed
using any popular Web browser, including Internet Explorer, Mozilla,
Opera and so on. The digital library software uses C++, Perl and Java
and is deployed on a Jakarta Apache server, version 2.0.52.

In addition, aAqua is built with
mvnForum, a FLOSS-based discussion
forum application. mvnForum, in turn, uses other FLOSS components, such as
Lucene, an indexer and search engine; Tomcat; and many other components.

Ramamritham said the team opted to use mvnForum because
it is "easy to use, easy to set up" and offered the option
of attaching files to a post, a fully customizable GUI.
Among its attractive technical features are support for
Unicode characters, which is "a must given India's
multilingual orientation".

In addition, the MVC architecture behind mvnForum
also supports most popular databases, such as MySQL, Oracle 8i/9i, SQL
Server, PostgreSQL, hsqldb, Interbase/Firebird, SAPDB, db2 and Sybase.
"We wanted industrial strength support for databases as well as easy
replicability, hence multiplatform support was essential" Ramamritham
said.

To deal with the many languages written and spoken in India, IIT-Bombay
used its active natural language processing lab when working on the aAqua
project. "We try to get most of the language translated automatically,
through an intermediate language known as UNL, or universal networking
language", Dr. Ramamritham explained.

Overall, Ramamritham said the aAqua project has been a "great learning
experience". The team's work has been presented with the Manthan Award,
an Indian prize for Web sites having useful content. As for the future,
Ramamritham said, "We're looking for deeper ways [of using] this
technology, for instance, forecasting diseases by using sensor data
and other information. We want to enlarge its scope of applicability."

To this end, the project has received a request for information from the Development Gateway
Foundation, which is interested in the possibility of building such
portals for other countries. In addition, the government of
Western India's Maharashtra region has linked the aAqua site to its own
main page.

As for other uses of the aAqua model, the metrology
department of Pune, in central India, is interested in
seeing what the model can do for the department.
MarathiWorld.com is interested in
using the aAqua model to answer career-counseling queries. And, Drishtee,
a project in North India project, sees potential in this model being
used for a citizens' complaints system.

In short, the aAqua model can be used in a variety of disciplines.
According to Dr. Ramamritham, "aAqua can be deployed in any
domain--education and health too. It's actually a very simple idea."

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great job done

Amarnath's picture

What an idea , this could change the way India is.

Software

Serg's picture

Thanks Frederick.
The Indian experts make the large successes in this branch.
My success attend you!

Excellent Work.

L.Ramkumar's picture

Congrats to Dr. Krithi Ramamritham and his team. It is very
challenging job and very happy to know it is working well.

All Indians will be happy if it is developed in all
regional languages.

it's FOSS :) at

Gurpartap Singh's picture

it's FOSS :) at www.foss.in

-
Punjabi Open Source Team

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