ICTs Could Make You More Aware of Your Village

by Frederick Noronha

Have no illusions; ICT will not provide you with water or food. But those catchwords of the day, information and communication technologies (ICT), could make a difference to the way villagers think, how they perceive their village and problems, and what solutions they find for them.

Using handheld devices, Ravi Gupta has helped villagers map their villages. For doing this work, he has developed an open-source software package that can be used for a wide variety of purposes and is affordable to most everyone.

In collaboration with Media Lab Asia, a network of R & D institutions that operates as an offshoot of MIT's Media Lab, Ravi Gupta's Centre for Spatial Database Management and Solutions (CSDMS) developed GramChitra, GNU/Linux-based geographical information systems (GIS) software for handheld computers. GIS software enables the creation, storage, editing and accessing of map-related databases for "visually intuitive and effective decision making".

Announced in April 2002 at the Elitex Exhibition, which was organized by the Indian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, GramChitra is the first product to come out of the eagerly-watched Media Lab Asia.

GramChitra works by attaching GPS equipment to the handheld, on which the GNU/Linux software is loaded. Walking around the area creates a rough map of the village.

The story of how this project was implemented is interesting. Gupta says:

We went to schools in the village and organised a primary drawing competition. We got students to write poems (about their village). Then we asked villagers to identify all the types of trees and houses that they were aware of.

When the new GIS-produced maps were compared to the previous one, it was found that the 50-year-old village maps had precise village boundaries. As could be expected, however, much else had changed within the boundaries.

"It is possible to create in the youth an excitement about the different maps possible--telephone maps showing where the village's phones are located--car maps, water maps of the village (showing who gets access to what water), agricultural maps and the like", says Gupta.

Media Lab Asia says the software has "vast potential applications" in areas like census data collection and revenue maps, as well as block-and-panchayat level planning for water and tube wells, epidemiological data collection for rural healthcare and the like.

"Typically, the cost of GIS software on PCs starts at around Rs. 65,000 and goes up to Rs. 4-5 lakh. Media Lab Asia has decided to release GramChitra free of cost in order to promote the use of GIS software for developmental purposes", Media Lab Asia announced recently.

What has this project achieved? "Some big things", says Gupta. Among these he includes the creation of a GNU/Linux-based open-source GIS for handhelds, which he believes to be the first in the world.

Secondly, it has built map-awareness in a relevant manner at the village level. It has also created a participatory model for GIS studies at the local level, he suggests.

"This is a case of empowerment through information. It could be argued as a case of information of the people, by the people, for the people. You no longer have to bribe the patwari (village land-record holding officials) to get a map. It also gives students a chance to learn geography from a local map", adds Gupta.

Prof. Alex Pentland of Media Lab Asia argues that GIS software can serve as a fundamental tool for planning at all levels. He says:

We developed GramChitra on the open-source platform to ensure that this technology can be used even by villagers. The combination of free software and low-cost handheld computers opens up a world of possibilities. This software can be used at the grassroots level for collection and analysis of local data, all the way up to the national level for strategic planning.

Gupta adds:

Maps can be an effective way to collect data and simultaneously display results. Simple national maps are a good starting point for identifying and planning basic village resources. We have worked with village youth and school children to bring about awareness of the utility of maps using the GramChitra software. Henceforth, GIS software need not be limited to scientists and technologists.

Because Media Lab Asia integrated GPS capabilities with the GramChitra GIS software, users can automatically incorporate the date, time and location where the data is captured on a map.

In the future, GramChitra's capabilities will be extended to support data collection using low cost sensors for water and soil analysis, meteorological data, livestock management, environment and ecological conservation and planning, according to Media Lab Asia.

Media Lab Asia

Media Lab Asia works to make the benefits of new technologies available to everyone. Its special focus is on learning, health and economic development. Initiatives are planned to work in partnership with research institutions, industry and non-profit organisations (NGOs).

Media Lab Asia has been set up as a not-for-profit company with seed-funding from the Government of India. It has been appointed by the United Nations as its academic and industrial body for the region in the newly created UN ICT Task Force.

MLA is headquartered in Mumbai and has research laboratories on the campuses of the IITs of Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Kanpur and Kharagpur. Media Lab Asia is also collaborating with various NGOs for conducting research and implementation.

The Centre for Spatial Database Management and Solutions has been working to promote GIS's use in various development activities. It helps the Asian community in developing their capabilities and policies to maximise the benefits obtainable through GIS.

Incidentally, Gupta's firm also has pioneered to bring out India's first and only GIS monthly, [email protected], with a claimed readership of over 20,000 since its launch in 1997. It also has been organising theme-based workshops of GIS, GPS and remote sensing. Map India has turned into an annual event being organized for last four years attracting more than 1,000 delegates.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.

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