Taking Free Software to the Farmers and Fields of India

by Frederick Noronha

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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