Is India finally ready to unleash apps that do good?

Apr 14, 2013, 06:01 IST | Kareena N Gianani

A Hyderabad-based girl develops an app to keep women safe on our streets. A Pune-based engineer designs one to help us access emergency services better. Last month, the Maharashtra government organised a tech fest to encourage people to build apps which society's issues. In February, NASSCOM conducted a similar competition across the country. Kareena N Gianani meets the people behind the apps and finds out how they want to change society, one app at a time

There’s will, and a way in the city
The people: Pune-based software engineers Ajay Pathak, Priyank Raj and Vivek Sharma may just have found a way to minimise your commuting woes. They don’t claim to revolutionise the way public transport works, but they can certainly help you access it more smoothly. Their app (yet unnamed), plans to help users reach their destination faster by providing the best possible options of routes to reach your destination and also suggest the best possible mode of transport to reach there.

The App: The trio’s app is one of the eight apps shortlisted at the AppFest at TechEd in Pune held on March 26. The festival was organised by the Government of Maharashtra, who tied up with Microsoft to encourage citizens to develop apps for social good. Three apps will be shortlisted this month, and the developers will present them at the Asian Development Bank in Gurgaon. The app, explains Pathak, will ask the user to punch in details of their location and final destination. “The app’s USP is not the route we provide, because even Google Maps gives you that—it is our algorithm which calculates the minimum time and money it will take you to reach your destination. You could use either or both options, choose the mode of transport you wish to take and you have your travel plan laid out for you, complete with walking distances and waiting times between stops or places. The trio is building the template for Pune and will soon design one for Mumbai and Bangalore. The app, says Raj, could also help the government ascertain which routes see heavy traffic, where it can introduce more services, and which routes are not in use anymore and can be scrapped. “If this app is used well, it can help the government plan traffic better, redirect it, and encourage people to use public transport. The challenge: “Getting data on transport routes is crucial for this app, and that is our biggest challenge, too,” says Raj. “We’ll have to update our app with new routes and eliminate defunct routes, which will need a different algorithm. Also, privacy could be a big issue because your location details are out there, so we’d prefer the government’s involvement there. If not, we could store the data in an encrypted format so it cannot be accessed by a third party. That, however, will need a large amount of finance.” 

(L-R) Vivek Sharma, Ajay Pathak and Priyank Raj. Pic/Krunal Gosavi

An idea for India
The man and his mission: Thirty-four-year-old Abhijit Junagade is not anxious, but certainly hopeful. His apps, Jeevan Paani and Vaccine Monitoring, too, are among the eight apps shortlisted at the AppFest at TechEd in Pune held on March 26.  The app “We are reeling under a drought and my app, Jeevan Pani, has been designed to help citizens save water,” says Junagade, co-founder of Winjit Technologies, an IT services company in Nasik. Apart from clients in the media and entertainment industry, Junagade also works with the United Nations.

With this free app, he explains, citizens will be able to report wastage of water by taking photographs of the instances and putting them up on a blog. The app is also informational—a user has access to information about the average usage of water in the city per day, for instance. One could then alter one’s usage and calculate how much you save, too. The app runs in Marathi and also gives users credit points for having saved water, which can then be shared on social networking sites,” says Junagade.

(Left) Abhijit Junagade’s apps help save water and monitor vaccination

The other app, Vaccine Monitoring, will help out NGOs, agencies and local bodies who implement vaccination and immunisation drives across the country. “This app is useful for India and other developing nations, too, because our problems are rather similar. We have generous donors for vaccine programmes across the world, but collection of information on the recipients is rather urorganised even today. The data reaches the concerned authority almost 12 months after the drive. This app will scan the bar code on each vaccine administered which can then be integrated with the online form which has details of the child and his/her GPS location,” says Junagade. The app, he adds, will also help the local bodies record births and deaths in an area and forecast the future need of the vaccines accordingly.

What’s next: Junagade hopes to gather important data through Vaccine Monitoring and publish it so the government and NGOs have access to crucial information. “Also, during drought, the government supplies water tankers to affected areas, but the villagers often have no ideas when the next tanker would reach them. Jeevan Pani can be used to trace routes and update the local body in that village about the location of the tanker so people could plan their water usage accordingly.” Whether shortlisted for the Asian Development Bank presentation or not, Junagade says he will go ahead and design the app anyway.

The challenge: Junagade says his apps will be able to do their bit of social good only if he has access to government data. “This platform is quite powerful and can streamline many systems, but it is up to the government to help open the doors to this revolution.”

Emergency? Help’s on its way
The man and his mission: A year ago, 33-year-old Ashish Agrawal’s uncle suffered a cardiac arrest and it was a friend who finally rushed to his aid—not an emergency service. This was in spite the multiple calls Agrawal made to ambulance services. “However, when my friend in the US had a minor fire at home, he simply dialed 911 and help came to him within minutes. Not only did the fire personnel come, but also the police and the ambulance, in case someone was hurt,” recalls Agrawal, the Lead Technology Architect at Infosys, Pune. The disparity in the quality of emergency services spurred Agrawal to design Help Me, a free Windows app which has been shortlisted at the AppFest at TechEd in Pune.

Ashish Agrawal’s app helps users access emergency services better. Pic/Krunal Gosavi

The app: Help Me, which operates in English and Marathi, consolidates the police, fire and ambulance services during an emergency, says Agrawal, who has largely worked with cloud technologies and admits that this is the first mobile app he has designed. The app, he says, stores all the necessary details of the user when s/he downloads the app—name, address, medical history, disability history, location, emergency contact persons’ details and so on. “The app has four basic options—in an emergency, a user can click on ‘Police’, ‘Fire’, ‘Ambulance’ or ‘Medical’. Once you click on either one of the options, the app asks you if you could provide additional information-such as requesting for multiple agencies to rush to you. If you cannot provide it, you could simply press the ‘Danger’ button and your location and request will reach the appropriate agency’s control room. To function well, the government will have to integrate the information of the users with the control room,” says Agrawal. The app also tracks the request and informs the user whether help is on its way.”

What’s next: Like other participants, Agrawal, too, says he will go ahead and develop the app even if he doesn’t make it to the contest’s shortlist. “I cannot possibly do the Police and Fire bit, because that needs government intervention, but I could definitely design the app to provide ambulance and
medical services.

The challenge: Co-ordinating with multiple agencies, ambulance providers, for instance, and consolidating them would be a challenge. However, I plan to get NGOs on board and do something worthwhile with it. If the Maharashtra Government does support the app, the challenge will then be to tie up the information from this app with the various control rooms, and ensure they are adequately manned to reach out to this app’s users in time of emergency.

For a safer you
The people: Twenty-six year-old Hyderabad resident Richa Yadav was one of the thousands of women who were shaken by the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012. She, however is one of the very few to have done something significant in the aftermath. Yadav, who works in Business Intelligence at Microsoft, got together with friends Ratnesh Desai, Anuj Jain and Sivaraman Krishnan to design the Windows app, Stipator (which means ‘the bodyguard’ in Latin). It aims to provide a sense of security to women who commute late at night and often rely on public transport by tracking their location. “I frequently use public transport at night. Like most parents, my folks, too, stay up late to enquire about where I am throughout the commute. After the recent incidents of rape and molestation, my anxiety peaked and I decided to do something about it—I wanted my family to know where I am so they could help me out if needed,” says Yadav. In February, Stipator won the Nasscom Social Innovation Honours (NSIH) 2013 in the Social innovation by Individual/Group Category.

Richa Yadav with Anuj Jain (right),  Sivaraman Krishnan (back, left ) and Ratnesh Desai (back,right). Their app, Stipator, allows women to let their family and friends track them on their commute and inform the appropriate emergency service, if required. Stipator won the Nasscom Social Innovation Honours (NSIH) 2013 in the Social innovation by Individual/Group Category

The app: Stipator is a free app which uses Bing Maps to track the user while s/he is travelling, and posts the details on social networking sites which, in turn, helps the user’s family keep track of them. The posts are secure and visible only to those whom the user grants permission. Another key feature of the app is the ‘Single Click SOS’, which enables the user to click an SOS button on the home screen. The app initiates a phone call, an SMS and an email to a pre-configured number and alerts them with the user’s current location to inform them about the emergency. The app also allows the user to book a cab with one click, and traces the user through the journey. “This app is mainly designed for women, but is equally useful for children, senior citizens and differently-abled individuals,” says Yadav.

What’s next: Yadav and her team have applied for a patent for their app, too. But her work, she says, doesn’t stop with the Windows app for Stipator. “We’ve had more than 400 downloads within Microsoft itself, and are now planning to launch the app on iOS and Android, too. And we want to make this service available for people who don’t own smartphones, too. For them, we plan to come up with a small lipstick-sized device which helps track the user with a single click of a button.”

The challenge: The biggest challenge that keep most people away from developing social apps in India, feels Yadav, is marketing. “I am sure a lot of people out there have some great ideas. Social apps are the need of the hour and we need some good avenues to market our work to help people with it.”

India’s own Avengers
The man and his mission:
Pune-based app developer Atul Veer has a dream, and it involves transforming you into an Avenger of sorts.  In May, 30-year-old Veer will launch Initiativers, a smartphone app which acts as a platform for citizens looking to help the government and NGOs in their chosen ‘missions’. “Initiativers is part of ParamiSoft, a software company I founded in 2010. I mainly develop products for clients are in Silicon Valley and around Boston. However, even back then, my first dream project involved doing connecting local representatives with the community and local businesses. I designed a web-based product, Our Wakad, but it ran into losses,” admits Veer. The idea didn’t die, he adds. Now, through Initiativers, a free iOS and Android app, Veer plans to bring citizens closer to the change they want to see. “There’s much that needs to be done about governance and our social problems, and we can build our own team of Avengers, our local superheroes,” smiles Veer over the telephone.”

Atul Veer’s app, Initiativers, will connect citizens with government and NGO initiatives

The app: Initiativers will list a number of time-bound missions for which the government or the concerned NGOs need volunteers. Each mission will have a minimum of two and a maximum of 10 tasks which the app user could fulfill. Users could choose to volunteer, provide solutions, and/or report the event and the mission.  In May, the app will kickstart with the mission of gathering enough people to appeal to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, to give activists at least two months to study Pune’s 20-year development plan. “The development plan was for 2007-2027, but the Pune Municipal Corporation delayed the plan by six years. Now, they expect citizens to make suggestions and raise objections within a month—by April 27. We, the citizens, and the activists need at least two-three months to study the development plans. So, Initiativers has tied up with Sajag Nagarik Mancha, an NGO founded by RTI activist Vivek Velankar to appeal to the CM to extend the date to June 30.”

What’s next: Veer has tied up with the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation commissioner Dr Shirkar Pardeshi and is formulating a mission which gathers citizens to report unauthorised constructions. He has also tied up with Sustainable Initiatives, an organization which works towards urban and environmental planning, architecture, environmental science, geography and energy. “I am also working with the Telerad Foundation to get community support for rural telemedicine activities-gather volunteer doctors and NGO’s to run patient centers in their rural areas etc. A future mission will include some work for Tara Trust which works for children and women who are street labourers.”

The challenge: According to Veer, he can afford to take social apps seriously because he has a well-established client base in the US. “But for those who want to take this up on a larger, the going gets tough because it is difficult to come up with a sustainable business model. I, too, am struggling at some level because the NGOs have great intentions but not enough money. So, apart from having a great idea for a social app, I also have to think of fund-raising options for the NGOs. That isn’t easy.” 

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