Malima: Episode #4: Of (cashew) nuts and mavericks: Exploring innovation’s many faces

Malima (New Directions in Innovation) is a Sinhala language TV series on science, technology and innovation. This episode was produced and first broadcast by Sri Lanka’s Rupavahini TV channel on 23 February 2012.

Produced by Suminda Thilakasena and hosted by science writer Nalaka Gunawardene, it is a magazine style programme. This episode features:

• An interview with Lankan inventor and entrepreneur B K Maheepala, who runs his own company Buddhi Industries (Pvt) Ltd, which manufactures and markets his own patented design of a cashew shelling machine. He exports most of his machines to cashew producing countries across Asia and Africa, and can’t cope with the demand! See also newspaper article at: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/120129/BusinessTimes/bt25.html

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) was called ‘technology’s great reinventor’ for transforming entire industries – computers, music, mobile phones – with systemic thinking that combined functionality with design elegance. We look at key lessons from his life for today’s inventors. A longer discussion of this is found in my tribute published on Groundviews.org in Oct 2011.

• Find a method to waterproof the ubiquitous mobile phone – win the gratitude of billions of mobile users worldwide. Inventors have taken up the challenge – and see what one group has introduced to the market. With this layer, never fear dropping your phone in water!

• Interview with young inventor Savindu Sanjana Jayasinghe, a student of Rajasinghe central school, Hanwella, who has invented a portable detector for measuring carbon emissions from vehicle exhaust fumes.

Produced by Suminda Thilakasena

Malima: Episode 4 presented by Nalaka Gunawardene from Nalaka Gunawardene on Vimeo.

Can you hear me now? Why people yell into mobile phones…

Louder, please?

Why do people – especially middle aged men – yell into their mobile phones?

This is one of those widely asked questions in relation to communications technologies that have become part of our daily lives. Mobile phone etiquette hasn’t evolved as fast as phone coverage, so this behaviour remains a regular source of irritation at hotels, restaurants, airports and other public places.

So why do people with normal speaking volumes yell into their cell phones? I came across an interesting explanation, which also suggests that it’s a trait more common among Digital Immigrants.

Here’s an extract: “Household telephones, or landlines, have a microphone in the receiver that amplifies your voice into the ear piece. When you talk into a landline, your voice is captured and replayed through the ear piece, so you hear your own voice loud and clear….With cell phones, your own voice is not amplified into the earpiece, so the only sound you hear is from your mouth. Seem like this wouldn’t be a huge difference, but the volume level of words coming from your mouth through the air and into your ear is a pretty big difference from sounds coming from a phone speaker that’s pressed directly against your ear.”

No, Sir Winston is not using an early mobile phone - it's a field radio receiver!

Hmm. So there’s hope that the trait will become less common in the coming years.

Of course, the habit goes a long way back to the days when phone lines rarely offered good audio quality. There is the true story of how Sir Winston Churchill had to suffer a Cabinet colleague who was a loud phone talker. During the Second World War, they were sharing crammed war cabins.

One day the Minister was once again talking very loudly on the phone. Churchill asked his secretary to go over and tell Mr Brown not to talk at the top of his voice. The secretary returned and told the PM: ‘Sir, the Minister is talking to Scotland.’

Without batting an eyelid, Churchill replied: ‘Yes, I’m sure he is. But tell him to use the phone!’

Impressions and images from Tiananmen, Gate of Heavenly Peace…

Tiananmen literally means Gate of Heavenly Peace...hmmm

I spent several hours at the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, China, this week, while attending a media conference. I was returning to this landmark, now a key tourist attraction in modernised and assertive China, after nearly a decade. And much has changed…

Measuring 880 metres by 500 metres, and covering a total area of 440,000 square metres, the Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world. But mere superlatives don’t impress me. It’s what goes on behind the claims, labels and stereotypes that interest me.

I’ve been to the square on a couple of previous Beijing visits. The first was in October 1996, during my very first visit to China. I was also taken in a group tour on a later visit. If I remember right, my last sighting of the Square was in 2002 – just before I acquired my first digital camera. (That makes a difference, because Before Digital, my analog photographs on travel were sparingly taken…and my own memory is not a very reliable storage medium.)

Day or night, he keeps vigil over Tiananmen Square...and 1.3 billion people

This time, I was armed with my digital camera and ample digital memory — and, it seemed, so were most other visitors! There were the obviously foreign tourists (including the loud and uninformed Americans), but it seemed most people thronging to the square were Chinese…many from out of town. For some, a visit to this centre of power is a rare occasion to be cherished and recorded.

I was impressed by just how many people were clicking away, using either digital cameras or mobile phone cameras. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, for China is the country with the largest number of mobile phones in use: by March 2010, there were some 780 million mobile subscribers, accounting for 58.5 per cent of all people in China.

Keen to capture different scenes under varying kinds of daylight and night lights, I made three visits to the Square – including one at 5.30 in the morning to catch daybreak at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (literal meaning of Tiananmen). So here’s a sampling of my several dozen photos – this selection has a bias on people shooting each other, digitally speaking (a far cry from the kind of shooting that took place here 20 years ago).

Look serious, man - he's watching!

Now bring out your best smiles, all!

People milling about with Great Hall of the People in the background

Clicking away at Monument to the People's Heroes

One of the most striking moments I captured was of this elderly couple, very dignified and sprightly in their outlook, as they were taking a stroll on the square early morning and capturing memories on their mobile phone. They are old enough to have known another reality, but this was now and here…

This Square, and we, have seen and heard much in our time...

Did we get it alright?

I also noticed how the younger visitors were clearly at ease with digital technologies, just like their fellow Digital Natives elsewhere in the world. There is also a discernible easing up (not only among unknown people in public places, but also noticeable among older and younger Chinese friends I have): maybe it’s the exuberance of youth, but the NextGen Chinese don’t seem to be as somber and serious as their parents.

Or perhaps the younger people in China today just have more things to smile about?

Would Chairman Mao approve this pose, eh?

Heaven is in the eye of the beholder...

Digital Natives capturing memories for the Next Gen

It was a rushed visit of four nights and three days, so all my impressions are fleeting. They don’t begin to do justice to the nuanced complexity that is modern China. But they tell me one thing: even in a land with a proud history of over 5,000 years, ten years can still make a difference.

Bye for now: I take only photos, and leave only shadows behind...

Note: All photos were taken touristically for my own memory and personal archives, with no other intention.

‘Can you hear us now?’ India’s bottom millions connect to information society

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Mobile champion: farmer Sayar Singh in Rajasthan, India - photo by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

At the end of the world’s largest general election that lasted nearly a month, Indians have just re-elected the Congress Party to govern over the world’s largest democracy for another five year term.

It’s too early to discuss what role, if any, the recently enhanced telecommunications services played in this outcome. But there is no doubt that access to telephones – especially mobiles – has revolutionised the life of the billion plus Indians in the past few years.

Farmer Sayar Singh epitomises this change. Earlier this year, we filmed a day in the life of Sayar, a resident of Pushkar Nala in India’s Rajasthan state. This was part of a profiling of telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid – or BOP – in emerging Asian economies, undertaken by TVE Asia Pacific on behalf of LIRNEasia.

Sayar is definitely BOP: growing wheat and flowers on his ancestral land, he makes around INR 6,000 (USD 115) a month – on which income he sustains an extended family that comprises his wife, four children, elderly father and an unmarried sister. Life isn’t easy for this 33-year-old, but his spirit of enterprise is as abundant as his praise for his newly acquired mobile phone.

He only bought a mobile in mid 2008, but eight months later, that investment had definitely improved business and social life for him. So much so that his life’s narrative is clearly divided as Before Mobile and After Mobile.

“Our life before the mobile phone was hard,” he says. “I took two days to do what I can now do in a day. Now I can get in touch immediately and all my work happens faster and more easily!”

He now tracks market prices and moves his produce quickly for better profits. With workload reduced and income doubled, Sayar has reaped dual benefits from his mobile.

Watch our short profile of Sayar Singh, ardent promoter of mobile phones in rural India:

This isn’t Sayar’s first experience with owning a telephone. Earlier, he was frustrated with a fixed phone that didn’t work half the time. The service was so bad that he gave up the phone after a while.

He recalls: “Phone wires in our village were often faulty. They used to be out of order for 2 or 4 days, sometimes even half a month! All my work was affected. I couldn’t talk to my brothers and sisters. Call charges were also high. When my phone line was down, I had to call from STD booths or neighbours’ phones.”

In our interview, Sayar kept referring to his fixed phone connection as ‘government phone’ – a reflection of the state-owned former monopoly. It was a reminder of just how bad telecom services were in India until only a few years ago.

As Shashi Tharoor, the former UN Undersecretary General – who, incidentally, has just been elected into Indian Parliament from his native Kerala state – has remarked, India had possibly the worst telephone penetration rates in the world.

He wrote in 2007: “Bureaucratic statism committed a long list of sins against the Indian people, but communications was high up on the list; the woeful state of India’s telephones right up to the 1990s, with only eight million connections and a further 20 million on waiting lists, would have been a joke if it wasn’t also a tragedy — and a man-made one at that.”

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Connected and contented: Sayar Singh by Suchit Nanda for TVEAP

Tharoor recalled the infamous words of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister in the 1970s, C.M. Stephen. In response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, the minister declared in Parliament that telephones were a luxury, not a right. He added that ‘any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone’ — since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

According to Tharoor, Mr Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude: ignorant, wrong-headed, unconstructive, self-righteous, complacent, unresponsive and insulting. “It was altogether typical of an approach to governance in the economic arena which assumed that the government knew what was good for the country, felt no obligation to prove it by actual performance and didn’t, in any case, care what anyone else thought.”

All this didn’t change overnight, and as Tharoor reflects, the key contribution of the government was ‘in getting out of the way’ — in cutting license fees and streamlining tariffs, easing the overly complex regulations and restrictions that discouraged investors from coming in to the Indian market, and allowing foreign firms to own up to 74 per cent of their Indian subsidiary companies. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has also been a model of its kind, a regulatory agency that saw its role as facilitating the growth of the business it was regulating, rather than stifling it with rules and restrictions.”

It still took time for this revolution to be felt at the bottom of the pyramid. As LIRNEasia says: “Just five years ago, the Indian telecom industry’s massive momentum barely included the poor. The country had slightly over seven access paths (fixed and mobile connections) per 100 people, but in rural India 100 people were served by only 1.5 access paths. Even in urban India, the poor were unconnected.”

Then things started changing rapidly. According to LIRNEasia’s latest teleuse@BOP survey, 45 per cent of Indian BOP teleuser households had a phone in late 2008: 37% had a mobile only; 5% had a fixed phone only; and 3% had both. This is massive progress from the 19 percent of BOP homes with a phone just two years ago. Read more about BOP telephone penetration and use in India.

Tharoor has called this the “mobile miracle” — one that has accomplished something socialist policies talked about but did little to achieve: empowering the less fortunate. Rapid mobile penetration in my native Sri Lanka has had a comparable social transformation – in a commentary last year, I called the ubiquitous mobile ‘Everyman’s new trousers’.

Of course, the mobile revolution is far from over. There are many more millions yet to be connected, and those already connected expect affordable, reliable and value-added services.

“Indian BOP is still in the mobile 1.0 mode using mainly voice and missed calls functionality. Messaging is being used by only a third of the BOP population. Mobile payment and government services use is almost non-existent,” Rohan Samarajiva, chairman and CEO, LIRNEasia, was quoted as saying soon after the latest study was presented in India in February 2009.

How far and how much value added mobile services can penetrate the BOP remains to be seen. Sayar Singh, for example, currently spends US$ 8.6 to 9.5 a month on phone services – over 8% of his enhanced monthly income.

“I haven’t subscribed to any services like cricket news or astrological forecasts. I don’t need them…and I don’t want to spend on them,” he said in our interview.

But mobile telephony is an area where the boldest projections have been exceeded – so never say never.

Photos by Suchit Nanda for TVE Asia Pacific

Cellphones and the Economic Modernization of India: Listen to Shashi Tharoor at Asia Society, NY, in 2007:

Now on MediaChannel.org: Good communications to combat swine flu?

They turn the spotlight inwards...

They turn the spotlight inwards...

MediaChannel.org has just published my latest op ed essay titled: Good communications to combat swine flu?

7 May 2009: New Age newspaper in Bangladesh has reprinted the essay

24 May 2009: The Hindu newspaper in India has reprinted the essay in its Sunday Magazine

In this essay, I have expanded some points originally made in two recent blog posts, on 30 April and 1 May 2009.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Flu shots, quarantine measures and hospital care alone cannot counter the current flu outbreak. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and other communicators to mount the public awareness response. Ideally, they should reinforce each other.

“For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, a majority of them in the developing world. Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) have access to the web, even if at varying levels of bandwidth. Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

“Can these information and communication technologies (ICTs) help disseminate the right kind of flu awareness? How fast can we mobilise 24/7 media outlets and telecom networks to inspire preventive and curative action? What can the blogging, texting and twittering new media activists do in such efforts?”

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Stop the virus, but not the news!

Looking for models of communicating against an infectious epidemic, I recall the Asian experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) . I summarise in this essay the public interest roles played by Asian media during the SARS crisis, which has been studied and analysed in considerable detail.

I then return to one of my favourite points about communicating disasters and crises: the need for credible messages and credible messengers. This was a core theme in the Asian book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in 2007. I also highlighted it in this interview given to APC in early 2008.

Here’s how my essay ends: “Whether it is SARS, HIV or tsunami, many Asian governments have suffered from a credibility gap in managing information about emergencies. For example, the initially slow and guarded media reporting on SARS allowed the virus to spread quickly in China, with devastating results. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes with the latest flu pandemic.

“Nearly a century ago, British author H G Wells talked about human history being a race between education and catastrophe. In the coming weeks, we would find out if humanity has what it takes to outrun and outsmart a stubborn virus.

Read the full essay at MediaChannel.org

Read my op ed essay in SciDev.net in Dec 2005: A Long Last Mile: The lesson of the Asian tsunami

MediaChannel have published my op ed essays before. They were the first to publish, in June 2006, my global call for the broadcast industry to recognise poverty as a copyright free zone. And when Al Jazeera English channel was launched at the end of 2006, MediaChannel carried my essay on ethical news gathering as the biggest challenge for the new global TV network.

My latest essay is a humble birthday present to MediaChannel.org as it completes 10 years. Unique among websites, MediaChannel.org holds the rest of the media accountable with the best of the world’s media criticism and analysis — offering news, diverse global perspectives, and commentaries tracking international news flows. They cover breaking controversies, showcase change-makers, trends and cutting edge issues that you need to know about – produced by journalists for journalists and citizens.

MediaChannel’s co-founder Danny Schechter is one of my media heroes – he was Moving Images Person of the Year 2008.

“Our survival alone is a cause for celebration – a decade of growth and impact is impressive in ‘Internet years’,” wrote the website’s founders in a special 10th anniversary message. They added: “Over the past 10 years, we have survived financial crises and organized hack attacks. We have managed to remain relevant and on the cutting edge in a quickly evolving online landscape when many other sites and organizations have come… and gone.”

The team is making an urgent appeal for donations to keep this excellent service going. I’m very happy to amplify this – few services can deliver better value for money, and our troubled times and troubled media sure need the soul-searching constantly provided by MediaChannel.org

Ten years of kicking ass!

Ten years of kicking ass!

How ‘Hole in the Wall’ ICT experiment inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

21st Century, here we come...

21st Century, here we come...

With the 81st annual Academy Awards (Oscars) to be announced on February 22, all eyes are now on the nominated movies.

Updated on Oscar night: Slumdog wins 8 Oscars out of 10 nominations!

Few films in recent years have generated as much buzz as Slumdog Millionaire, the British-Indian film based in the slums of Mumbai. It has won five Critics’ Choice Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards, and is nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Much has been written about the movie’s depiction of India’s stark urban realities of poverty, organised crime and street children. But there is another face of India that the movie captures: how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing culture, economy and social relations in the world’s largest democracy.

I just called to ask...

I just called to ask...

Early on, film critic Ben Walters spotted this aspect. He asked in The Guardian on 9 December 2008: Is Slumdog Millionaire the first truly 21st-century film? Among his reasons: “Jamal works in a call centre decorated with London Underground paraphernalia and whose employees are kept up to date on EastEnders plotlines to improve their chances of successful small talk with their customers. Aptly enough, the customers are mobile phone users – another emblem of 21st-century connectivity – and a mobile plays a crucial part in the story’s climax.”

Indeed, the mobile phone combined with live broadcast television both feature in the story’s climax. The film was partly shot on the actual studio set used by Kaun Banega Croreparti (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. As I wrote earlier, the cerebral world of quizzing blends seamlessly with the rough world of Mumbai slums to produce an enthralling 120 minutes.

And now it turns out that a real life ICT experiment triggered the idea of the Slumdog story.

Indian author Vikas Swarup, on whose 2005 novel Q&A the movie is based, has recently revealed how he was inspired by the hole-in-the-wall project. This was an initiative by Dr. Sugata Mitra, chief scientist at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Mitra embedded a high-speed computer in a wall separating his firm’s headquarters from an adjacent slum, he discovered that slum children quickly taught themselves how to surf the net, read the news and download games and music. He then replicated the experiment in other locations. Each time the results were similar: within hours, and without instruction, the children began browsing the Internet.

Swarup told Indian Express in January 2009: “That got me fascinated and I realised that there’s an innate ability in everyone to do something extraordinary, provided they are given an opportunity. How else do you explain children with no education at all being able to learn to use the Internet. This shows knowledge is not just the preserve of the elite.”

Discover your world...

Discover your world...

Dr Mitra’s project was the subject of a 2002 documentary film, called Hole in the Wall, made by the New York based production company GlobalVision.

The film was introduced as follows: A revolution in information technology is redefining poverty, as how much you know is becoming just as important as how much you own. “The Hole in the Wall” examines one possible solution to the growing technological gap between rich and poor — the so-called ‘digital divide’ — that threatens to consign millions to an “information underclass.”

The film was made by Rory O’Connor and Gil Rossellini. An 8-min version was broadcast by PBS in October 2002 in their program Frontline/World. A 60-min version was screened at the United Nations in New York City in December 2002. The film has been widely screened, and won several awards.

Initiator of the Hole in the Wall project carries on his mission to adapt ICTs to serve the unmet needs of India’s poor. Watch Dr Sugata Mitra talk about his work in this TED Video:

Mobile phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile phones - social leveller in Sri Lanka

Mobile Phones in Sri Lanka: Everyman’s new trousers?

This is the title of my latest op ed essay, published this week on Groundviews, the leading citizen journalism website in Sri Lanka.

In this, I try to place in a social and cultural context a series of discriminatory laws, regulations and taxes that my native Sri Lanka has introduced – or threatened – in the past few months all aimed at mobile phones, and only mobiles.

This, despite the fact that the proliferation of mobiles has brought telecom services within reach of millions of Sri Lankans in the past decade, helping raise the country’s overall tele-density (mobiles+fixed phones) to 54 telephones per 100 population. With over 11 million SIMs issued, mobiles today outnumber fixed phones by three to one.

In my essay, I cite specific examples, and ask the crucial questions:

Why is this already licensed and regulated technology often targeted for ‘special treatment’ by different arms of government?

Where is this wide-spread suspicion and hostility towards mobiles coming from?

I argue that it is rear-guard action by the traditional elite and bureaucracy who’d rather not allow such digital empowerment to spread. And this has historical parallels.

Here’s the crux of it:

“There is a numerically small (but influential) privileged class that resents information and communication access becoming universal. They might talk glibly in public on using ICTs for social development or poverty reduction. But back inside the corridors of power, they make policies and regulations to undermine the very utility of these tools. This is no accident.

“The mobile phone is the biggest social leveller in Sri Lankan society since the trouser became ubiquitous (initially for men, and belatedly for women). Our elders can probably recall various arguments heard 30 or 40 years ago on who should be allowed to wear the western garb: it was okay for the educated and/or wealthy mahattayas, but not for the rest. Absurd and hilarious as these debates might seem today, they were taken very seriously at the time.

“Make no mistake: the mobile is the trouser of our times –- and thus becomes the lightning rod for class tensions, petty jealousies and accumulated frustrations of an elite that sees the last vestiges of control slipping away.

Read the full essay on Groundviews

Relevant to this discussion is a short film that TVE Asia Pacific produced for LIRNEasia in late 2007, summarising the findings of the latter’s large sample survey on tele-use at the bottom of the pyramid in five emerging markets (which included Sri Lanka).

TVEAP News, Nov 2007: Film highlights telephone revolution in Asia’s emerging markets

Watch the film online:

Teleuse@BOP – Part 1 of 2

Teleuse@BOP – Part 2 of 2

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific