Sunday, April 21, 2013

Entry # 2: Beginning to Understand the Village Knowledge Centers, April 21, 2012

Entry # 2: Beginning to Understand the Village Knowledge Centres, April 21, 2012

We were fortunate to have an extensive presentation by a knowledgeable staff member, Jegen, at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, who works under the umbrella of Information Education and Communication called, the Informatic Division within the organization. He gave us an overview of the current projects and use of ICTs that MSSRF is involved with.

MSSRF has set up block/district level “Village Resource Centers” (VRCs) throughout the country, with several linked “Village Knowledge Centers” (VKCs) scattered throughout rural communities.  MSSRF take information from the government, universities and other research boards, and undergoes what they call “value addition” to make this information useful, understandable and available in rural communities.  The information, training and services that are available are not limited to agriculture, but include computer training, health and nutrition services, after school certifications, etc. We were able to visit the VRC in Semeddu, 3 VKCs in the surrounding area as well as one field office where they distribute inputs such as seeds and fertilizers for farmers.

What was particularly interesting, in terms of technology stewardship for communities, is the way that these centers are established.  MSSRF does not select communities in which to build VKCs.  The community itself decides that there is a need, chooses a knowledge worker to act as the “tech steward,” finds the space in which to establish a VKC and then MSSRF will supply the technology and training for the “knowledge workers” to take care of the center (for free). The community has mobilized itself and has created all of the conditions necessary for the uptake stage, before MSSRF provides the technology.  As the next few months unfold, it will be interesting to see how this happens within the community. 

Staff use participatory rural appraisal, after the establishment of the knowledge centers, to establish the particular needs for that village.  These knowledge centers not only provide relevant information, but also pride themselves on capacity building (training and awareness programs).  A farmer database is created based on the record-keeping at each center, which keeps track of the farmer name, age, education level, gender, reason for visit, who accompanied them to the center and mode of transport to get there. This is important because it ensures that the services offered continue to be useful and relevant. On average, about 20 farmers make use of these centers daily. The centers have a collection of books on a variety of topics, computers, printers/scanners, daily newspapers and informative brochures.

Brief Overview of some of the ways that MSSRF gets information to people in rural areas:
-       Cell phones are provided to farmers with the help of MSSRF’s technology partner, QUALCOMM.
-       Texting/ Voice information system (IKSL IFCO- Air Tel Green Card)
o   Farmers can opt in to this service and receive text messages daily (in Tamil characters, unlike FrontlineSMS) and they also receive automated voice messages, for those who are unable to read.
o   Trends are monitored
§  To see if farmers answer the calls
§  How long the farmer will stay on the line
-       Phone-In Programmes
o   If the information is too important (or can not be simplified into a text) you can “opt in” to listen to calls that are made at certain times.
§  E.g., if there is important information regarding coconut, farmers will receive word and can call the number at a certain time to listen to the information.
-       24/7 Help Line (on average, answers are given within ½ hour)
-       Public Address Systems are set up within communities to inform farmers of news and upcoming meetings.
-       Notice boards outside of each VRC and VKC (meetings have incentives, like free lunch or coffee etc.).
-       In the evenings, MSSRF will also give projector presentations within the community, based on the needs/requests of farmers.
-       MSSRF also posts information in slides at the cinema before people view movies.
-       Scrolling news during local television programming
-       ISRO- monthly video conferencing (e.g., National Virtual Congress of Farmers)
-       Community Newspapers
o   Information is locally-specific
o   Distributed for free to every household every 15 days
-       Production of informative pamphlets for distribution
-       Creation of a region-specific “Rural Yellow-Pages” so that farmers are able to find/advertise nearby services
o   Distributed for free to every household within the “block” (20-25 villages)
-       Some regions make use of radio for weekly information based on relevant topics (e.g., drought season).

What’s next for MSSRF?
-       currently looking at testing ICROP
o   software/hardware + technical expertise to be used as a “forewarning” system

I hope to gain more insight into each of these in the next few months, as well as looking at other sources of information besides the extensive services offered by MSSRF (NGOs, local newspapers, Agriculture Extension, etc…)! 


  1. This is great Suraya. Thanks for the latest update. I'm intrigued by the model that permits communities to self-identify a tech steward as part of VKC initiation. I'd be interested in knowing more about these individuals and their backgrounds/experience that leads them into this role. How does the role change or evolve once the VKC is up and running? Do they remain as tech steward? Do assume more responsibilities? How do they feel about being in this role?

    The partnership with Qualcomm is sure helpful when it comes to getting phones into hands of farmers! If you can dig up any details on how farmers perceive and use the text messaging/voice service that would be great to know. Is it viewed as useful? Do the farmers have any complaints or suggestions for improving it? How many women versus men subscribe to the service? Do farmers carry out any peer-to-peer texting or information informally or based on what they get from MSSRF?

    Great insights so far! Keep up the good work and be safe.

  2. In this statement - "Farmers can opt in to this service and receive text messages daily (in Tamil characters, unlike FrontlineSMS). Receiving text in Tamil characters is dependent on the mobile and not FrontlineSMS. My guess is the Qualcomm partnership is to provide them with mobile phones that support Tamil. Not all common available phones do. For example, Nokia has some phones that support Sinhala characters. FrontlineSMS can be localized for any language because it supports UTF-8.

    Are MSSRF VKC software sending text messages localized for Tamil; i.e. are the Graphic User Interfaces in Tamil?

    Does the Community invest in maintaining the VKCs beyond MSSRF implementing them? Do they have some kind of revenue generating scheme for the VKCs?

    Is it Qualcomm that is providing them with the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system? Else, who might that be?

  3. Thanks Nuwan, I was wondering about the supported languages.

    Suraya, does the link below refer to the same texting/voice system you mention above? If so, it may give some insight into the some of Nuwan's questions as well? [PDF]