On 18 September 2014, CCMG with support from the International Development Research Council (IDRC) organised a one-day workshop on Enabling Information Systems for Local Governance at the Tagore Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Comprising three panel discussions, the event brought together academicians, practitioners and researchers from the overlapping fields of IT, Sociology and governance. The programme aimed to identify mechanisms to promote local community participation in information systems for governance. The following is a summary of the proceedings.
The workshop (Enabling Information Systems for Local Governance) was introduced by Mr. Vibodh Parthasarathi, Associate Professor, CCMG and Mr. Ravi Shukla, Principal Consultant, CCMG.
While Parthasarathi spoke about how the workshop was part of a series aimed at engaging with local communities outside the university space, Shukla highlighted the importance of entwining social concerns with technology and thereby enabling information systems for local governance.
The first panel discussion of the day was titled ‘Community Participation in IT processes’. It was chaired by Dr. Biswajit Das, Director, CCMG, who in his introductory notes called attention to the fact that in the case of technological innovation the idea was not to simply get engineers to understand the community. As engineers are themselves the products of their community, the real question was about how to sensitise them to community concerns and ensure the reflection of those concerns in the production processes of technology.
Atanu Garai, a Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, Bhubhaneswar, then made the first presentation of the panel discussion, on the subject ‘Mechanisms of Community Enrolment in mHealth’. Broadly defining mHealth as the practice of medicine and public health supported by mobile devices, Garai stressed its implementation aspects and discussed design considerations. He said that mHealth was important due to its ‘embeddedness’ and vast potential reach.
Talking about technology and community involvement, he identified macro- and micro-level framework designs. At the macroscopic level, he questioned whether development shaped technology or vice-versa.
Similarly, at the microcosmic level, he raised the question as to whether participatory design techniques could really influence technological design. He stressed that there were no straightforward answers to these questions as no simple user interface solution existed.
The next panellist was Mr. Vivek Chandok, vice-president at CanvasM, A Tech Mahindra, who made a presentation on “Arriving at ‘Saral Zindagi’: A Suite of Mobile Applications to Ease Consumer Lifestyles”.
He discussed his organisation’s Saral Rozgar programme at length, emphasising that it was part of a larger innovation model aimed at improving the quality of people’s lives by challenging conventional thinking. He said that Saral Rozgar, which is an initiative by Mahindra to simplify the process of searching for jobs, takes into account India’s stratified social structure and its accompanying digital divide. Chandhok stressed that people have simple aspirations which are complex to deliver. During the ensuing discussion, he went on to spell out more aspects of the Saral Rozgar programme, including details of its implementation.
Dr. Richa Kumar from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi, wrapped up the session by commenting on some of the issues raised during the discussion. She spoke about the ways in which technology had provided options beyond existing traditional means for realising aspirational goals. This, she said, was largely due to the inaccessibility and flawed nature of traditional mechanisms. She stressed Garai’s point about institutional embeddedness, and ended by emphasising the need to not focus solely on technology but to instead improve socio-cultural processes that would help people achieve their goals.
The second panel discussion of the day was titled “Community Representation in Information Modelling” and was chaired by Dr. Arul Chib from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The discussion also brought together Dr. Vignesh Ilavarasan P. of IIT Delhi and Mr. Ravi Shukla of CCMG, both of whom highlighted the necessity of community participation in designing information systems and in unpacking underlying assumptions in their designs.
Likewise, Dr. Chib emphasised the need to seek mechanisms for community involvement in information technology.
Dr. Vignesh Ilavarasan P. discussed information models for service delivery in the telecommunications sector, and spoke about how the industry could provide more transparency due to its superior customer relations management, as compared to the electricity sector and other industries which follow a business registration model. He showcased his study on how information models for business registration in India could learn from the telecommunications industry.
Ravi Shukla’s presentation was about his research in the Jamia Nagar area in New Delhi about creating a prototype for community participation in information systems.
He talked about how his project evolved over time, how technology was perceived by different communities and the importance of taking the social agenda into account. He highlighted the necessity of listening to community voices while creating information models.
Moving on to the final segment of the day, the last panel discussion comprised a focus group workshop led by Dr. Amit Prakash, Chairperson, Centre for Studies in Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Participants were divided into two groups – an information model group and a process group – and the discussion took up the ongoing Jamia Nagar research programme as a case study.
Each group was asked to come up with suggestions to increase community participation in IT systems and methods to qualitatively or quantitatively measure participation.
The information model group suggested ways to address broader issues of health and hygiene. They listed potential “actors” such as RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) and NGOs who could help identify priority issues and gauge the intensity of problems faced by community members.
Meanwhile, the process group demonstrated that most research into community involvement did not really represent the actual people and their problems. They talked about how people who were supposed to be beneficiaries were not part of consultation processes.
The group stressed the importance of setting up tracking systems and the need to formulate study objectives which, rather than serving researchers’ interests, are as layperson-friendly as possible.