DENTON, Texas — Founded in 2005, Microsoft Research in Bangalore, India took off with the idea that providing low-resource populations with computing technology would unlock untapped potential and development. The Borgen Project spoke with Microsoft Research’s Senior Principal Research Manager Dr. Ed Cutrell. Dr. Cutrell said, “In this project of trying to explore how technology can be used within this kind of world, one thing to understand is that at the time [Microsoft Research was founded] this was right as mobile phones were starting to penetrate deep into the global world.” Dr. Cutrell managed a research group in India from 2010 to 2016. The group looked at the impact of computing technology on marginalized populations. During his time there, he and his team studied how technology in India can positively or negatively affect a variety of areas. This includes global health, agriculture, education, financial inclusion, livelihoods and childhood malnutrition.
Rural Technology in India
According to Microsoft, “Early evidence indicates that rural kiosks help impoverished villagers improve their standard of living by expanding livelihood options and empowering them with information, tools, goods and services (such as education and healthcare).” This technology in India provided the first computing experience for more than 700 million people living in the nation.
In this scenario, “you would put a kiosk in a village or in a school or someplace and say, ‘here’s a computer.’ Come to the computer and you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about,” Dr. Cutrell told The Borgen Project. However, there were a couple of issues with this. One of the largest of these is the language barrier. Most of the content that people wanted to share was in English, but there are more than 100 languages in India, and the majority of English-speaking Indians are upper-class.
Movement to Urban Technology
Furthermore, the power was very unstable and would be off for many hours of the day. At times, power surges fried the computer, and it took weeks to make repairs. Because of these issues, the next step was to bring the computers to a more urban environment, where there was better connection and power.
The urban kiosks had a little more success because of a program that could match people with job opportunities. However, there were still people who did not understand the computer’s process. “The mental model wasn’t there,” explained Dr. Cutrell. “Like, why would a computer know where the jobs were? The way you know where jobs are — you talk to your friends.”
There were both successes and failures, so there was always something to learn. “One of the things I came convinced of,” said Dr. Cutrell, “is that technology for development can’t just be ‘for development,’ especially not if it’s going to the end-users.”
Combating Childhood Malnutrition
Although India’s economy has improved over the past 20 years, malnutrition in children under five years old is still one of the highest in the world. Malnutrition has an impact on health, education and the economy. It is a prevalent obstacle to human development and hinders India’s potential for further economic growth.
In rural India, most healthcare workers in the field are ill-equipped or lack the skills necessary to retrieve accurate data. Data management is a significant issue because measurements are manually written on paper. Then, these measurements are saved in logbooks and later transferred to spreadsheets. This lengthy process is prone to human error and can have dangerous consequences for malnourished children.
To combat this issue, Welthungerhilfe, Munich Re, Social Impact Partners and Microsoft Germany created a mobile app to aid global hunger. A prototype technology in India, the Child Growth Monitor app helps detect childhood malnutrition at an early stage. The new app uses a smartphone camera along with an infrared sensor to produce “3D scans of children from millions of millimeter-accurate measurements, [and]provide precise measurements in an easy, fast manner.” This new technology has great potential to make a difference in combating hunger.
Projects Creating Change
In the past 20 years, computing technology in India has had a profound impact on developing regions. Today, Microsoft’s Technology for Emerging Markets has many projects trying to improve conditions in low-resource communities in India. For instance, a project called 99DOTS is a current technology in India that focuses on “medication adherence for anti-Tuberculosis drugs.” This technology is used to ensure that TB patients take their medication for the prescribed six months, so they do not get drug-resistant TB, which is contagious and fatal.
The organization Digital Green is another advancement. Digital Green is a global development organization that helps smallholder farmers and enables them to break free from poverty through the power of technology and grassroots-level partnerships. It began as a project of Microsoft Research, and from there, partnered with the nongovernmental organization, Green Foundation. This partnership created its name, Digital Green.
There have been an unprecedented amount of computing innovations in recent years. With AI breakthroughs, virtual reality and 5G, there are so many possibilities to help those in need. Dr. Cutrell believes that when it comes to computing technology, “as we make that cheaper and better and more fun then you’re only improving people’s lives and livelihoods in good ways.”
– Addison Franklin