‘Idea is not to chastise drivers, but to focus on the positive’
While his passion lies in the field of advanced engineering research, 23-year-old Aravind M.A. always knew that he wanted to do “something social”, that is use his technological skills to create something that helped solve a social problem. It wasn’t possible to devise an instant fix for a social problem using technology, he concedes, but he wanted his work to be of use to society at large.
It is this urge that led to the idea for Sugama Savaari or Happy Auto, a Bangalore traffic police initiative, announced in December last, that rates autorickshaw services in the city.
Aravind, a junior research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science’s Department of Electronics System and Engineering, emphasises that the idea is not to chastise auto drivers or to punish them; instead it is to give the whole thing “a positive spin”.
So, the service uses three tech platforms for commuter feedback, which then is fed into a software system that uses the ‘ratings’ and existing police records on autorickshaws to identify the ‘good and friendly autorickshaws’. These ‘good autorickshaws’ are then provided a green ‘Happy Auto’ sticker, which the police and Aravind hope will, over time, grow into a marker or certificate for safe and comfortable auto commute.
At an event last week, Kannada actor Sudeep distributed these stickers to 10 autorickshaws selected on the basis of computations made by the Sugama Savaari code.Focussing on the positive
“We’ve always heard people complain about how autorickshaw drivers refused to take passengers or took them through a circuitous route and duped them, or demanded an exorbitant fare. But, we also heard of drivers who would go out of the way to help people, save a life in an accident case or, more routinely, return valuables,” says Aravind. So, Aravind and his friends thought, why not focus on these positives and find a “happy way” of highlighting this aspect. A discussion with his father, M.A. Parthasarathy, an engineer who always wanted to work with technology to help the transport sector, led to the idea. At first, finding time was difficult as Aravind is a full-time researcher, but soon a group of four friends joined him. The technology part was not complicated, says Aravind, but the question was how to get started.
In what Aravind calls an “excellent meeting” with Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) B. Dayanand, he and his father discovered that the police was more than happy to have them on board. “We told them our idea, and they jumped at it. We were provided access to a portion of their backend server and all assistance was provided. Things moved fast,” recalls Aravind.How it works
Technology-wise, the Sugama Savaari application is simple. There are three parts to it: an Android app (Happy Auto on the Google Play Store), a website, www.sugamasavaari.com, where you can register and provide feedback and a SMS-based service where feature phone users can send an SMS with a certain code, licence number and rating. There’s also a Facebook page, but that’s more of an also-ran.
The Android app is easy to use: it asks you five questions — whether you were taken properly to your destination, not demanded excessive fare, pleasant behaviour, whether traffic rules were followed, and your rating.Ranking system
On the software side, Aravind explains that they have an algorithm that crunches this feedback into a weighted average and integrates it with other components — such as police records, both positive and negative — to create some sort of a ranking system. “But the idea is not to punish those who are at the bottom of the list but to identify those who are at the top and given them a Happy Auto sticker,” says Aravind.
“We agreed with the police that a positive system like this would be more effective, as the police had firm punitive systems in place. In some sense, we thought this could be a way to incentivise the ‘good guys’.
The response so far has been good, says Aravind. In two weeks, 1,200 people have registered for and used the app. “Till now, we’ve seen it’s not very widely used — people only give feedback when they’re really angry or really happy. But we’re hoping that slowly we will get more people on board.”Hardware plans
Now that this project is up and running with the Bangalore police, what’s next for Aravind and his friends? Aravind’s careful to not give away too much about the algorithm or the logic used to arrive upon the computation. The next step, he says, would be to release a GPS version. On the hardware side, he and his friends hope that they will be able to perhaps work on the security aspect. User feedback has been good and the predominant demand, he says, has been for an emergency button. “If we come up with hardware for it, it has to be simple and affordable. So, we are trying to work on something using Arduino, an open hardware system, and perhaps we’ll have some breakthrough on that soon,” he says.