Social technologist Alagesa Pandian says technology is the entry point to problem solving
Alagesa Pandian in his forties is every bit a technocrat. Software and programming are his staples. Currently based in Bangalore, Pandian calls himself a social technologist who employs technical power for the cause of society and environment.
“Social technology is all about simple problem-solving methods and not a rocket science,” he explains. “Technology can be a very good entry point to problem solving. It’s a bunch of effective solutions. But they themselves are not answers. Technology should be able to influence policy making, politics and society at large. It’s a continuum and not just sitting before the computer.”
What started as his graduation project in the early 1990s ended in a lifetime craze for Pandian. “During my college days, I built a Java-based open source geographical information tool to distinguish between utilization and exploitation in the Hosur forest range. It simulated the scenario and upon that I came up with a participatory planning and solution,” he says.
In 2005, he and his friends set up Mapunity, a platform that enables mapping and database building. “Though there is Google map, rural areas and NGOs working in remote areas can be mapped through our system. Anyone interested in problem solving can come in and build an information base and generate a map,” he says. “For example, mapping of soil patterns in a particular area can be done on Mapunity website. We have also come up with a system called ‘Be City’, a governance platform online where people can lodge complaints and work towards a collective solution.”
“In Bangalore, we have set up a mobile traffic monitoring system which records traffic patterns in over 300 locations every five seconds. The model is not costly and it has been five years and now the police there have got a concrete database upon the people’s movements in the city. It has helped them to devise a better traffic channelization,” says Pandian.
“This work was done with the help of traffic police. The density is monitored through devices installed in micro-towers,” he says. “This is one simple process of studying traffic in a big city. We then substantiated it with the GPS data. Video cameras were also set up at various junctions.”
According to Pandian, an effective solution is derived by putting various solutions together and picking out the cheapest options. He says that if people become more informed, there is significant change at the citizen level. “The traditional approach to city planning and management is always done by authorities. But, when we build a technology, we make it available to the public openly and there’s nothing hidden. Breaking of information asymmetry is pivotal in bringing a change,” he says.
Some of the work done by Mapunity has been replicated in Indore, Hyderabad, Chennai and other cities. “We get many enquiries from abroad. We have given away our software to those in need. An official from Mozambique during a visit here took us to replicate the mobile traffic tracking system in his country and we set it up for him in just a day,” he recalls.
Currently, Pandian is working on tackling vehicle increase in Indian cities, which he says is faster than the human growth rate. “Studying the mere increment in vehicle population in isolation would serve no purpose,” says Pandian. “We study it in relation to space, the direction of a given city’s expansion, its impact on water resources and electricity demands. And also the pressure it’s going to have on public health.”
Big bang approach
Pandian suggests that every issue should be viewed in relation to many factors. “Social technology means not looking through every problem with the big bang approach. It’s more about breaking information barrier, building solutions, replicating and applying methods wherever possible,” he says. “Usually, we come up with a big bang solution and end up doing drastic changes. But, many a time, a small change would serve the matter and it’s just that the change needs to be executed periodically and over a period of time.” Pandian says that devising effective solutions depends greatly on making technology accessible to public. “When technology starts speaking to laymen and the government, it bridges the gap and becomes a powerful tool. It involves public participation,” he says. “We practise a method called ‘decision theatre’ through which we bring the issue into the citizen’s front and the public get sensitized.” He also moves the government to adopt technologies. “We need to create a basic understanding and then should build upon that to make people in power accept and take up our methods. But, many times, institutional support is lacking in our country,” he rues.
Last year, the Swedish embassy selected Mapunity for its sustainable mobility award and presented a cash award of Rs 7 lakh.