Beacons of commerce in Dharavi

INTERACTIVE INTERFACE: Customers in the proximity of a beacon-enabled shop will get a notification in their smart phones via Bluetooth. —PHOTO: SHANTANU DAS  

Last May, Chinmay Parab, a second-year Master’s student of interaction design at the Industrial Design Center (IDC) in IIT Powai, was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did the leather craftsmen in the area have access to high-speed internet — usually a WiFi router shared between several shops near each other — they were adept at video chats and using apps like IMO and WhatsApp. They also used Google’s voice search because, as it turned out, most of them didn’t know to type or search by spelling. “Voice technology, or natural language processing, is the latest in the tech domain. It was very motivating for us to see that in the narrow lanes of Dharavi — otherwise a replica of what you see in the movies — people were so technologically advanced.” This gave him the validation he was seeking for his project.

Mr. Parab has developed a ‘physical web’ to help Dharavi’s entrepreneurs promote their business. The project, in collaboration with Swansea University in the UK, is part of Google’s Internet of Things Technology Research Award. The award was announced in February 2016. Prof. Matt Jones of Swansea University and Prof. Anirudha Joshi of IDC had applied for it, and the project was selected for a pilot in May. Once the experiments have been conducted, team members will submit their feedback and report, following which Google is expected to extend in-kind support to the successful projects.

The core of the project is a small device made by Google, called a ‘beacon’, 100 of which have been provided for the pilot. The beacon is a Bluetooth 4.0 device, that is mounted on a wall. It broadcasts a given web URL to anyone with a Bluetooth device within a range of 20 to 30 feet. How does it all work? Posters fixed on shop windows ask customers to turn on Bluetooth, location and internet data, and the physical web / nearby settings in the Chrome browser. When a customer is in the proximity of any such beacon-enabled shop, she will get a notification in her smart phone via Bluetooth. Within rage of the beacon, she gets a link to the website, where she can browse through the products available through an interactive interface, a custom-made app made at IIT-B. This tool, Mr. Parab says, is designed keeping in mind those who use basic apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. Prof. Joshi says the beacons can be programmed once and last for two to three years.

A small experiment

The idea for the project, Mr. Parab says, began when “we said to ourselves that trends in technology are generally accessible to people in Western countries or those who can afford them in India.” By 2020, it has been predicted that there will be 20 billion small devices all over the world. “Why can’t you give this access to people who have never use anything in their lives, and how can they use it to promote their business? How can we enable people to use the latest technology?” The goal, partly, is to change perceptions: “The image of Dharavi is that it is dirty, and full of poor people. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire have had a huge role to play in this. But there’s a self-sustaining economy here; the estimated turnover in 2015 was $1 billion. A lot of businesses are not registered so there are no actual numbers.” Prof. Joshi adds, “This is a small experiment to see if we can use technology to build perceptions about a place. Dharavi is not just about slums. It has a lot of businesses, and we wanted to bring this aspect out.” They wanted to see what kind of business opportunities this would enable for the entrepreneurs, on one side, and for customers, they wanted examine how perceptions can be changed by using ‘later-than-the-latest’ technology, not deployed anywhere in India or even in the world.

The installations, which began on Christmas Day, are taking more time than Mr. Parab anticipated; he should have had 30 devices up and running by now, but he’s managed only 11 so far. “We found external factors influencing its adoption: people were more worried about demonetisation. Some thought I was just another person making a pitch, and didn’t even listen. I had to explain what it will do and how it will benefit business and marketing.” Also, businesses in the area are traditional — passed on from generation to generation — and have regular customers, so the owners see no point in marketing. Only a few of them, those who had been exposed to e-commerce sites like Amazon and Snapdeal, were receptive.

For Mr. Parab, the best part of the project so far has been, in his words: “You put technology inside a black box which acts like magic for these people. We don’t tell them how the technology works; we just show them the front-end or the utility of it. Research has shown that people don’t adopt technology unless they find it useful.”

A walk through the leather goods market indicate that, overall, business is down. Though the streets outside buzz with traffic and pedestrians, the shop salesmen sit around waiting for customers, or stand near their shop windows, looking out longingly. Very few shop-owners had any idea about the project, this reporter found no signboards indicating its use either. Sahil Ansari, owner of Leather Corner, isn’t sure the device will draw customers just yet. “A lot of people discover Dharavi’s markets on YouTube. I’ve had customers come to my store and tell me they saw it there.” He says IIT asked him to try it out for about a month, and he allowed them to install it. The device sits smugly on the window sill of his mezzanine storehouse. The drawbacks, he says, are that it depends on passers-by having their Bluetooth turned on all the time, which most people don’t, since it is a drain on battery, and that it requires people to make changes in their Google settings. “But I can gradually upload up to 10 photos of my product using this method.”

‘A part of their lives’

Mr. Parab is confident that perceptions and knowledge will change, as it’s been only a few days since the devices were turned on. Asked if the various steps involved were not a deterrent, Prof. Joshi said there would be a certain interest to try out a new technology in the beginning, and gradually, it would become part of their lives. “We don’t know how successful it will be. We’re trying it out for the first time in Dharavi. We might get a clearer picture in a few months from now.” Academically, the project will be over in a few months, but the devices will remain with the users.

In the first phase of Mr. Parab’s plan, he is installing beacons in 30 of the nearly 200 shops in Dharavi’s leather markets. In phase two and three, he hopes to connect Kumbharwada, the potters’ colony, and the garment traders in the area as well. “Our expectation is that we can put up 1,000 beacons all over Dharavi,” he says. At the moment, he is preparing for a jury over the weekend, that will evaluate the project.

Whether the project does get the green light to expand or not, he has already learned something of value, he says. “The project taught me how to live my life and not complain about petty things. This may sound philosophical, but people here survive without worrying about tomorrow, and I learnt that from them.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 5:23:48 PM |

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