Ansuja Madiwal, a 15-year-old student , always had an interest in computers, but was only allowed half an hour a day to experiment with and learn about one at her school in Dharavi in Mumbai. But that was before she joined the Dharavi Diary programme in 2014. Within a year, Ansuja was so proficient at coding, she built a mobile app called Women Fight Back to help women in distress. It offers SMS alerts, distress alarms, and emergency phone calls. Ansuja says it already has over a 100 downloads on Google Play Store.
Dharavi Diary, a slum innovation project for girls in the Naya Nagar neighbourhood, was started in 2014 by filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan. Using the open-source tool, MIT App Inventor, the group, now fondly called the Tech Girls of Dharavi, has developed mobile apps to tackle everyday problems.
“When we joined the programme we decided first to look at the problems that our neighbourhood and community faced and then build apps to address them,” Ansuja says.
Ranjan, who moved to India from San Francisco in 2014, says they are trying to build an individual server for the apps developed by the members of the project, before they can go live with the several apps in the pipeline.
In his office, a small room set among a maze of narrow lanes just off the main road, children work earnestly in groups of three with a series of laptops on the floor, each trying to come up with unique solutions to their neighbourhood's problems.
Take Paani hai Jeevan, an app developed by 14-year-old Fauzia Aslam Ansari, built to organise water collection for each household by setting up an online queue that alerts people when it’s their turn to fill water. “The biggest problem that we face here is that we get water every day for only about two hours, from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm. It often leads to fights because people try and move their buckets ahead of others in the queue when they move away to do something else,” explains Fauzia.
If enough users sign in to the app, she hopes a streamlined system can be created where people can save time and avoid arguments. “More importantly, for girls like me, we won't have to wait in queue for two hours to guard our place because the evening time is when we have to finish our homework,” she says.
Another app in development, called Clean and Green, has been built to facilitate a cleanliness drive in the neighbourhood. Through it, users can click pictures of locations in which garbage is being dumped outside of the designated dustbins and share it with the concerned authorities or report illegal activity, like the burning of plastic. It also allows people to log in and sign up for activities like a weekend clean-up drive.
A similar app, also in development, allows users to report instances of child labour, a problem the girls say still significantly affects their neighbourhood. And perhaps the most ambitious app that the girls are now working on is called Padhai which is eventually aimed at enabling people who haven't been to school, learn basic Hindi, English or Mathematics.
Mr. Ranjan, who used to teach at an art college in San Francisco, first got involved with the neighbourhood when he made a film titled Dharavi Diary in 2012 that documented the problems faced by people living there. Though it got screened in several film festivals, Mr Ranjan says he felt that it didn't actually make a difference to the people of Dharavi.
He set up the small computer lab in 2014 with the aim of helping young girls become changemakers, reasoning that it was only through technology that they could ‘create a new paradigm’. “We started with the premise that in every house there was at least one smartphone now, so mobile apps seemed the most logical idea,” he explains.
He taught the girls coding and also enrolled some of them in an online programme called the Technovation Challenge, which encourages young girls around the world build apps that address social problems.
The Dharavi Diary project started with a small group of 15 girls but now has over 200 children, including several boys, visiting the office at different shifts throughout the day.
The work that the Tech Girls are doing, Mr Ranjan says, is crucial now in the context of the narrative around Dharavi's redevelopment. “The parents of many of these girls are illiterate and not able to understand issues of urban design and planning. So it's hard to organise them to have a say when their areas eventually get taken over by builders and are redeveloped. But in a small way now, initiatives like this help in giving people a greater sense of participation and an awareness about the problems that they face and how they can devote resources to solving them.”