It all started in the Tetherless Computing Lab at the University of Waterloo. Our research group led by Prof. S. Keshav prototyped an extremely low-cost software and hardware platform called KioskNet, for providing Internet connectivity in rural areas. The first pilot deployment was done in May 2006 in the village of Anandpuram in the Vizag district of Andhra Pradesh (India), and has since been followed by deployments in West Bengal (India) and Ghana (Africa).

But we soon realized that providing a communication infrastructure to rural areas is not even half of the story. It is useless unless appropriate applications are not built on this infrastructure. One of the most powerful applications to catalyze development is that of news. News media is of fundamental importance not only to improve democracy and responsible politics, but also to supply useful information to educate the rural population about health, entrepreneurship, and employment, and to give them a platform to voice their demands and opinions to government agencies and social development organizations.

Pieces of the vision fell into place when the Government of India announced the licensing process in 2007 to allow NGOs and educational institutions to set up community radio stations. Community Radio (or CR) is one of the most effective methods for education and media delivery. Radio is extremely low-cost and most people in rural India already own a radio-set, or at least, are close to one at restaurants and various public congregation places. Furthermore, community radio programming involves the local community in creating programs, which makes the content highly contextual for the rural population. This is much better than broadcasting radio or television programs at a national or even at a state level, because India being such a diverse country, each small village and town has its own context of understanding information.

Immediately after the CR licensing announcement, I got together with Mayank and Parminder, and wrote a proposal on how CR stations could be built using PC-based FM transmitters at a much lower cost than most commercially available radio transmitters, and how these stations in different villages could be connected together to the Internet using KioskNet or other low cost communication solutions. This combination of community radio and Internet connectivity becomes a very powerful concept, because not only can extremely contextual information be provided to rural areas through local radio stations, but the radio stations can be connected to government agencies, NGOs, agricultural research institutions, and news agencies, to supply useful information to the rural population. A reverse-channel from the villages to cities is also automatically enabled, to enable problems faced in rural areas become known to the rest of the world.

The progress from that point was straightforward. We collected all sorts of information about the state of radio in India, got in touch with many NGOs to understand their concerns, and the result was a proposal to start a non-profit organization called Gram-Vaani, which stands for voice-of-the-village. The aim of Gram-Vaani is to build low-cost technology for these radio stations, and to connect them with government agencies and NGOs who are looking for an outlet to supply information to rural areas. We call this an ecosystem of information producers and consumers. An ecosystem is really the most appropriate metaphor for our vision, because each entity in this ecosystem relies of other entities for its informational needs. Rural communities need educational information from NGOs and news about development schemes launched by the government, and the NGOs and governments in turn need feedback about the status and impact of their programs in rural areas. In fact, the ecosystem metaphor applies to practically all aspects of progress in economics and human development, because of the fundamental interconnectedness of all people in the world. Making the network of interconnections more efficient is really what we are trying to do in Gram-Vaani.

But this is only the beginning, When I look back over the last few years of my PhD and think how all these ideas came into being, I am amazed at how much our thinking has matured and how far we have come along. But I am even more amazed with the realization of the massive chasms that need to be bridged yet to turn our vision into a reality. This is really just the beginning even of the beginning! We are absolutely confident that we can build the technology. But that needs to be supplemented with actual groundwork by our collaborating NGOs who are in fact the only ones who can ensure that the technology gets used to its maximum potential. And that needs to be supplemented with a huge amount of work on our side in putting the information ecosystem together by bringing governments and NGOs and educational institutions on the same platform to participate and share information with each other. And when we think about the scale at which we want to operate, which is to help set up 6000 community radio stations all across India, 10 stations on an average per district, then the work to be done seems even more gargantuan. And the challenges never get easier, because in order to achieve this scale, we need to make each radio station financially sustainable. This means that we have to work not only with governments, but also with corporates looking to expand to the bottom-of-the-pyramid markets. Taking all our partners forward together towards one coherent vision will require a large amount of collaboration and understanding among all of us.

At this point, let me quote E.F.Schumacher from his book, Small is Beautiful, where he talks about helping the rural population of India.

For helping people to help themselves you need at least two persons to look after 100 and that means an obligation to raise ten million helpers, that is, the whole educated population of India.

The book was written in 1973 and statistics have changed since then. But the message remains the same. The scale of the problems faced in rural India is so huge that we need the educated and more aware sections of society to help us. And that means that we want you to help us. We want you to help us achieve this dream of a happier and prosperous India, free of poverty, unified in spirit, harmonious in existence, and to set an example to the rest of the world of how diversity can peacefully coexist even today.

Please check out the Collaborate and Get Involved sections on the website. And write to us with your ideas and please contribute to the discussions here. A journey of a thousand miles indeed begins with a small step. Join us on this journey and we promise that it will be very exciting and rewarding.