The solution is digital: Digital India holds the key to lasting social impact

Digital India gives India a leading edge in its response to the toughest social challenges, and in setting itself on the path to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.


By Steve Hellen

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN provide us with a vision for a fairer, more equitable world by ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The targets related to each of these goals sets out several paths for all of us to follow in the mission to achieve the overall goals.

The core vision of the SDGs that we should ‘Leave No One Behind’ is matched by India’s own national development policies of sab ka saath, sab ka vikas or ‘development with all, and for all’. This alignment recognises not just the transformative effect that the SDGs can have on the “social, economic and environmental linkages that define our lives” in India, but in India’s sustainability leadership in the world.  

 The solution is digital: Digital India holds the key to lasting social impact

The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Image: UN

With the Digital India programme, we have a framework that uses technology as a great leveler. It is a sector-agnostic tool, made increasingly more accessible to all thanks to increased rural electrification and decreasing mobile data costs, as well as growing mobile and broadband internet penetration in both urban and rural settings.

Its citizen-centricity is also a crucial asset. All levels of society are engaged in the vision, are committed to its principles and are responsible custodians of its products and services, whether students hacking solutions to social challenges in a hackathon, NGOs skilling rural youth for jobs through cloud technology, or private enterprise partnering with governments and civil society to share their latest tech and apply it to development problems. This is a model that hold the key to lasting impact in India, but this is far from limited to only India; it can be a model for others to follow around the world.

Aadhar is just one fantastic example of how Digital India is already paying dividends for social development through digital innovation. By registering 1.25 billion people on the central digital identification system, the Indian government is able not only to distribute welfare services more efficiently to those who need it most, it is also able to save money by reducing corruption and targeting its services effectively.   

Aadhaar

Aadhaar is an example of how Digital India is already paying dividends for social development

Yet not all effective tech solutions are on such a large scale. Programmes across Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka have engaged a simple mobile application as a learning tool for accredited social health activists (ASHAs) to improve service delivery to rural expectant mothers. The app uses simple audio-visual messages, easily played on a standard phone provided to the ASHAs, which enable them to better advise patients on their health during pregnancy. Over a two-year period, the frequency of home visits by ASHAs doubled, expectant mothers’ knowledge of pregnancy danger signs also improved by 43%, as well as attendance at antenatal check-ups – over the course of the project expectant mothers undergoing three or more antenatal check-ups increased by 58%.

Mobile applications have also shown impact for farmers in Andhra Pradesh. A mobile app and interactive dashboard developed using a big data and advanced analytics suite, helps farmers to transform data about fluctuating markets and variable monsoons into intelligent action to increase farm productivity, profitability and manage risks. The pilot project for the groundnut crop saw a 30% higher average in yield per hectare – showing the potential for digital agriculture as a path forward in line with Digital India.

Cloud technology has transformed the way in which educational services are provided to rural populations on unreliable internet connections. In North-East India, NGOs are working with corporate partners to train rural youth in job-specific ICT and spoken English skills so that they can develop sustainable livelihoods. The entire curriculum is downloadable from the cloud so that while internet connections work, students can use VoIP to practice their English with tutors and while it’s slow they can complete offline exercises. Over the past eight years of the programme, 40,000 young people have been placed in jobs through this initiative.  

Syrian refugee children hide under a cover on a wheelchair, as they connect to international aid organisations' WIFI, in Zaatari refugee camp near the border with Syria, in Mafraq, Jordan October 9, 2016. Image: Reuters/Ammar Awad.

Syrian refugee children hide under a cover on a wheelchair, as they connect to international aid organisations' WiFi, in Zaatari refugee camp near the border with Syria, in Mafraq, Jordan October 9, 2016. Image: Reuters/Ammar Awad.

The effective deployment of services and aid can also be managed through frontier technology in a disaster management situation. The Syrian Refugee Crisis is a case in point, where international NGOs are working to build the infrastructure to provide free wifi in refugee camps across Europe, as well as providing multi-lingual online platforms designed specifically for refugees’ needs. This helps to keep families connected wherever they are, keep refugees up to date on the news from their home countries, and provide critical advice for the journey ahead.

More such Information and Communication Technology solutions for development challenges (commonly called ICT4D) are already in the pipeline; indeed the reality is that the digital development ecosystem is already past its global pilot stage and services are expanding at scale in many places. Still more can be leveraged under the Digital India banner when we come together across sectors to share our insights, best practice and latest innovations in the mission to address global development issues.

The author is the Director of ICT4D & GIS, Catholic Relief Services (CRS). CRS is a founding partner of the ICT4D Conference to be held in Hyderabad 15-18 May 2017.


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