This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on October 12, 2017.
The other day I was scrolling through the government’s app store, which hosts 57 apps across 23 sectors. While there are a range of applications that focus on a smart management information system (MIS) for various departments and ministries, there seemed to be not enough apps for the frontline workers to reach out to the government or the outside world. In other words, there are a lot of apps with a top-down approach but not enough with a bottom-up approach.
With the government gung-ho about a Digital India and Smart India, and with many efforts to encourage Make in India, I would like to suggest a few apps that it can develop to bring in more accountability, transparency and efficiency. However, before that can happen, the government must also ensure that all its frontline workers have a smartphone. Let’s not ignore that in rural India cost is still a barrier to smartphone ownership; India currently has a smartphone user base of a little over 300 million.
No, I am not going to suggest anything unique or out-of-the-box. To me, these ideas seem simple, basic and needed. It’s actually a surprise they have not yet been developed and disseminated at a wide scale already.
Make panchayats smart: If the government gives a smartphone to every panchayat member in India, it will not only help bring 2.5 lakh panchayats online with a dedicated mobile app page, it will also bring 3 million elected representatives online. The app can create a forum for all panchayats to send daily updates about their work. [I say this from Digital Empowerment Foundation’s own experience. When we first created a WhatsApp group for our 200+ Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs), initially it was the usual active centres that responded with pictures and updates about their activities but it soon inspired even the otherwise less active CIRCs to do more and do better so that they, too, can share updates with their peers, get appreciation and feel encouraged.] The app should incorporate a feature to record live videos of gram sabhas’ monthly meetings to maintain accountability and allow citizens to view. Further, the panchayats can use the app for public announcements that can be received by the citizens as alerts on their mobile phones. Citizens should also be able to check status of their service delivery applications; submit grievances; and read about the activities undertaken by their local elected representatives.
Make ASHA workers smart: While there are already a lot of apps for frontline health workers, their penetration at a mass scale is low unless mandated by a district government or supervised by the intervention of an NGO. How about a national-level app that lists the tasks of 8.6 lakh accredited social health activists workers (ASHA) and 1.8 million anganwadi workers region-wise? An app that manages their task log with geo-tagging for accountability; helps them set reminders for their visits/tasks; receives government announcements as alerts; access pre-loaded audio-visual content to better mobilise community members; and connect with the community health centres for expert advice. At the citizens’ end, users can request an emergency visit by a frontline health worker; set reminders for their child’s next vaccination date; watch audio-visual content on health and childcare; and submit grievances to authorities against frontline health workers.
Make teachers smart: We’re talking about smart classes but how can a class become smart if its teachers aren’t smart enough? For the close to 7 million government school teachers, I suggest an app that enables them to submit their attendance online with geo-tagged locations. This will drastically bring down absence of government school teachers. The app should come built in with online teaching resources and share regular tips on pedagogy. The app should allow peer-to-peer interaction between school teachers at the block/district level to share updates and discuss pedagogy. There should also be provisions to submit grievances to the block officer and to mark a checklist of RTE compliances with geo-tagged photographs from the school. At the parents’ end, it should engage them with teachers in a dialogue remotely, thus bringing ministry of human resource development’s school management committees online through a ground-up approach.
Make self-help groups smart: There are a few government and private bodies that have already created an app that allows farmers and fishermen to sell their produce online, find out about market prices, and reach out to experts. Similar apps for SHGs are very few; and their penetration is even lower. So I suggest one app that becomes a market place for the more than 23 lakh SHGs that are promoted under National Rural Livelihoods Mission in India. Here, they can sell their produce online, access offline retail links, get advice from experts, receive alerts about government schemes or loans, and even engage in a peer-to-peer forum with other SHGs in the sector to share challenges, best practices and market information. At the buyers’ end, this app can allow them to buy products directly from the SHGs or speak to one for bulk orders.
Here, I would again like to remind you that I did not claim to come out with unique ideas. These are simple ideas, versions of which are already floating in the country but in a dispersed manner. My desktop research tells me that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, MyGov, MEAIndia, Postinfo App, Online RTI and Meri Sadak are some of the best received government apps. But how many of them truly serve the rural needs? The intention should be to develop holistic and comprehensive apps that are given to a sarpanch or an ASHA worker to download on their smartphones (with training) as soon as they take on their role. There is no denying that in rural communities, an app developed by the government will gain higher trust and penetration than a private app would—private apps also have the challenges of reaching out on a mass scale due to barriers of funding, language, geography and mass communication). Take BHIM app, for example. The financial service app has been adopted extensively across India because it is a well-developed app that serves its purpose well. The government’s marketing abilities and reach are strengths that must be leveraged for developing apps for those at the bottom of the pyramid.