Janastu Providing FOSS & support since 1999, our rural research lab http://iruway.janastu.org

A case for a Webinar Pi

Can technology end poverty? ..Technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. – Kentaro Toyama


We have been making a case for storytelling and making as essential for inclusive development. Our rural ecosystem is losing voice due to the distance created between the textually prolific internet and the low literate. An inclusive platform will also have to accomodate creation, discovery and navigation of low-literate expressions. Personal devices can then be extensions of community owned network devices. This update is a step in that direction. Our primary objective is to encourage rural women, students, young women in traditional labor and skill contexts - typically low literate and unconnected or unable to discover or publish useful content on the Internet, to find purposeful online communities to actively engage with for their collective needs of skill development and entrepreneurial aspirations.

The Webinar Pi casing with hand-painted skin from local artists

We have also been making a case for Wi-Fi mesh networks since tsunami havoc of 2004 [cowmesh]. Over the last decade, we have progressively conceptualised and worked on tools with low-literate people in mind [alipi]. Culminating in encouraging the use of mesh networks for services such as knowledge base and annotations for low literate community needs for media making, archiving and retrieval using a number of approaches.

The webinar pi setup with the Speakers, Screen, wireless keyboard and webcam

Pandemic posing new challenges

Our team (Dinesh and Shalini) visited Mirzapur for community outreach and identifying local partners to help develop such networks. Just in time, India went into lockdown, posing new challenges. However, that didn’t hamper our spirit and we looked at it as opportunity to find immediate needs of the communities. While schools and educational institutions were contemplating on remote / online education, we were staring at questions of access to technology amongst our cohorts in mirzapur.

The assembly of all peripherals inside the casing

Why not phones or laptops

On a practical level, Smartphones are inherently personal devices which make them difficult to share across groups of students in an educational setting. There are also certain social regulations and stigmas around who can use smartphones especially for young girls. A smartphone is further more a very portable but limited platform in terms of its flexibility for more complex and custom tasks, like down the line the girls want to print something or learn how to type, smartphone becomes rather limited in that sense. Perhaps the biggest issue with smartphone is that it cannot be used to create new technologies itself, You cannot (practically) code on it or connect a wide variety of peripherals for your use. Some of these issues are alleviated by cheap laptops at the expense of portability and ease of use. Laptops make a better device to use in groups and share, also tinker to an extent. Although laptops have their own social limitations and an inherit value system attached as an exclusive, ‘expensive’, ‘serious’ devices which can hinder the ability to play and experiment for the learners.

Geeta Mahalingapur from Janastu conducting sessions with the girls at mirzapur

Both of these solutions come from a mindset of digital devices being a black box, There is an implied hierarchy of the technology and its users, where the user can only learn how to best make use of it without being able to understand how things function underneath. Digital literacy cannot happen without transparency and knowledge of how these devices work. Using a closed platform fails to give the learners ability to imagine new possibilities.

Our goal with the project is not to just make the girls better users of existing tech and services but also enable them to question existing uses, imagine new ways of using technology and learn how to play with technology to do what probably no one around them had done before.

The values like play, tinkering, openness and access become important for the platform we want to chose for the girls, Over last few months we have been playing with such one platform, we call it the Webinar Pi built on top of the Raspberry Pi.

Mindmap illustration of the Girl’s game plan to make a ideal village

A peek at the session where our facilitators (Geeta, Shafali, Micah) showinf some mindmapping techniques and tools for organising ideas

Reference links

  1. Suno Suno, First field visti to Mirzapur and observations. https://hackmd.io/@sagesalus/SyTUZmKoU / https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/feb2631eb3ea489eb019ffb8282396f6
  2. Open SOurce as infrastructure http://wiki.janastu.org/wiki/Open_Source_as_Infrastructure
  3. May June Mirzapur project report - https://hackmd.io/@tbdinesh/BJAfImaTI
  4. cowmesh Janastu and Servelots have been engaging with WiFi-mesh networking since 2004 after the tsunami havoc on the east coast of south India. We started working with friends from the Freifunk community and other organisations working on rehabilitation-related networking needs. After the Dharamsala Wi-Fi Summit in 2006, volunteers worked with students and local communities to set up urban mesh networks similar to those of Freifunk. The Follow the Sheep project project with a pastoral network in India experimented with tiny mesh networks at nomadic shepherd camps in 2010.

  5. alipi Over the last decade, we have progressively conceptuatised and worked on tools with low-literate people in mind. A11y.in (Accessibility guidelines for inclusion on the Web), Follow the Sheep app (BaaApp), Audio annotation tools (Papad), Sweet Web, Community radio, Annotations and archives, mesh networks and anthillhacks.

  6. support Thanks to community of support in various forms. To name a few.. Rotary, Commotion, APC, W4P, local Devarayanadurga community, iruway farm, and Anthillhacks participants.

acknowledgments Team Janastu, Servelots, interns, volunteers and friends. To name a few.. Yatharth, Micah, Shafali, Bhanu, Shalini, Sanketh, Upasana, Geeta, Mani, Athithya, Arun, Manoj, ..