I had the great honor of presenting during the morning session of the mBillionth Awards which annually celebrate mobile innovations in the South Asia region. To my surprise, the organizers, Osama Manzar and Madanmohan Rao asked me to give out the awards for the category of mobile in business and to say a few words at the awards gala, as well. I had luckily prepared to at least look the part.

There were truly great services and as the event ran three parallel streams showcasing various finalists, it was physically impossible for me to get to see it all. Therefore, this article can only be a ‘non-representative’ sampleof just some of the wonders that I saw. So let’s start with something familiar…

NANO GANESH SMS CONTROL OF IRRIGATION
Can you imagine being a farmer in some of the hottest locales in the world? In an emerging-world country like India? Where irrigating your farm is vital for the crops to survive, yet electrical supply is not steady and water needs to be carefully preserved? When the temperature is 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) you don’t want to walk the miles to your various water control valves and turn on the irrigation, and then walk again in the blistering sunlight to turn them off again. At times, due to electrical grid reliability issues, even if you turned the water on, the electricity might suddenly go off, and your pumps stop running. You think your crops are being watered, but in reality they aren’t, and your crop may be ruined. So these are the kinds of situations where Nano Ganesh comes in, introducing a wonderful farmer’s tool, SMS remote control of irrigation systems.

Think about this service for a moment and what it delivers. First of all, it saves water, a vital, precious resource in farming, and in very many regions, a resource that needs to be conserved. What of electricity? The system is far more precise, and as the whole irrigation system can be remotely controlled (from any basic handset, you don’t even need a smartphone!), in any changing conditions, the on/off switching of the systems can be done instantly. This means the pumps will not run needlessly while the farmer and perhaps his family run around the fields, manually turning on and off the equipment. The solution saves fuel, saving the farmer a trip across his fields with his tractor or a motorbike. Then there are the obviously huge savings in time and in labor. The farmers are significantly more efficient with this simple SMS-based solution that even the most uneducated farmhand can control. And lastly, and perhaps, most significantly for long term human sustainability, this solution helps reduce soil erosion from excess water use.

I think I first heard of this from one of the gurus, Jan Chipchase, and I have been a big fan of this service and spoken about it many times – especially after the 9th Unique Ability of Mobile was discovered (the ability to give digital interfaces to the real world). This is a perfect example of that, remotely and digitally controlling the valves and pumps for irrigation. Needless to say, when this is made in India and for the local farming needs, the actual remote controller systems are robust and versatile enough to handle a wide variety of farming conditions from irregular voltages in the electrical grid, to exposed wiring in the mechanical matters, to water effects that often are harmful with electricity, such as in areas of marshlands, and so on. The service is also multi-lingual with interfaces in English, Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi.

I met the CEO, Santosh Ostwal of the company called Ossian Agro Automation. He came from the audience to talk with me after my morning presentation, as my fan, unaware that I was already a fan of his work. It’s really a privilege to be able to tell stories of great innovations around the world, and then to get to meet many of those people who actually created them!

ALL EVENTS IN THE CITY

This was just a nice, little service that fills a big need. If you’re young, in the 15-35 age bracket, and would like to find out what’s happening tonight, at the bars and clubs, the discos and concert venues, wouldn’t it be nice to have one centralized service where ‘all events in the city’ would be visible, for you to easily choose what you want to do? Now it exists. The solution is built around Facebook as the ‘back end’ with multiple ways to access the info from desktop web to smartphone apps to basic mobile web and WAP. Event organizers can enter their info, the youth can go see what’s where, and whatever other information is available. Simple and perhaps ‘obvious’ but if you’re in this age group, wanting to go out every weekend, and your city doesn’t have this yet, you’d understand the need it’s filling. The system was designed by Amitech and uses the Allevents.in platform. It includes pretty much everything you’d expect and want, from email integration to RSS feeds.

SMS DICTIONARY

And yes, more utility still out of SMS. India is more than a country, it is often called a sub-continent. They have several dozen languages spoken as the primary language and obviously these language groups represent individual cultures, peoples, ‘nations’, if you will. Much like Europe with their French and Germans and Swedes and Poles and Hungarians and Estonians and Finns… So, when you have lots of languages, you need translations. And who can walk around with a bulky dictionary every day? In fact, in the Emerging World, who can afford to buy a printed dictionary? But every economically viable person on the planet today walks around with a mobile phone. Every mobile phone can do SMS. SMS can act as the conduit for entries and results in an automated translator service! This is by no means the first SMS translator, but it does go across 10 languages and is specific to India, so I do believe it is the only service of its kind. It covers Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Bengali, Sanskrit and English. The service is free and was designed by Khandbahale in India. It has 150,000 users already.

THEN LET’S GO TO MY PASSION, M-EDUCATION

One of the best things about the mBillionth Awards and its conference, is that (obviously) mobile learning is one of the categories. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of other valuable and useful areas like mobile health, m-Government etc., but regular readers know I have a passion for m-Edu and here I had the chance to sit in the session where the finalists of the m-Learning category were all showcased. I could easily argue any one of them deserved to win and could spend a long article on just this topic. Again, I will be brief, and mention a few standout services.

COOL IDEAS IN M-LEARNING: TOM

There were many (some other services, recognized in other categories, would or could also qualify for this topic). One came from Japan and was brought to India by Tata DOCOMO, the partnership between Tata of India and NTT DoCoMo of Japan. They created a service called Tata DoCoMo Tutor for On Mobile (called TOM). TOM is very smart and allows User-Generated-Content (UGC) portal and service, helping UGC to be used in teaching and learning situations. If you have a skill or mastery that you think could be useful, such as, how to change the oil in a given car, how to improve your golf swing, or some tutoring for subjects in school, this platform lets such ‘experts’ connect with interested ‘learners’. It can also be used by parents to help their children learn, by using modern digital communication and social media tools.

The TOM service runs on, of course, WAP – this is Emerging World mobile internet after all. It also runs on SMS, voice and IVR, and more advanced platforms like HTML web, video, and podcasts. As it’s a UGC (user generated content) platform, it supports many languages like Hindi, English, and Tamil. TOM is an especially nice way for NTT DoCoMo to bring its immense knowhow in mobile internet, social media, and user-generated content, to an education need in India. The people who generate UGC can be compensated as a revenue-sharing split, so yes, you can earn some pocket change from your skill. The service has 200,000 users.

M-EDU: BRIDGE-IT

BridgeIt is a joint project for helping teachers in the classroom. EZ Vidya joined with Nokia and the Pearson Foundation to bring digital interactive tech to classrooms that currently have TVs. By using Nokia Symbian based smartphones with TV-Out, the partnership has created a solution for teachers to help make classroom teaching more interactive. They also provide thousands of videos and classroom support materials to high school level schools. This has already spread to 104 schools for 193 teachers, reaching about 15,000 kids in classrooms. The teaching aide packages are available in English, Telugu and Tamil languages.

M-EDU: NIIT FOUNDATION

Then there’s NIIT Foundation, who has focused on helping very poor students study and practice their English. The problem in the very poor slums is there are not many chances to practice English, but being proficient in English skills is a way to get better jobs. So, the NIIT Foundation created a livelihood training package to help the youth living in slums to improve their English and find jobs. The mobile solution education segment includes quizzes, audio-video tutorials and pronunciation help, as well as a Hindi-English dictionary. The point is to let students use their mobile phones at whatever convenient time they find in their day, to practice and improve their English. Then there is the employment assistance component. The program will test the students and help them then find work. The service covers 17 slum communities in India, as well as 2 rural areas.

SMS FOR THE DEAF-BLIND

Imagine being not just deaf, but also blind. How can you possibly take part in modern society as we proceed into the digital age? That is where Bapsi the Bidirectional Access Promotion Society of India comes in. They developed a smartphone app running with some clever cloud computing services and SMS, on Android based smartphones, to give someone who is both deaf and blind, the ability to receive written communication. Not by any high tech braille-readers, but by using the vibration feature of the phone and Morse Code! Now the people can ‘feel’ the message coming in, one letter at a time. Can you imagine a life of not hearing, not seeing, and suddenly being able to receive written communications? I am completely behind this, not just for its obvious assistance to those who encounter so many challenges, but also – as a communications buff – the wonderful re-utilization of Morse Code. So, which method next makes a digital age comeback? Carrier pigeons? The Semaphore? Smoke signals?

IMPULSE FOR ANTI HUMAN TRAFFICKING

My absolute favorite service showcased, however, was this one, called ‘Impulse.’ This is run by the Impulse NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in India. It is very modest and simple, essentially on traditional PC based web, email, and tech agnostic voice calls (fixed voice, mobile voice, Skype etc). There is not much really ‘mobile’ about the service as such, except that almost all internet in rural India will be mobile internet and most phone calls in rural India will be mobile calls.

But what are they doing? Impulse is used to help stop human trafficking. They especially focus on the North Eastern part of India where young girls are often trafficked into the sex slave trade. They work on all aspects of the anti-human-trafficking issue, from helping save the girls, to catching the criminals, to prevention of the crime, and helping rehabilitate the victims. They work very closely with all formal government organizations, especially the local police force, and provide a bridge across different jurisdictions where one police department might not be aware of the criminal activities related to trafficking from a nearby region. You can imagine the work, continuous chasing of police departments (who in some cases will be aware, and can even be involved or taking bribes). The Impulse team works with all possible interested parties from the United Nations to organizations like the Women’s Forum, and have been at it for two decades.

What truly astonished and impressed me was that both the representatives of the Impulse team at the mBillionth Awards Gala were young women. I can’t start to imagine the hurdles a young woman will face, attempting to convince a police department of mostly men, to go after some rural gangsters for possible child trafficking offenses. Yet they persist in this valuable work and keep at it. They are true heroes.

If you, my reader, are involved in the social responsibility activities of your company, or work closely with the people who are, please draw their attention to Impulse. This is a great initiative. If you can get your company to help sponsor them or give them some assistance, this is one of those cases where lives are involved. Please look into their work at  www.impulseasia.org. And any journalists among my readers – here is a great story that needs to be told. Please consider researching and writing about Impulse.

Those were some quick thoughts from the mBillionth Awards in New Delhi. There were many entries and winners from other South Asian countries, but coincidentally all examples I took note of happened to be from India. So again, please don’t take this as a ‘representative’ sample, these were just some observations I made, on a truly wonderful day with the mobile industry and its award-winners.