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Conference on ICTs for Differently-Abled/Underprivileged in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship

December 13, 2009

It has been 10 days after 1st National Conference on ICTs for Diffrently-Abled/Underprivileged in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship wound up at Layola College, Chennai. Since the Conference organizers Layola College and Center for Internet and Society didn’t bother to inform the participants or the world on what happened at the conference, I am writing down on what happened at a conference which could have made a difference in the field.

Since the conference addresses the need of accessibility and accessible technologies, let me start with a look into existing situation in the field. The cues of using different Information Communication Technologies for the empowerment of differently-abled has its root in successful implementation of these in Latin languages. Major communication technologies in use for improving accessibility range from Text to speech engines, Automatic Speech recognizer, Screen Readers etc. Open standard, including web standards play an important role in improving accessibility. Some other technologies like character recognition, have some roles in the field though not as direct as this. In the context of Indic Languages, Localisation , local language computing and localised assistive technologies also play a key role in increasing the accessibility of 1/6th of world population

The primary problem for lack of reach of advances of technology to the differentially-abled is penetration of technology. So, we should consider all those who work on improving the penetration of the technology as the primary component of any related discussions. For example, any text speech system is of no use along with a screen reader, if we don’t have enough screens which are localized to read. Internationalization of existing modules, so that it can have localized versions is also an important aspect. Along with many others the lack of localized screens remained an important reason for penetration of technology among the under privileged. In an Indian context, development of any useful system is heavily dependent on the availability of useful interfaces. Which adds another technology group working in localization/internationalization arena to the whole set of technology providers.

There are groups and/or individuals who had demonstrated and are working hard to introduce FOSS based solutions for the accessibility problems in India. Starting from cost advantage to sustainable development of the technology is the main reason for these demands for Open Standards and FOSS based solutions. Primary organizer of the conference is even a good advocate of open standards.

More over, if you consider ICT development in technology related to Indian Languages, development efforts are on for last 30 years. But, a useful system is not yet in place. Among many other factors, loss of existing knowledge is an important reason for this(precisely duplication of efforts). This could have been avoided if these systems were Free and Open Systems(there are many more reasons to it, but this is one important factor). Govt. is spending a lot of money on developing different systems for Indian Languages ranging from Robust OCRs/Handwriting recognition systems/Text to speech converters etc. Differently-abled communities are one of the direct benefactors of most of these technologies. To ensure sustainable development and use of technology, it was decided that these projects will be developed and implemented as FOSS solutions. But, later govt. added “Intellectual Property” as a measure of evaluating the project and this just negated the effects of development of sustainable and accessible commercial models on top of the Research and Development went into it. Fear of dying the technology developed along with termination of project is now again looks at the ones who continue to develop it.

In case of India, most of the interesting work came out/released so far on accessibility are done by non state actors. Though there are lot of organizations in the field and many issues are to be addressed from state policy to access to the technologies, co-ordination efforts were limited. So a National Level Conference with dedicated tracks on academics/technology, Workshops for differentially-abled, workshops for building accessible systems(web developers), workshops for NGOs including a tracks on Policy discussions and panel discussions is always expected to establish the much needed coordination and a communication pipeline between different players. In case of India, inclusion of the state and non-state actors in localization efforts and push to FOSS technologies is inevitable for a sustainable model. When it is conducted by credible organizations like Center for Internet and Society who support Open Standards and work for a govt. level policy, naturally we expect the conference to make a mark on the front.

Since the technologies for improving accessibility in Indian Languages is still in its infancy, it is expected from the conference to bring the different actors in the field together. On the contrary, due to faults in organizational activities and negligence from organizers, lot of names were missing from participants. I should say no organization who work FOSS related technologies for improving accessibility were represented. In short words, what could have become an important stepping stone in addressing issues in using ICTs for differently-abled, ended up as place to finalize details of pilot implementation of govt. developed technology at some centers(for which i don’t think such a conference was not required!). Though organizers had a chance of making a difference related to bringing all people together, if they plan a conference round table with out an agenda, i do have serious reservations about what they wanted from the conference.

Just as an example, I will take the OCR round table. They practically invited only OCR Consortium and Debayan Banerjee from technology developers side. That too most of the consortium members got invite on the first day of conference(they were even made to walk around for their TA). Only Debayan was there to represent all OCR developers outside consortium. About the proceedings of the Round Table, practically consortium presented details of the OCR project(including technological challenges, what we have achieved and small example of how on basis of Gurumukhi along with a demo). I still didn’t understand how they failed to invite everyone else! Even for Debayan(i think he got a chance to learn a lot) but for organizers i have no idea what they gained from him. They didn’t even give a chance to him to explain what he did. Interestingly, the organizers had no idea of what should be done. There was no agenda for round table. Mr. Deependra from National Association for Blind took the pain to note down the action points and decisions. Apart from finalizing the pilot implementation of consortium’s OCR at selected centers it was decided to start a mailing list of all round table members for future communication. Practically consortium didn’t gain much other than announcing to lot other people that we exist. Debayan might have gained a lot after the interaction with all the Professors. The ones who represented NAB and Access India also gained a little. Nothing was there in plate for anybody else.

The decision for a pilot implementation of consortium developed technology at the centers of NAB(?) was not a direct result of the conference or round table. Due to pressure from govt. to see its technology field tested somewhere, talks were on with NAB for sometime on possibilities. The conference just gave the final touches to the decisions. If you look from that angle, i am not quite sure what the organizers did in the whole round table exercise. Since they didn’t care to set an agenda for the meeting, i don’t think they have anything to their credit on this whole exercise.

Interestingly, everyone was interested in trying out the technology, in public or exclusive and unfortunately, govt. policies related to “Intellectual Property” had some effect there. Still i do believe the things we have in consortium product is very minimal and before concentrating on producing on top of it, we should concentrate on developing the existing technology. I believe we could only have an OCR frame work, not a complete OCR solution which will satisfy everyone. For different purposes, we may have to tune the components in framework. In that case, a tunable system framework should be the final target. The current development is nowhere near that target. As it was correctly explained in Round Table, currently it will be able to help only in conversions of large books. Only later revisions can handle the bigger challenges. Even the questions on time line of the project were not addressable because the consortium will exist only till the govt. supports it. But i would say, at least in these discussions, the consortium was happy to give away content if govt. allowed. They could be later addressed if we are able to address govt. policy. Since Center for Internet and Society stands for Open Standards and access to information and all, they could have taken up the responsibility of taking up the initiative of pressurizing the govt. to release the technology,data and code related to the consortium project. Unfortunately, the only representative of CIS(a lady, Ms.Nirmita) opened her mouth only when Mr. Deependra asked her some thing about coordinating the effort of consortium and NAB(i think, not sure). I would say CIS missed a chance there on making some difference on the scene, here they just helped finalizing some discussions which was on for a long time.

Third day i attended only for very less time. Interestingly, the round table was driven here not even by consortium, but a lady from SigmaSciTech. She had a wrapper for a proprietary sound API and practically she wanted all TTS engines to comply her standards. She was asking whether Dhwani will work with SAFA. Though people were pretty happy with Santhosh’s system, it was interesting to see, how the discussions were directed. I had to leave in between so didn’t get to know what finally happened.

In short, the conference just did the opposite of what it should have done. It helped in accelerating some processes, which I think might have happened even if they didn’t intervene. It did nothing on policy level, no decisions on lobbying govt. for freeing up its technologies related to accessibility(at the least). More over, it gave chance for some to play the big daddy or mommy in the field and dictate to people who work on the field on what to do(thankfully, at least consortium had enough thinking heads to counter it). This was a good opportunity for a lot of people to make a mark, and I do believe they indeed made a mark in their progress card, just that it is in red.

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മൊബൈലും വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥിയും

August 28, 2007

കുറച്ചു കാലത്തെ ഇടവേളക്കു ശേഷം കാലികപ്രസക്തമെന്നെനിക്ക് തോന്നിയ ഒരു വിഷയവുമായി,

ഈയടുത്തൊരു ദിവസം ടെലിവിഷനില്‍ കണ്ടൊരു പരിപാടിയാണ് എന്നെക്കൊണ്ടിതെഴുതിക്കുന്നത്. വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥിയും മൊബൈലും ആയിരുന്നു ആ ചര്‍ച്ചയുടെ വിഷയം. ചര്‍ച്ചയില്‍ പങ്കെടുത്ത മാര്‍ ഇവാനിയോസ് കോളേജിലെ വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥികളടക്കമുള്ള പലരുടെയും അഭിപ്രായം പുത്തന്‍ തലമുറ ഫോണുകള്‍ (വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥികള്‍ക്ക്) അനാവശ്യമാണെന്നായിരുന്നു. വൈദ്യുതി കനിയാഞ്ഞതു കാരണം പരിപാടി മുഴുവനും കാണാനായില്ല, അതുകൊണ്ട് ചര്‍ച്ച സംഗ്രഹിച്ചതെങ്ങനെ എന്നറിയാനായില്ല. എന്തായാലും കഴിഞ്ഞ നാലു വര്‍ഷം ഒരു പ്രൊഫഷണല്‍ ബിരുദ വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥിയായിരുന്ന ഈ ഞാനും അനുഭവത്തിന്റെ വെളിച്ചത്തില്‍ ചിലത് പറയട്ടെ. ചര്‍ച്ചയില്‍ പങ്കെടുത്ത പലരും ധരിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നതു പോലെ വിലകൂടിയ ഫോണുകളും അത്യന്താധുനിക സാങ്കേതിക വിദ്യയും സ്റ്റാറ്റസ് സിംബലല്ല മറിച്ച് ലോകം കൈവെള്ളയിലൊതുക്കാനുള്ള സങ്കേതങ്ങളാണ്. ചര്‍ച്ചയില്‍ പങ്കെടുത്ത അത്യന്തം പഠനതല്‍പ്പരരായ സുഹൃത്തുക്കള്‍ മാത്രമല്ല ക്യാമ്പസുകളിലുള്ളത്. മറിച്ച് ഒരു ഭൂരിഭാഗം (പഠനത്തോടൊപ്പം) ജീവിതം ആസ്വദിക്കുകയും ചെയ്യുന്നവരാണ്. ചിരിക്കുകയും കളിക്കുകയും ചെയ്യുന്ന മനുഷ്യജീവികള്‍. അവര്‍ക്ക് ജീവിതത്തിലെ അനശ്വര മുഹൂര്‍ത്തങ്ങള്‍ പകര്‍ത്താന്‍ ക്യാമറയും, സംഗീതം ആസ്വദിക്കാന്‍ മ്യൂസിക് പ്ലെയറും,ഇന്റര്‍നെറ്റുമായി ബന്ധപ്പെടാന്‍ മോഡവും, സര്‍വ്വോപരി ഫോണും, എല്ലാം ആയി പ്രവര്‍ത്തിക്കാന്‍ ഈ വിലയ്ക്ക്, ഈ വലുപ്പത്തില്‍ ഒരുപകരണം വേറെയുണ്ടോ? ഈ ലളിതമായ സമസ്യക്ക് എനിക്കൊരുത്തരം തരിക. സ്റ്റാറ്റസിനു വേണ്ടി ഇത്തരം ഫോണുകള്‍ കൊണ്ടു നടക്കുന്നവര്‍ വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥികളുടെ ഇടയില്‍ ന്യൂനപക്ഷമാണ്.

മൊബൈലിന്റെ ദുരുപയോഗം തടയാന്‍ ഹോസ്റ്റലുകള്‍ നടപടികള്‍ വല്ലതും സ്വീകരിക്കാറുണ്ടോ എന്ന ചോദ്യത്തിന് അഭിമാനത്തോടെ ഒരു വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥിനി പറഞ്ഞ ഉത്തരം എന്നെ അക്ഷരാര്‍ത്ഥത്തില്‍ ഞെട്ടിച്ചു കളഞ്ഞു. ഹോസ്റ്റലില്‍ മൊബൈല്‍ കൈവശം വയ്ക്കാന്‍ വാര്‍ഡന്‍ അനുവദിക്കാറില്ലത്രേ. അത്ര നിര്‍ബന്ധമുള്ളവര്‍ക്ക് വാര്‍ഡന്റെ കൈയ്യിലേല്‍പ്പിക്കാം. ഫോണ്‍ വരുമ്പോള്‍ വാര്‍ഡന്റെ മുമ്പില്‍ വച്ചു സംസാരിച്ചിട്ട് തിരിച്ചു കൊടുക്കണം. ഇങ്ങനെ മൊബൈലുപയോഗിക്കുന്ന സുഹൃത്തിനും കൂട്ടുകാര്‍ക്കും പുത്തന്‍ തലമുറയെന്നല്ല, മൊബൈല്‍ തന്നെ ആവശ്യമില്ല.അവര്‍ക്കൊക്കെ അത് കുരങ്ങന്റെ കൈയ്യിലുള്ള പൂമാലയാണ്. സാധാരണ മനുഷ്യരായി ജീവിക്കുകയും അവരെപ്പോലെ ചിന്തിക്കുകയും ചെയ്യുന്ന ഒരുപാടു വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥി സുഹൃത്തുക്കുളുണ്ട് ഈ കൊച്ചു കേരളത്തില്‍.അവര്‍ക്ക് മൊബൈല്‍ ഒരത്യാവശ്യമാണ്. സംസാരിക്കാനും, പരസ്പരം (സ്നേഹ)സന്ദേശം കൈമാറാനും മാത്രമല്ല, ജീവിതാഘോഷങ്ങളുടെ നേര്‍കാഴ്ചകള്‍ സൂക്ഷിക്കാന്‍, തന്നെ ത്രസിപ്പിച്ച ഈരടികള്‍ വീണ്ടും വീണ്ടും ആസ്വദിക്കാന്‍,ഒരിക്കലും തീരാത്ത മായകാഴ്ചകള്‍ക്കായി ഇന്റര്‍നെറ്റ് പരതാന്‍, അങ്ങനെ പലതിനും, നേരം കൊല്ലികളായ കളികളുടെ പേരില്‍ മത്സരം സംഘടിപ്പിക്കാനും, സോഫ്റ്റവേറിന്റെ ഉള്ളുകളികളിലേക്കിറങ്ങിച്ചെന്ന് തിരുത്താനും പോലും. അവര്‍ക്ക് മൊബൈല്‍ ഒഴിവാക്കാനാവാത്ത കൂട്ടാണ്. പഠിത്തം നന്നാക്കാനെന്ന പേരില്‍ വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥികളുടെ നേരെ നടക്കുന്ന ഇത്തരം ചെയ്തികള്‍ ക്കെതിരെ ആരും പ്രതികരിക്കാത്തതല്ല എന്നെ അത്ഭുതപ്പെടുത്തിയത്, വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥികള്‍ തന്നെ അതിനെ ന്യായീകരിക്കുന്നതാണ്. ഞാന്‍ കണ്ടിടത്തോളം, മൊബൈല്‍ കാരണം മാത്രം പഠിത്തം മോശമാവുന്ന ഒരു കുട്ടി പോലും ലോകത്തിലുണ്ടാവില്ല. പഠിക്കാന്‍ കഴിയാത്തവര്‍ക്ക്, മൊബൈലല്ലെങ്കില്‍ മറ്റൊരു കാരണം കാണും.

പിന്നെ ദുരുപയോഗം, വ്യക്തവും, ശക്തവുമായ നിയമങ്ങളുണ്ടായിട്ടും മൊബൈല്‍ ദുരുപയോഗം ചെയ്യപ്പെടുമ്പോള്‍, നമ്മുടെ നിയമവ്യവസ്ഥിതിയുടെ പ്രശ്നമായാണ് ഞാനത് കാണുന്നത്. ദുരുപയോഗങ്ങള്‍ റിപ്പോര്‍ട്ട് ചെയ്യപ്പെടുകയും, നടപടികളും ശിക്ഷകളുംഉണ്ടാവുകയും ചെയ്താല്‍ ഒരു പരിധി വരെ ഇത്തരം പ്രശ്നങ്ങള്‍ കുറക്കാനാവും. സാങ്കേതിക വിദ്യക്കനുസരിച്ച് നമ്മുടെ നിയമവ്യവസ്ഥിതിയും ഭരണസംവിധാനങ്ങളും വളരാത്തതാണെന്നു തോന്നുന്നു ഇതിനുള്ള തടസ്സം. പിന്നെ പോലീസിനോടിടപെടാന്‍ നമുക്കെല്ലാര്‍ക്കുമുള്ള മടിയും.

എറിയാനറിയാവുന്നവന്റെ കയ്യില്‍ വടി കൊടുക്കരുതെന്നപോലെ, വിദ്യാര്‍ത്ഥിക്ക് മൊബൈല്‍ കൊടുക്കരുതെന്നു വാശി പിടിക്കുന്നവരോട്, വടി പിടിക്കാനെങ്കിലും പഠിച്ച ശേഷം എറിയുന്നവരെ നന്നാക്കുക. മൊബൈല്‍ ഉപയോഗത്തില്‍ നിയന്ത്രണം വേണ്ടെന്നല്ല എന്റെ അഭിപ്രായം, നിയന്ത്രണവും, നിരോധനവും ഫലത്തില്‍ ഒന്നാവരുതെന്നാണ്. അതു ഗുണത്തേക്കാളേറെ ദോഷമേ ചെയ്യൂ. ഔചിത്യമില്ലാത്ത മൊബൈല്‍ ഉപയോഗം മാത്രമേ നിയന്ത്രിക്കേണ്ടതുള്ളൂ എന്നാണെന്റെ അഭിപ്രായം.

politics in campus: the need of time

July 15, 2007

I have read a lot, seen a lot and heard a lot about campus politics. When thinking with the open mind of student who is bothered about the situation of the country today, i have a small comment on the campus politics.

I just completed my professional course from one of the most criticized campuses of today in the name of campus politics. So i guess am eligible to propose a view on the fact. Banning politics in campus is just like banning internet for the thousands of websites with so called inappropriate content.

What am telling is, the most important part of the country’s administration system is legislature. It is where the decisions are taken and new rules are made. Other pillars of democracy, namely executive,judiciary and media; does the job of implementing and cross checking the decisions made by legislature. So by banning the politics in campuses what todays society aims at? Creating a uneducated legislature, so that it acts as a spoon in the arms of the enemies of the state?

The main problem authority rises about the campus politics is, violence in the process. The campus is mostly youngsters between 17 and 25, the hot and energetic period, in malayalam ചോര തിളയ്ക്കുന്ന പ്രായം. It is the duty of society and authorities to control law and order situation. If students are able to think about parents when any problem comes, then they will never go to make any violence in campus. Also if somebody is going to make problems in campus, then he will make that irrespective of politics. It is the duty of society to provide good political basis, election mechanism and facilities. It is never the right solution to ban politics in campus just because the society and authorities fail to implement it in the right way.

Kept in anyway, campus politics acts as a direct impression of what happens in the original society. Is it because of that authorities opposes campus politics? I don’t know. I can’t express all I wanted. Please post your comments. Then I guess I will be able to open me up better.

My first post

July 5, 2007

Life becomes hard nowadays, sitting home nothing to do makes me read more. I usually goes for novels. But this time I decided to closely follow the reports and articles of top stories in news papers. Within a day or two, what I understood was, if these people start writing fiction, then the lead writers of today have to look for something else. The interviews of important personalities are now live fed by channels. But we will be reading a totally different story of what we saw and heard the last day.
For those who cry about the dryness in Malayalam literature, here is the answer. People with good level of imagination is now with media.