(Lightly edited for readability)
Speakers: Subhajit Bandyopadhyay, Preethi Jyothi, Jayashree Balasubramaniam, Subhra Priyadarshini
00:02 Support announcement: This episode is produced with support from DBT Wellcome Trust India Alliance.
00:30 Subhra Priyadarshini: The mobile phone. Yes, that’s the subject of our new podcast season. It’s ubiquitous, its indispensable, it’s almost like an extension of your hand. In many countries of the global south, such as India, the smartphone is a great example of technology leapfrog, as a vast majority of phone users never had a landline and were introduced to phones with the handheld phone.
And, of course, the increasing penetration of affordable mobile phones in developing countries is also making it possible for scientists to conduct meaningful and timely research, in the lab, in the field or while working from home, especially what we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am your host Subhra Priyadarshini, and in this new season of the Nature India podcast, I will explore how the mobile phone has changed India’s science-society dynamics as well as the way scientists, researchers and policy makers work. In today’s episode we will specifically look at smartphones as enablers of science and research. We will talk about the use of mobile phones for research and data collection, crowdsourcing and science education.
In short, does the lab have a place for the mobile phone? Let’s find out.
Up first, we talk of the use of mobile phones in a science laboratory setting. Convenient, right? When you don’t have a laptop handy. But can they also replace bulky, expensive scientific instruments in the lab or help set up labs, for instance, in remote places? We ask Subhajit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in the Department of Chemical Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, Kolkata.
2:37 Subhajit Bandyopadhyay: Oh, yes, of course. A mobile phone can be used as a great tool, because it has so many features. I teach chemistry, and we deal with a lot of problems that are associated with chemistry. So quite often, you use instruments called spectrophotometers. And what it does is, it would tell you, very simplistically, a lot about the intensity of light and how it various wavelengths and so on. Typical spectrophotometric would be quite expensive. So if in village schools where you don't really have a stable power supply, and if the funding situation is not that great. We have developed programs, which could be used by schoolchildren, to supplement spectrophotometers. And they can do certain experiments like chemical kinetics and stuff with these cell phones. So it's basically free. And it's really easy to use. And, you know, the precision would not be as good as the spectrophotometer. But it's pretty good.
3:38 Subhra Priyadarshini: Right. And while mobile apps can provide easy access to scientific information, analysis, or simulations, or making learning and experimentation more engaging and accessible, imagine if you are colour blind or have impaired vision and can’t differentiate between all the colourful liquids in a chemistry lab. Subhajit and his team developed a smartphone app that helps colour-blind and visually impaired students detect colour change in a routine lab experiment, thereby ensuring their active participation and independence in the lab.
6:11 Subhajit Bandyopadhyay: We developed this a few years ago. About 8% of the male population of the world is colour blind. And about 0.5% of the female population of the world is colour blind. Now that's, that's really a big number. I'm thinking of a classroom of 80 students or, or sometimes in big colleges, it's over 100 students, you have a large number of students who are colour blind. Now, these students cannot really perform the chemistry experiments, because very often this chemistry experiments would involve colours. For example, the basic experiment of titration, acid base titration, or redox titration would involve colours. So what we did was we basically use this mobile phone camera and translated the colour data to something which was easy for a student with color blindness to perceive. For example, when the there is a change in the colour from colourless to red, the screen would indicate the colour change. At the same time, there will be other indicators like beeping sound, or it would vibrate.
Really was a very rewarding experience for me. So a few years ago, I went to Vietnam and one of the students told me that he was colour blind. And he said, he uses a particular programme that helps him greatly, and he takes out the phone and shows me my programme. So it was really a wonderful experience for me.
The application records the colour information. Hue Saturation and Value colour space and when there is a change in colour, it basically says there is a colour change by various means like beep sounds or vibration pulses.
6:11 Subhra Priyadarshini: One of Subhajit’s students Balraj Rathod, now a PhD scholar at the University of British Columbia in Canada, helped the team make this app.
Now, mobile phones have also emerged as supplementary teaching methods by providing access to educational resources, remote communication and multimedia learning. Preethi Jyothi, a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at IIT Bombay uses it as a teaching aid.
6:53 Preethi Jyothi: So to give an example, smartphones now have lots of these built-in sensors. And using the sensors, you could teach fundamental concepts in physics, like, motion, and pressure, and so on. Typically abstract concepts, but using smartphones to make lab lessons applications involving these concepts would really reinforce the student's interest in learning,specific concepts. and also language learning. when you're trying to speak a new language, how to pronounce words, and so on, if you have apps on your smartphones, which will record what you're saying, and then give you instant feedback about how you're pronouncing certain words. That's a very powerful kind of tool. So I think science education, certainly mobile phones have a place.
7:35 Subhra Priyadarshini: And Preethi tell us a bit about the crowd sourced research, which has been your forte, along with your colleague Kameswari Chebrolu.
7:45 Preethi Jyothi: These days smartphones can also be used to gather data from people. And this could be because smartphones have GPS systems enabled, you could use it to gather data from people for various applications, like say traffic forecasting, or route planning and so on. I work on applying machine learning techniques for speech and language. And I'm specifically interested in building technologies for Indian languages. And so this app that we built that it's called clap, it's available on the Google Play Store. So this is an app via which you can be collected speech data from anyone who downloads this app. the volunteers would be asked to just read out these prompts. what we get immediately is parallel text with the corresponding speech from different speakers. unlike maybe other crowdsourcing platforms, which are very well known like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and so on, which actually have many users from India, what we have found is that platforms like Mechanical Turk, most of the users are urban users, this automatically excludes a large fraction of users. Smartphones, now the reach is so much wider. And so our idea was to be able to reach users across a very broad spectrum, spanning multiple demographics they're all already very comfortable with using mobile phones. And this is currently a big area of interest across kind of machine learning technologies that you don't want to be catering just to very small sections of users. And if you're building machine learning applications, it all everything that is driving the accuracy of the such applications is the data that is being used to train these applications.That was the motivation behind building such an app on a smartphone so that we could get data from diverse users, and then use that to train speech recognition and language technologies.
9:40 Subhra Priyadarshini: Certainly, phones are the new trainers and teachers. They also play a crucial role in disseminating scientific knowledge for various end users. Take the instance of farmers as consumers of scientific knowledge. Jayashree Balasubramaniam, who works in the business of communication at Reliance Foundation tells us more.
10:06 Jayashree Balasubramaniam: The whole context of using mobile phones to bridge a number of gaps, I think that's something that's really picked up, especially post-COVID, where people have not only broken down their own personal barriers, but I think technology has grown immensely. What has also happened is that we see a large number of people, especially from communities, like small and marginal farmers, looking at ways in which they can explore this, take, for instance, you know, something that's related to crop practices, or, you know, pests and disease or a package of practices that developed by agricultural research institutions, and that's actually to be used by farmers. So what's been happening is that the typical agricultural extension services has managed to reach out to farmers through physical modes, but given the limitations that, you know, situations, such as the COVID pandemic brought in, what happened was that farmers also had to kind of look at other ways to gather the same information. During, you know, the 2020, I think this was the only sector in India that actually kind of had a positive growth. And this was primarily thanks to the way that they had, you know, kind of leveraged their knowledge.
11:27 Subhra Priyadarshini: Agriculture sciences have been a great beneficiary of mobile phone use for data collection and surveys, crowdsourcing, education and dissemination. We’ll, of course, dedicate a full episode to talk about this unique use case. But Jayashree, do talk us through a few of these use cases in this field as you have been at the forefront of this use.
11:53 Jayashree Balasubramaniam: Take for instance, you know, access to mobile-based advisories. Now, one of the biggest barriers in actually reaching information to a community like a small and marginal farmer has been internet connectivity or mobile connectivity, or actually just the use of technology, the ability to use technology,we work with millions of farmers across the country, when we actually need to send out a message, it's not just given to them in a simple localized context and format, it's also given in multiple languages. So, I think breaking the language barrier has been like one of you know, the most important steps in reaching this information, besides of course, the penetration in internet connectivity, The second is actually looking at ways in which with low mobile connectivity or low internet connectivity areas, you can use simple methods, these could be you know, chatbots this could be voice messages, this could also be some sort of audio conferencing that happens, where with a limited bandwidth and with a limited physical presence, you can still kind of get your message across, what we found through you know, our work in in a number of locations is that not only is the knowledge used, but you know, 75% or most of the farmers who have actually received these you know, pieces of information at different points of time have reported that they have actually improved their livelihoods.
13:18 Subhra Priyadarshini: And you see an easy uptake of this scientific information by people who may not have been exposed to science at all?
13:27 Jayashree Balasubramaniam: The second part of this whole process is adding to the scientific information with some sort of, you know, physical demonstration, new seed varieties, crop practices,water efficient , climate resilient, practices that can help rural communities.For instance, we're looking at something like Go. And DVIR are like a normalized difference vegetation index, which is you using, you know, satellite imagery.How it can predict something like drought or other crop stresses, even before that, it actually happens, it makes a big difference in actually transmitting this information. So this information is not just, you know, looked at, as somebody who's watching it, observing it, and recording it in a lab with the use of satellite imagery, this is actually getting translated through mobile or messaging or through, you know, mobile platforms, it's also like, you know, rural communities, we're using it for micro entrepreneurship and other things, but here translating the scientific information in simple, digestible nuggets, that has made a big difference to the way they actually adapt it on the field.
Now, we look at how integrated information like, weather, there is some sort of an impending natural disaster, you know, floods or cyclones, for instance, there are fishing communities who are actually exposing themselves to risk on a day to day basis,we found that 97% of the fishing communities were who actually received preventive information about the weather, said that actually, they not just, you know, minimize their losses, but actually, a lot of them were able to take preventive action to save their livelihood.
15:07 Subhra Priyadarshini: 10 years back Abhijit Pakhare, a community medicine specialist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Bhopal and his colleagues analysed the use of mobile phones as research instruments for data collection in household surveys, clinical trials, surveillance and spatial data in global south countries. They inferred that mobile phones enabled economical, environment-friendly, faster and more accurate data collection for research. The limitations, however, were data entry errors, connectivity issues and of course the digital divide – all of which we will have a closer look at in our next episodes.
Ten years later, due to their widespread availability, affordability and connectivity, mobile phones are becoming extremely important to the process of science as much as science’s connect to society, as we have just heard through examples in the lab, in classrooms, in farming, fishing, rural communities. While urban users have to actually use apps for digital detox to keep away from potential negative effects of mobile use, science certainly benefits from these tiny devices. We will hear more on various aspects of scientific research benefitting from during this season.
Stay tuned, and give us a listen at your favourite podcast platform. This is Subhra Priyadarshini signing off from the Nature India podcast.
16:56 Support announcement: This episode was brought to you with support from DBT Wellcome Trust India Alliance.