Founder of Google Mapmaker stresses on need for platforms that encourage people to help themselves with technology
Mumbai: Today, Google Maps is ubiquitous in India, having created a comprehensive database that maps not just cities, but smaller, rural areas, and the roads and places that network through them. It has proven to be a successful model across India. But the process of creating this started very simply. “It was just about creating the basic outline — the major roads running through the city, a few major lakes — and then people filled the rest in themselves,” says Lalitesh Katragadda, who was one of the founders of Google Mapmaker, and established Google operations in India.
Mr. Katragadda realised that India could be mapped because its citizens would respond strongly and fill in areas of their own communities themselves. The model is simple, Mr. Katragadda says. “It is visual, it is responsive to Indians in their own languages, and it is customisable.”
When Google Mapmaker launched in 2008, it seemed impossible to map developing countries because of their size and complexity. Mr. Katragadda was convinced it was possible. It is this same concept — what Mr. Katragadda calls “people helping themselves with technology” — that he believes can solve the problems India faces today. He delivered a talk in Mumbai on Friday at the ongoing INK and Deloitte SingularityU Summit about how India can leapfrog the obstacles to its development. Healthcare, education and public services can all use technology and citizens’ input, he said.
What if you could create an online education system where a mother, even though she is illiterate, can teach her child? Nandan and Rohini Nilekani’s startup, Ekstep, is doing this right now. “We move the child from being inside this sphere of ignorance to being a digital citizen. The moment they are a digital citizen, they will actually learn what they want to learn, and then the world is their oyster,” said Mr. Katragadda.
Capitalising on curiosity
“Human beings are born curious, before they are regimented in education systems and then lose this instinct. If we can capitalise on this through technology, it could aid in a love for learning and an increased level of literacy and education in the country,” he says.
For an efficient system
Technology can also assist in creating social safety nets, he says. “India is already moving towards providing basic income for everybody — NREGA is one step, and there will be others — and basic healthcare and education. Using steps like Aadhaar, UPI (Unified Payments Interface), E-sign, and Digital Locker, we can ensure that benefits, money and services reach their intended recipient, removing system oversights and corruption.”
Mr. Katragadda is also working on developing software and technology for Avanti, the micro-finance vehicle set up by Mr. Nilekani and Ratan Tata. “How do we provide loans without collateral to people who do not get three meals a day, and how do we create the service that allows poor people to uplift themselves?”
Mr. Katragadda acquired a Ph.D in robotics in 1997, a time when it was an esoteric pursuit that not many understood. Today, robotics is starting to become part of curricula. “However, we need to go beyond toy robotics and basics and look at science and technology as fundamental, and focus them to solve hard problems.”
It is exactly this he aims to do as he takes the proven model of Google Maps and explores its applicability. The secret is Indian people.
“If we actually create the platforms — not solutions, but platforms — where people can engage and solve their own problems, they will,” he says.