Monday, November 05, 2007

Socially Relevant S&T Projects for College Students of Kerala

I have been thinking of writing about this item for a long time now. This is regarding an initiative that I had played an active role in initiating, along with many KSSP friends. The idea of compiling a list of socially relevant projects stemmed from the idea that Dr. Achuthsankar raised in an article in shaasthragathy regarding how technology could help the society. The broad idea was to leverage the enthusiasm and plantiful availability of time among the science and technology students in the state, to develop technologies which could potentially make a difference to the state of affairs in Kerala (for good, obviously). Further, the idea was to focus on problems that only we would be able to address; i.e., problems that are special to Kerala and not to other parts. I should say we were successful in coming up with a bunch of such problems, and we used a wiki for the compilation. The wiki is open to all, and anybody can post ideas to the same. The live wiki is available at http://srprojects.wetpaint.com . Please feel free to update the same.

At some point of time, we thought that we would take a snapshot of the wiki and make a distributable version of it. Such a version is available here. This is a PDF that we are thinking of distributing to various colleges in Kerala; engineering colleges to start with. I had written up an article on the same with Dr. Achuthsankar and I would rather choose to paste it here instead of re-writing all the stuff again. Hope that you would find the compilation to be of some use. Signing off now.

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Socially Relevant Student Projects in Emerging Technologies for Kerala

Introducing a KSSP Initiative for encouraging Student Projects with Societal Benefits

Deepak P & Achuthsankar S Nair

“Engineers use creativity, technology, and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” –Wikipedia

Kerala has traditionally been in the forefront of research in India, with the large number of research centers such as RRL, TBGRI, RGCB, CESS, KFRI, KAU, CDS, VSSC, CTCRI, CIFT, NIO etc, some of which were setup during the Achutha Menon era. The tremendous amount of socially relevant innovation in centers in Kerala led to very interesting developments such as developing hybrid verities of crops, high-yielding cattle and so on. But surprisingly, we have not been able to catch up with the progress happening in the other states regarding developing technologies in the modern fields of science and technology such as Information Technologies, Computer Science etc. This is not to belittle the efforts which are on at centers such as C-DIT, CDAC Tvm, IIITMK, OSSICS etc, but the progress has been much slower as compared to the other neighboring states. The recent advancements in Information and Communication technologies have revolutionized the whole world of late, and the flood of opportunities that have been enabled by them can be harnessed to provide more value for our local society to make them world-class in whatever they are doing. The engineering academia in Kerala has not yet ramped up to grab the opportunities to make a difference to Kerala and her people; which is gravely unfortunate. Undergraduate engineering projects are being seen as opportunities to learn the “hot” technologies and build “cool” web-apps rather than contributing a reusable component or technology. This shift of focus has led to a situation wherein innovation at the student-level has become close to non-existent at engineering colleges in Kerala, especially in emerging technology areas such as Computer Science and Information Technology. To address this problem, Kerala Shaasthra Saahithya Parishad has been working on popularizing Socially Relevant Projects among undergraduate engineering students (and is to be broadened to beyond engineering students), and this article is to briefly make explicit the plethora of areas where innovation in computer science and information technology can make a difference to Kerala and her people. The following couple of paragraphs summarize certain ideas compiled as part of the initiative.

Language Computing in Malayalam

The Web is practically shielded from people who know only Malayalam. Although there are websites in various languages including Malayalam, the larger chunk of the web is still inaccessible to the above mentioned class of people. Automatic translation of web pages from English to Malayalam is one way of opening up the web to those said class of people. Further, computing in their own language would be much more preferable to a large chunk of people who are currently constrained to use English. There have been numerous efforts on enabling computing in Malayalam, notable among them being the Kaveri suite and the efforts at C-DIT and CDAC. But, there are areas where student projects could make a difference including
Automatic Machine Translation from English to Malayalam and vice versa
Text-To-Speech system for Malayalam
Voice Recognition System for Malayalam
Optical Character Recognition Software for Malayalam text
Some of the notable efforts to this end include those by C-DIT and OSSICS such as
WebDarshini – Malayalam Web Browser
Aksharavidya – Malayalam Editor
It may be noted that Kerala lags much behind its neighboring states in the development of such technologies. IIIT Hyderabad, Anna University, IIT Bombay, IBM Research etc have been contributing to the development of language technologies in various regional languages and in Hindi by making various frameworks and holding conferences for fostering research in the said area.

Technologies for Kerala and her People

Kerala is unique in many aspects, due to various reasons such as high density of population, high emigration, large forest area, a long coastline etc. All these present unique challenges in the emerging engineering disciplines. Some ideas include things such as the following
CocoPistol: Tender coconut stalls often have no idea of the tenderness of the coconuts until they cut open and until the buyer tastes, some times we get totally un-sweet water, sometimes the tenderness is not there, it is almost mature coconut. Maybe even when they pluck, they are not very clever at identifying the lot which is just ready (or is it that they cheat once in a while). Coco Pistol would be a small hand-held pistol which could be held on the husk and shot, wherein radar like operation in it will find out the ripeness in months and display it as a digit somewhere on the pistol. This could be used before plucking the coconuts, or be provided by the sellers to the customers to choose the nut they want.
Understanding and Predicting “Chakara”: Chakara, the unique phenomenon of fishes coming close to the coastline in Kerala has not been well-studied. Currently ocean researchers depend on costly buoys to monitor ocean parameters. Satellite data is available for certain extent, however not suitable for micro level analysis. Often the costly instruments and metal parts are stolen from buoys placed in the ocean. Another way of data collection is through cruises, whose costs are very high and require human presence in the ocean. The unique challenge would be to utilize a neural network or related mechanisms to take these incomplete data and use it to predict Chakara. NIO is associated with efforts in this regard.
Telephone to VoiceMail Services for contacting the Pravaasi: With the increasing number of pravaasy malayalis in various parts of the world, esp. the Gulf, the need for cost-effective frequent communication arises. The disparities such as much better internet accessibility among the pravaasis and special conditions such as very high density of telephone connections in Kerala and the high number of calls from Kerala to certain areas such as the Gulf pose some interesting challenges in this regard. The idea is to enable one-way communication from Kerala to places like the Gulf from the telephone lines in Kerala to the Internet Access Centers in such areas (thru the recipient's mail boxes).
Wireless Connectivity in an Undulated Terrain: Wireless connections currently work by using hot-spots, which are hubs enabling people within a certain distance of the hotspot to login to the internet. These have been shown not to work well in an undulated terrain such as what Kerala has, and thus, an effective solution for this problem would immensely benefit Kerala and its society.

Future Directions

These and many other ideas have been detailed at the page for the KSSP initiative at http://srprojects.wetpaint.com . The page contains details about the various projects listed therein too. The reader is welcome to go through it and contribute further ideas. The intent is to bring out a book on “An Invitation to Socially Relevant S&T Projects” as the next step of fuelling the Socially Relevant Projects initiative. We exhort you to contribute further project ideas in this regard, implement some of these as your own projects or point out efforts in similar directions so as to make this effort a truly collaborative effort in utilizing and exploiting the emerging technology areas to deliver value to Kerala and her people. The bottom-line is “efforts on addressing such Kerala specific issues can be initiated from nowhere apart from the Kerala academia itself”.

Acknowledgements: All KSSP members and friends who contributed to and encouraged the Socially Relevant Projects initiative.
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