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Nashik Kumbh mela opens floodgates of opportunities for tech innovators

Citizens use Kumbh as a platform to test technology, promote innovation culture

Bibhu Ranjan Mishra  |  Bengaluru 

Nashik Kumbh mela opens floodgates of opportunities for tech innovators

For ages, Kumbh Mela, one of the world's largest religious congregations, has been deeply associated with Hindu religious feelings. This time, when the Kumbh Mela that is going on in Nashik gets over, it could leave a lasting imprint on the city by instilling among local citizens a spirit of innovation, with technology at its forefront.

Thanks to initiatives taken by a few like Professor Ramesh Raskar, who heads the camera culture research group and MIT Media Lab in Boston, the quiet city along the river Godavari has for the first time institutionalised innovation with the so-called 'Kumbhathon', which kickstarted in January last year. The basic objective was to address the various problems faced during the festival, which spans several months, with the use of technology. The initiative included crowd management, patient monitoring, controlling epidemic, and sanitation, besides many other things.

The idea to leverage Kumbh for encouraging local innovation took shape at a time when Raskar was on a private visit to his hometown for Diwali in 2013. While brainstorming with a few friends on what they could do for the city, Sachin Pachorkar, a management professor at a local college, proposed leveraging Kumbh Mela for bringing a culture of innovation to Nashik. The discussion was carried forward and by January they were ready with the first innovation camp, with the help of Raskar, who also brought in some innovators from MIT Lab for support.

"We, together with Dr Raskar, realised cities could not get smarter... citizens could (get smarter) and then make the cities smarter," says Ashwin Kandoi, co-founder & director of Winjit, a Nashik-based IT services company.

They received around 850 applications from different engineering colleges in and around the area which came up with some 1,000 proposals to solve various challenges. After careful scrutiny, around 200 innovators were selected for the first innovation camp conducted in January 21-24 last year.

Since then, they have organised five camps, or Kumbhathons; and about 10 of the ideas that came up are being implemented during this year's Kumbh Mela. Many of the ideas that germinated during the Kumbhathons have now given birth to a number of start-ups in the holy city.

For example, one of the ideas that took shape was on controlling with the use of technology the spread of epidemics that are a usual problem at events where huge congregations are involved. The solution proposed by one of the participating teams was to develop epidemic tracker Epimetrics, an app that helps store patients' data on a central server. The data could then be analysed by experts to see if an epidemic was about to spread, and take necessary steps, such as stocking of medicines and informing hospitals in that area. The authorities could also know where the patients were coming from and the sources of their diseases.

RELIGIOUSLY TECHNICAL
Some ideas floated during Kumbhathons that have been implemented at this year’s Kumbh Mela
  • Epimetrics: A system to monitor health status in real time to control disease outbreak
  • Crowd steering using mobile towers: A real-time system that shows the flow of large crowds using mobile tower data
  • Meditracker: An app with information about hospitals, medical professionals and availability of beds
  • 3D Maps: Kumbh Mela maps that use easy-to-understand icons
  • Wiki Nashik: A Wikipedia page providing comprehensive information about Nashik
  • Nashik Trimbak Kumbha 2015: A digital interface providing in-depth detail about Kumbh Mela
  • GGTalk: A platform to upload images and send messages about incidents related to traffic, emergencies
  • Crowd Steering: A real-time people-counting system
  • Pop-up Housing: A new-age modular low-cost housing solution for needs in pop-up cities
  • Annadan: A platform for making provisions for donated food

Similarly, the local innovators have developed Meditracker, a fast aid and emergency health care app aiming to supplement emergency rescue operations. When one taps on the emergency button in the app, the nearest ambulance and medical crew find the person on the basis of his or her geographical location.

"The idea is that these should not stop after Kumbh; the innovation culture has to continue. Of the 200 ideas that generated during the Kumbhathons, 10 were taken to the next level on the basis of ease of implementing. These have actually become start-ups," adds Kandoi, whose company is rendering all tactical support, including providing office space out of his campus, to Kumbhathon volunteers.

Many large corporations are also bringing prototypes of high-tech machinery to all medical camps to reduce pressure on human factors. Some of the techniques being used involve checking saliva sample and oral health through sensors connected to mobile phones, and mobile devices that give ECG and blood pressure readings. There also are sensor-enabled mobile phones with cameras to help check lung health and eye infection.

Nashik Kumbh Mela has also given a huge platform for technology companies to test their newer technologies and apps. For example, TCS has introduced one of its WhatsApp like in-house social platform, Gappa Goshti (chitchat) to study the crowd mood and help authorities come out with various policy frameworks. Based on observations made by the volunteers using Gappa Goshti (GG Talk) app, the local administration has now banned taking selfies during the 'Shahi Snans', when the crowd gathering reaches its peak. To supplement the official Kumbh app, the volunteers have created a 3D map of the city, particularly the Saadhu Graam area, which works offline without internet connection. It has been given to the volunteers.

"We are implementing a wearable device that will be used in the vehicles of some 250 volunteers and officials, and fire brigades and ambulances. The device, which also has a 'watch mode', will track the location of these vehicles. With the help of devices that talk to the mobile app, one can send SOS messages during emergency to people configured on the app," says Sandip Shinde, co-founder & CEO, Kumbha Foundation.

Shinde, a programmer from Nashik who is employed by TCS in Pune, joined the first Kumbhathon and decided to work for the initiative on sabbatical. However, when TCS came to know about the initiative, he has now been allowed to work for Kumbhathon with his full salary benefits. In this role, he reports to the CTO and the CEO's office.

"It was difficult in terms of execution. The reason is that these innovations are not for a commercial purpose; they have social objectives. We have to collaborate with all stakeholders, such as government agencies and large corporate houses. The way we have worked will certainly inspire a lot of innovators in the future," says Pachorkar.

First Published: Mon, August 31 2015. 00:57 IST
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