Rangareddy in the state of Telangana is perhaps one of the few districts in the country where farmers use artificial intelligence (AI) to control pests and improve the quality of their cotton produce.
Telangana’s information technology electronics and communications (ITE&C) department, the Mumbai-based Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence — a non-profit research institute that uses AI solutions for the social good — and the NITI Aayog have together created a mobile application based on AI that allows cotton farmers to detect pests early in the product cycle and adopt remedial measures.
The app helps detect pink bollworm and American bollworm, two highly destructive pests. “Users were convinced that the AI-backed application would help reduce pest damage. Initial reports also suggest that farmers could improve the quality of their produce,” says Jayesh Ranjan, principal secretary in the state’s ITE&C department.
Buoyed by the initial success, the state government is rolling out the solution in six more districts, covering over 5,000 farmers.
The Telangana government intends to make the state a leader in emerging technologies, and a global AI hub. It has also deployed technology to ensure better services for citizens, zeroing in on AI, blockchain, machine learning, drones, cyber security, e-waste, 3D printing and satellite technology.
To be successful, AI needs huge databases. Telangana has therefore embarked on a massive data collection exercise (accompanied by an effort to digitise all departments), with a focus on priority use cases, Ranjan explains.
An app for pensioners
One example of the use of technology for providing better services is in the area of pensions. Take the example of Swathi Reddy (name changed), a retired school teacher and resident of Mahbubnagar. Until 2019, she needed to travel to the local post office or bank to generate the pensioner’s annual “life” certificate. Last year, however, she began using a mobile app to generate the certificate without stepping out of her home.
Pensioners merely need to take a selfie using a micro-app on their smartphone, provide their name and pension identity, and they will be issued a life certificate almost in real time. This is the first time in India that a government is using advanced technology for the convenience of pensioners.
The app, called Pensioner Life Certificate through Selfie, was launched in March 2019, and has verified over 80,000 pensioners out of a total of 300,000. Adoption of the app surged when the Covid-19 outbreak made visits to banks and post offices difficult.
The app works on three-factor authentication based on a demographic check, a photo and “liveness” (whether a person is alive), for which the state has leveraged AI, machine learning (ML), and deep learning.
Users have to enter their pension payment order identity, name, and voter identity details, and upload a photograph. To detect liveness, the app uses an AI algorithm that checks the depth, glare and texture of the photograph, to confirm whether or not the image uploaded is that of a living person.
To establish whether the picture uploaded is that of the person claiming the pension, the app uses Big Data and Entity Resolution-based demographic matching by extracting the person’s details from the pensioner database.
Finally, deep learning is used to compare the input photo with the base photo available, as the former may look very different from the latter owing to the pensioner’s advancing age.
“Our next attempt is to make sure that the process of entering data is a one-time effort. From next year pensioners need to use the app only for the liveness test,” says Ranjan.
One of Telangana’s most innovative uses of emerging technologies is in managing Covid-19. When the outbreak began in 2020, the ITE&C department created a dashboard using anonymised government datasets along with public datasets. It enabled government departments to take timely decisions on augmenting medical capacities and the unlocking of specified industries during the pandemic’s early phases.
“This time around the cases have been unprecedented, but we are still able to use last year’s system to keep tabs on movement of medicines from the central medical store to different hospitals. As we speak, we are adding more parameters to the system to give a real-time analysis of the infrastructure and situation,” adds Ranjan.
The road ahead
Ranjan says the ITE&C department’s key role is to identify the usefulness of emerging technologies for each department, create pilots, and — if they are successful — ensure that the department concerned takes it forward. It has earmarked 10-15 per cent of its budget for conducting pilots in the use of new technologies.
To this end the state government has leveraged the startup ecosystem, partnered with industry bodies such as Nasscom and the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association, and the NITI Aayog.
“All governments have stakeholders. Our outreach to stakeholders should be efficient, and technology is a tool that can be used to create this efficiency,” says Ranjan.
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