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Tech it for a change

mumbai Updated: Feb 16, 2011 01:22 IST
Snehal Rebello
Snehal Rebello
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

It was a chance meeting with a visually challenged photographer in Paris six years ago that introduced Partho Bhowmick to their world of darkness.

Through 18 months of independent research thereafter on visual art and art forms, Bhowmick got inspired by the lives of at least 50 visually impaired artistes — from painters to filmmakers — around the world.

With this inspiration and a passion for photography, Bhowmick, founder, Beyond Sight Foundation in Kandivli, launched ‘Blind with Camera’ project in 2006. The project imparts basic and advanced tutorials on photography to the visually challenged through physical workshops and an e-school. “This project challenges perceptions and can inspire social change because it can be seen as a social equaliser,” said Bhowmick.

Bhowmick’s project is among 21 innovations shortlisted from across the country in the third edition of Genpact Nasscom Social Innovations Honours 2011. The selected innovations are based on the criteria of bringing about social change through the use of Information Communication Technology. The winners will be announced on February 8 in Mumbai.

Some of the other finalists are Sanjeevani Mobile Tele Oncology Unit that organises screening camps for detection and treatment for initial stage of cervical cancer, a Panini keypad that allows writing in an Indian language on the mobile phone faster than one in English on a similar phone, a Camera Mouse that helps visually impaired read small print on their home television screens as well as a Tsunami Early Warning System to monitor earthquakes in real time, around the globe.

“All the projects have outstanding potential to improve the current infrastructure of the society and create a better environment to live in,” said Rita Soni, chief executive officer, Nasscom Foundation. “Acknowledging these projects will also create awareness among young professionals to learn the art of giving back to society at the very beginning of their careers.”

It’s an idea to shoot without sight

This project is best described as an assimilation of existing technologies for the visually challenged available worldwide accompanied by learning photography through workshops and an e-school (www.blindwithcamera.org). From teaching the use of camera, video camera and even the mobile phone camera, the visually impaired are also familiarised with cameras especially manufactured for them. Run by a four-member team, the programme also offers Swell Paper Technology that essentially means raised printing. Here, an artist digitally sketches a photograph taken by a visually impaired person, in shades of black and grey. A printout of the photo is then put through heat treatment, which raises the black and grey shades in the image.

“The visually impaired can then run his fingers through the photograph along with an audio descriptions that are either pre-recorded or recorded with the help of volunteers,” said Partho Bhowmick, who heads the project.

The photographs are displayed at workshops that eventually translate into annual exhibitions in India and abroad. The project also guides sighted photographers to conduct photography workshops with local visually impaired persons. “It’s the non-visual senses that help the visually impaired build images in the mind. Therefore, its important to translate mental images into a medium unknown to the sighted,” said Bhowmick.

Empowerment movement

An advertisement issued by the city’s first clinic for Learning Disability (LD) at the LTMG Sion Hospital seeking sponsorships after their official funding was withdrawn in 2003 caught the attention of Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) and laid the foundation of their partnership. The partnership began with the TIS giving funds to buy computers, but it has helped the centre streamline its services.

The Patient Management Software helps the clinic maintain a record-cum-registry of students, who come to the clinic for LD diagnosis and certification, and to keep track of the entire process. The software has also created an archive of the records.

“Creation of the software is just one aspect,” said Albert Lewis, chief technological officer and head of business excellence at TIS. “Helping the cause of LD aligns with our core competencies and capability in e-learning and training.”

Approximately, 1,200 children with learning disabilities are now certified annually and about 200 additional schools register with the LD Clinic every year. With a core team of six, the TIS supported the clinic at the LTMG Sion Hospital till early 2010. The TIS now also supports the LD clinic at the KEM Hospital, Parel.

“In 2010, we extended the scope of these workshops to invitees from other districts in Maharashtra. Through these workshops, we provide a platform for increasing awareness of LD, networking and sharing knowledge, that can empower and enable invited participants to become ‘change agents’ in their cities and districts,” said Lewis.

New chip on the learning block is a tool to educate

This four-member team first tasted success for its software application ‘Explore’ last year when they claimed top position at the Accessibility Local Innovation Award at the Microsoft Imagine Cup.

“The education system finds itself handicapped when coping with children who are physically challenged,” said Samiran Saha, a final-year computer science engineering student.

“Our project aims at enabling such individuals to educate themselves and discover the virtual world of the computer by following the ‘learn, connect, share and collaborate’ principle.”

The programme is aimed at those who are blind, partially blind, colour blind, have low vision, basic cognitive problems or poor motor skills. Explore is based on automation and speech interfaces so as to allow easy interpretation of the web pages. Having started work on the application in 2009, the team has developed keyboard-simulated Braille on the existing keyboard with six keys acting as Braille keys. Using a combination of these keys, the text punched in by the visually impaired person will get translated into English or Hindi. Apart from being compatible with Windows, the software also allows access to social networking sites such as Facebook.

The team has scheduled real time deployment of the programme in July. “Initially, we intend to execute a random pilot run for the application, and later extend its scope on a nationwide scale,” said Saha.