Global Handwashing Day: Robot inspires children to wash hands in Kerala school, pan-India rollout of ‘Pepe’ soon
It is a fact our hand-washing habit is abysmally poor, especially in rural areas of the country. Children are worst affected and they fall prey to many diarrhea and respiratory diseases due to this, medical practitioners say. To contain this malady, Amrita Viswa Vidyapeetham in Kerala and Glasgow University in Scotland have jointly developed a robot called ‘Pepe’ which encourages school children to wash their hands properly.
Installed on pilot basis in a government primary school in Wayanad in north Kerala ‘Pepe’ is a runaway hit. Now it is set for the all India roll out. Besides Kerala five states: Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhnand, Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh have evinced interest to install it in their schools and villages, said Dr Bhwani Rao, director of Amrita Multi-model Application and Computer Human- Interaction wing of the Amrita Viswa Vidyapeetam, a deemed university head quartered in Kollam, south Kerala.
In Chitragiri Government Primary School in Kalpetta (Wayanad district) the hand-shaped ‘Pepe ‘was mounted on wall near the washroom and teachers say after its arrival children between five and 12 made it a habit to visit it at least three times during the school time.
Let us see how the robot works? A small video screen is mounted behind Pepe’s green plastic exterior and it will act like a mouth interacting with the people who come near it. It will give a small lesson on importance of hand-washing and how it can be done. A set of rolling eyes on the robot gives an impression that Pepe is talking to you personally.
“Pepe interacted with the children in their local language, Malayalam, and hand-washing with soap and better hygiene practices went up dramatically. The message etches in young minds effectively. Our aim is to contain infections that spread through untidy hands,” said Dr Bhwani Rao.
“It is fun. The robot interacts with children as a friend. We found its social messages have a deep impact in youngsters. Now at least 95% of the students know when to wash hands using soaps,” said head teacher of the school PR Usha. The novelty and local language factors made the robot an instant success, she said adding many parents complained that usage of soap bars increased in their houses.
“Rural populations in developing countries have limited exposure and access to technologies due to their remote geography and reduced economic background. Social robots can potentially create a positive impact on their lives_ handwashing with soap is an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives,” said Dr Amol Deshmukh of the University of Glasgow.
“Look, pilot projects like this investigate how robotics can help address common challenges facing low-income rural communities in India and worldwide. In future research will focus on developing the autonomous technology for the social robotics,” said Dr Rao.
According to the World Health Organisation data at least 1300 children die in the world, including 320 in India, every day due to diarrhea and respiratory infection related diseases. Proper hand-washing habit is an effective tool to contain these deaths. Interestingly October 15 is the ‘Global Handwashing Day’ and officials working with the global public private partnership initiative said respiratory and intestinal diseases can be reduced 25-50 per cent if there is healthy hand-washing habit.