What is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

‘Zero Hunger’ is the second sustainable development goal, the first being no poverty. The key to achieving both these goals lies in ‘all people at all times having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food  that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’, which is how ‘food security’ is defined as. And what holds the key to food security is agriculture, on which around 40 per cent of our population directly depends on for their livelihood. Given that agriculture and food security are such key concerns, how is our Government planning for it, how much are we investing in it, and what does our union budget have to say about that? These were some of the questions tackled by Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, Professor at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore, in her lecture on ‘Food security and agriculture: Implications of current policy and budget’. The lecture was organised by our neighbour in south Bangalore, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, as part their annual lecture series on budgets.

Even before going into issues of access, the first question that comes up when it comes to food security is do we have enough? Do we have sufficient food to feed a population of little more than a billion people? According to Dr. Madhura, up to the 90s the answer to that question was yes. The graph of food production she showed hovered above the line tracking our population growth. But after the 90s, the situation reversed, which is bad news for both sides — those who grow food and those who eat food.

How badly have the producers of food been affected? For starters, there is little data on income of producers, said Dr. Madhura. To address this paucity of data, a group of scholars including Dr. Madhura conducted detailed surveys of 5000 households in 22 villages as part of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI). From the income data collected, Dr. Madhura highlighted two observations — one of extreme inequality. In the same village there are farmers who earn around Rs. 29 lakh a year, and others who barely make do. The other was of what she termed as ‘negative income’, where what you earned was less than what you spent. A significant number of farmer households have negative incomes. This leads farmers to abandon farming entirely, which exacerbates the situation we have now where already the food we produce isn’t enough for us all to be food secure.

Why?

Why is agriculture not making profits for these small (less than 2 hectare holding size) and marginal (less than one hectare holding size) farmers? First is that the input costs (seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc) have shot up, something that is particularly hard on the small and marginal farmers. Second, the Minimum Support Price set by the Government isn’t enough to compensate for the investments that have gone in.

What then is the Government doing?

Not nearly enough, said Dr. Madhura. Though newspaper headlines hailed an almost 94 per cent increase in Government spending on agriculture, she said the increase was the result of some deft statistical jugglery with ‘interest subvention’. When the Government gives banks money so that they can then lend to farmers (or any sector) at a reduced rate of interest, it is termed as ‘interest subvention’. The money allocated thus for interest subvention goes to the banks, and not to farmers directly. The amount Government allocates for interest subvention for agriculture was earlier not added to the agricultural budget, but this year it was. And the sum of Rs. 15,000 crore allocated to interest subvention accounts for the gigantic leap into agricultural acchedin. What happens if you remove that figure? What you the get is an increase of around Rs. 7000 crore, which would not have garnered the kind of headlines that the budget did. (For a detailed analysis of why the allocation ‘math for the agricultural sector in the budget doesn’t add up’, go here.)

If we take away the interest subvention, does the figures still indicate an increased spending in agriculture?

If you look at spending in agriculture as a percentage of GDP, in 2012-13, it was 0.3 and in 2016-17 it is again 0.3. Therefore, it isn’t a big difference from what has happened earlier.

But the interest subvention has been increased from Rs. 13,000 crore to Rs. 15,000 crore. Isn’t that a good thing?

Apparently not, said Dr. Madhura. As mentioned earlier, the money given for interest subvention goes to the banks and not the farmers. One study shows that most credit goes to urban and metropolitan banks rather than rural banks and is disbursed to either large farmers or even large corporates. For instance, if a soft drink company wants to put up an irrigation system, it would be eligible for a loan. Therefore, the small and marginal farmers, who are in dire need of timely and affordable credit, are not the main beneficiaries. (For more on how ‘rural’ is agricultural credit, go here. The op-ed piece draws from studies by the same authors Dr. Madhura referred to.)

In this scenario, what happens to people who need food? We are worse off than all our neighbours when it comes to malnutrition figures, and so there is no question that there are a large number of desperate people who need immediate attention.

What are we doing for nearly 30 per cent of India’s children who are underweight? (For more on the ‘overlooked malnutrition crisis in India’, go here.)

Not much, according to Dr. Madhura. There has been a gradual policy shift toward targeted schemes, where the Government ‘targets’ who needs attention, rather than go toward universal food security. Now targeting has two kinds of errors – errors of inclusion and exclusion. If those who don’t need subsidised food get it, it is an error of inclusion. If those who need it don’t get it, it is an error of exclusion. The focus has been on errors of inclusion, because you can estimate financially what that error costs you. On the other hand, the error of exclusion is tricky.

For example, what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

What happens when people who need the food don’t get it? Malnutrition, disease, inter-generational issues — all these are intangibles, and therefore difficult to put a cost on. Numbers can prove to be tyrannical. Easily quantifiable, something that can be plotted in graphs and charts is tangible, and something that evades that kind of easy quantification becomes an almost ephemeral entity. If there is no calculable cost to not giving children food they need, then it becomes intangible, a non-headline grabbing entity that fades into and falls off the margins.

Before asking the question of what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children, the, more crucial question becomes, should we know the answer to that to make us do something about it?

A Report on the Panel

As discussed earlier, we finally settled on an electronic panel to play the role of an information gathering tool to facilitate informal reporting of harassment cases. We faced many challenges in designing this panel; it had to overcome a multitude of obstacles before it could be relevant and useful for our cause-  technical and beyond. In this post, how we tackled said challenges in order to materialize our working prototype is discussed. The prototype itself receives the spotlight, of course!

Lets start off by looking at what meets the eye at first glance.

frontview

Well, it’s not much. And that’s the idea! Partly inspired by an ATM machine, navigation through the report is done using only the ten large buttons on either side of the screen. As a large chunk of our target audience has limited literacy, our device had to be kept nonintimidating and easy to use.
The fact that the report consisted only of objective choices hit two birds with one stone. One, it made interpreting the data and quantifying attributes of the problem easier. Two, it drastically reduced the complexity of reporting itself, allowing us to make usage of the device simple and clear.

Keeping in mind the advice we were given at the interview with Microsoft Research[1], we decided to minimize the layers of abstraction between the input mechanism and the changes it created on the screen. This was done by having large, well spaced physical buttons mapped unambigously to options on the screen right next to them. A touch screen would have been ideal to use in this scenario, but impractical due to another constraint, which brings me nicely to my next point.

The other major constraint we had to grapple with was cost. While it was all well and good to declare touch screens as the ideal input mechanism, we had to bear in mind that to be implemented on a large scale and to be relevant for day-to-day use in general public space, it had to be robust and cheap. This ruled out touch screens (which were relatively high-end and more prone to failure with the wear and tear of heavy use by the public), and made a simple, low-cost, sturdy, easily replaceable button system seem that much more attractive.

Moving on to the reporting itself, the process is basically registering the most relevant option on the screen as an answer to the question on that slide.

6what_r

The first slide is to select the language for the rest of the report to proceed in, and the second is a welcome screen that establishes context for the benefit of the user. Following this, each successive slide builds information about the user and his/her account of the incident being reported (however, each slide has an option to refuse to answer that question).

There are three layers to aid the user in determining the meaning of each option. First, the regular text layer, which can be quickly scanned and understood by mostly literate audiences. Then, the audio and visual layers come into play.
Semi-abstract pictograms are used to represent what each option means, or at least give users a vague idea of the same. An audio recording of a female voice reading out the options on the screen (one by one) complements this. The audio recording can be repeated if required by pressing the speaker button at the bottom of the panel. This comprehensive three-layered system should ideally form a clear picture in the user’s mind and help him/her register a report regardless of literacy level.

Every option on the screen is unambiguously mapped to a physical button, which upon pressing highlights the selected option and adds the appropriate icon to a strip of (pictograms of) options selected so far through the report at the bottom of the screen. This system helps the user confirm the selection of the option, and keep track of the report so far. At the end of the report, there is an option to leave a recorded message (specifically to suggest improvements that the user recommends/would like to see) in
case the listed options do not adequately capture the user’s opinion. Following this, there is a ‘Thank You’ screen that can be used
to inform the user how to follow up on the report, or keep track of the initiative.

So far we’ve seen the reporting through the eyes of the reporter, now for a view behind the scenes!

DSC_0732    RasPi

The device is powered by a Raspberry Pi, which registers the user’s input from the buttons and reflects changes on the monitor it is connected to. The audio layer is facilitated by speakers, which can be swapped out for / supplemented by headphones for clearer, less publicly audible instructions.

There is lots of scope for expansion and improving the panel device. The software that drives the panel is quite lightweight, and is a consequence of that, can be run on any old smartphone. Literally! An old, out-of-use smartphone can be recycled and used to power the processing for the panel, thus keeping costs low and giving new meaning and life to what is now considered “e-waste”. In the future, if required, the reports can be pushed remotely to a central database, from which a summary report of sorts can be compiled and presented to relevant organizations. The entire process, from the recording of the user’s input and transferring it over the network to a central server, to scanning the data for the required details and compiling it into one meaningful report, can be automated easily due to the objective nature of the records.

So, to wrap up, what we have here is a medium for interaction with a large audience in public spaces, without even depending on the user being literate! In India, which has a 25.96% illiterate population[2], this is a significant factor.
This panel serves our purpose quite well. Placed at a bus stop, it would be accessible to a large audience, physically and otherwise! We hope that this panel will help make every voice heard, help women’s rights organizations in their advocacy for change, and last but not least, break the silence.

 

[1] Interview with Indrani Medhi and team at Lavelle Road office of Microsoft Research on 29th November 2013
[2] Census of India

MediaLAB and Fields of View, telepresence at Cisco

Suit up! On the 17th of October we went for a little trip to the city… the day of the telepresence call with the MediaLAB Amsterdam.

As we might have told you already, the project we are working on is a mirrored project, meaning our team started out with the same research question/topic as the team in the MediaLAB Amsterdam: Women’s Safety in Public Space. Our main funder, Cisco, facilitates high-end, high-tech, monthly meetings to showcase our findings in this cross-cultural project. Our weekly Skype meetings are nothing compared to this state-of-the-art, almost immersive experience, diminishing distance as the office in Amsterdam and Bangalore are real-time connected . Look at this!

DCIM101GOPRO

 

This meeting was, for us, the first formal meeting for this project. We looked forward to it. We prepared a little presentation summing up what findings we had so far. In this blog post we will recap what we told in that presentation at Cisco. Although our project at this moment has taken some steps further, we didn’t want you to miss this. These are descriptions of the path we followed, people we spoke to, decisions we made, things we’ve learned and our future plans (approximately one month ago). Because we made a very simplistic presentation in Prezi, which you can find here, I will add a little more flesh to this skeletal structure. I will give you four key decision points.

When we got introduced to this project roughly 4 months ago, it was called the ‘Panic Button’ project. The idea originated in one of the classes a professor here gave. The conversation was about a device, that would be unobtrusive, easily wearable and maybe even fashionable. The idea of a device to use in case of panic was born.

When we arrived in the end of August, we had a lot of talks about what this project was actually all about. For starters we looked at the name, ‘Panic Button’, which was chosen as a temporary name. The main problem for us with this name was that it placed a strong accent on ‘panic’; something we wished to dismiss or avoid. Hence, a name that would imply the avoidance or removal of panic in a hazardous situation seemed better. “What about ‘Unpanic’? –Yes, sounds alright, let us take that for now.”

Panic Unpanic-01

It was soon after this when our colleague, sociologist and gender expert Dr. Niveditha Menon sent us an interesting mail. She pointed out that with using the name ‘Unpanic’, we actually tell the users, in this and most other cases women, that they should ‘unpanic’. They should not be in panic, what ever happens to them. Or worse, they should not be overacting.

[…] if we are telling women NOT to panic we are telling them two things – One, that they do panic (which they do not), and that thy ought not to panic (why not? the fear is real enough). […] we are not in any position to tell woman NOT to panic, because frankly, do we have any right to? – Niveditha Menon

Here we were, working on a project with no name. We had to have something… so we started from scratch, again. What do we want to accomplish? What do we want to improve, help or solve? Is our problem even solvable? And if so, is there any change that would happen within our time here, a limited semester. We began blowing up our initial research question and deconstructed it.

The next topic of discussion regarding our project was whether or not we would be making a device. The initial plan, the panic button, would’ve been a device to be used in cases of panic, violence and/or harassment. We would not be touching the core or the cause of the problem by making such a device. In Dutch we have this beautiful saying: ‘It is like mopping the floor while the tap is still running’. The problem is rooted deeper and by making a reactive device we would not address the core problem. Another saying seems appropriate: prevention is better than cure. Though, preventing harassment would require an attitudinal or behavioural change, and how were we going to achieve such a complex task. We felt that we needed to split the project in different parts.

After thinking about what we wanted and needed, we started to draw it out. In the blog post “Recipe for curry” we wrote about how we then structured and prioritized our further research. You can read it again here if you like.Designbrief #1

 

As we floated ideas freely, we concluded that we were not going to find a solution. We cannot solve this problem or make it disappear. This is not being pessimistic, solely realistic. Though, it’s not a reason to be disappointed or demotivated. We found that, even if we were not working towards a future without violence or sexual harassment, we could still be doing a meaningful project. We thought about it in a ‘two steps forward- one step back’ way. It is not that women don’t have rights here, because they do. They work, they vote, they do pretty much everything men do. Still, women are being restricted because they are not considered equal to men. It feels like new canals have been dug, but some boats still take the old route. It always takes time for changes to be accepted. In addition, every change brings about new sets of obstacles in its wake. It is like a wave movement, cyclical. Inspired by the feminist waves of women’s emancipation, we saw our project as contributing towards the crest of the next wave. Knowing we won’t make much change, if even any, our vision is to work on that next waveThe project would from now on be referred to as the ‘Next Wave’ project.

Unpanic- Next Wave logo

With our three approaches we went to see professionals and experts in the field. We asked them for feedback, tips&tricks and experiences. We are blessed with the availability of people who have been working in the field of gender, human- and women’s rights and activist-groups for years. How nice it was, therefore, to see that their way of thinking about this subject echoed our views. They liked the path we had walked thus far, but there was still a lot to do. After extensive discussions and almost personal lectures we mapped out the different aspects of this social crisis and how they were interconnected. Here is the map.

 

Frame 1

Now it was time to unite the knowledge we gained so far and start thinking about the research questions in each of the three approaches. The research questions would determine the choices we made. Here they are.

Keywords:
From safety to freedom, mobility, visibility and self-hood

Short term:
How can we facilitate informal reporting of sexual harassment in a physical space while ensuring institutional linkages?

Long term:
How can we design a tool for Indian men to interpret themselves, in a non-threatening way, so the frame shifts from entitlement to consciousness of power structures?

Unifying:
How can we design an online platform for organizations and a general audience, on organizations working to promote freedom of women?

The span of our plans is huge. We know that. We are not sure how far we will go, but we found it too difficult to narrow down our scope. For now, we are focusing on the short-term project, since this is the most feasible to accomplish within our stay.

Keep you posted!

 

Understanding the complexity of energy systems with a simulation game

This post is by Dr. Émile Chappin, Assistant Professor of Energy & Industry, Delft University of Technology, and a Visiting Researcher at Fields of View. Dr. Chappin worked with us on developing a simulation game to understand to complexity of energy systems. These are his thoughts about the complexity of the sector and how a simulation game helps in understanding it.

 

Vibrant Electronics City sets the scene for three weeks of intensive research on serious gaming. We are driven by the need for stability and affordability of our energy supply – they are essential for flourishing societies. That’s the reason to deal with the nitty-gritty of typical European electricity markets in which billions of Rupees or Euros are at stake but where megawatts and megawatthours are easily mixed up. The key is not only in the details: electricity markets are complex systems, of which the performance is the result of the transactions in the market, the responses to the influences from outside, such as (proposed) policies, the evolving institutions and rational or irrational expectations.

 

This is where we start: how can we really learn to understand the essential workings of this system? The pure nature of complexity tells us that we can’t, really. But that’s not a satisfactory answer. We should do something that helps us – students, researchers, policy makers and companies – to gain better understanding of these systems. We need to start learning how we can somehow manage the system as a whole throughout the coming decades. Not in the classical sense of management, which presumes that some form of direct control is possible. We need to find new ways of shaping the system in a (more) desired direction. How? Join us in the world of simulation games!

We would like to share four insights we learnt from complexity and developing and using simulation games and models:

  1. The notion of optimality is void. There is no perfect outcome of this system/problem. Such judgments of the system state are observer-dependent, time-dependent and cannot be predicted. One can only speak of trajectories that appear desirable or not, given a set of strong assumptions, a time-frame, a set of objectives and a delineated system.

  2. Simulation and gaming should be used as tools for discussion. Because the system we’re observing is complex, any model we make and any simulation we run is definitively wrong. That, however, does not make them useless: they can be used as a digital laboratory, our laboratory in silico. By applying many modeling and simulation techniques capturing parts of the real-world system and its problems, and using those in a variety of relevant contexts, we may get a glimpse of understanding what patterns may emerge and how we can contribute in shaping the system [1]. That is the approach for TU Delft’s Energy Modeling Laboratory [2].

  3. Experience and involvement leads to deeper understanding. The complexity in the real-world system works in counterintuitive mechanisms and leads to patterns that are hard to really understand. Our experience shows that grasping some of these patterns by experiencing them in a serious game really helps to build an intuition for the consequences of the system’s complexity [1]. That in itself implies that lessons learnt – or patterns observed – may well contribute to understanding the complexity of the real world system and any effort in shaping the system accordingly. An example in our game is the understanding that ‘simple’ economic laws such as the notion of marginal cost bidding really work (at least to a certain extent). Other examples are the irrational response to soft information of future developments, the almost unbelievable developments on world markets for fuels, the wicked trade-offs between short-term profit, market share and the reliability and affordability of energy supply in the long run.

  4. Managing is the art to use the mechanisms that drive change. Understanding and exploring what the mechanisms are that drive our societal system is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s consider this management that, making use of that, an art, an “attempt to bring order out of chaos” [3]. How to know what decisions matter, what actors matter and what outcomes matter? How to measure performance? How to measure change? To answer such questions, we need to bring together theory from various fields (history, engineering, multi-actor systems, complexity, economics, policy, design, etc.) and knowledge from application domains (energy, water, transport, IT).
    We hope that simulation and gaming contributes to this process. By doing so, we make the theory operational in specific domains: we ask questions such as how we can develop and maintain an affordable electricity sector which is both decarbonized and in which supply is secured. It helps us to define what change and stability really means and how we can measure it. That way we hope to find out how we may bring about changes that put our systems on a more desired trajectory. If we can manage our precious infrastructures – the backbones of our society – that may be how.

How can a three week trip to Bangalore help gaining insight in the Dutch electricity sector? Which countries – including their energy sectors – are more different than the Netherlands and India? Well… despite the fact that the Indian and the Dutch culture are fundamentally different, both societies show many communalities. Both India and the Netherlands are quite busy: at least traffic is a pain. The fraction of the Indian population that resides in Holland may not be so far apart from the fraction of Dutch people that are in India. What Indian food is, is impossible to define, as it is for Dutch food (although for different reasons). It is easy to complain about the weather – umbrellas are a requisite in your backpack. Dutch and Indians can express themselves in peculiar ways in English. Indians like chocolate and ‘stroopwafels’ as least as well as the Dutch. And… more often than not, we can meet each other in humor.

These commonalities show that the complexity of our societies does not mean we cannot try to understand and improve them. It means we need to find new ways of doing so. The mechanisms and laws probably do not work as we expect them to! There is only one way forward: dive in the deep, experience new things, debate with an open mind, challenge all assumptions, indulge in to cultural diversity, and… embrace complexity!

 

Literature

[1] Chappin, E. J. L. (2011). Simulating Energy Transitions, PhD thesis, TU Delft, the Netherlands. http://chappin.com/thesis

[2] Energy Modeling Laboratory, TU Delft. http://emlab.tudelft.nl

[3] Stephen Sondheim, composor and lyricist, 2005.

 

A brief note on Serious Games for Training

Games have a vast history and have been an integral part of societies for a long time. All around the world, games are a popular means of recreation. Games exist in various forms; board games, sports, table top games, etc. With the advent of computers, another form of games, virtual games, are now used widely. The non-confrontational, yet realistic environs of gaming provide for a space where multiple ideas can co-exist, participants can learn from each other, experiment the consequences of their actions and learn from it. These, along with the immense popularity and appeal of gaming have been leveraged to help in training and education.

 

Clark Abt, in his seminal work, Serious Games (1970) defines them as games that have an “educational purpose and not intended to be played primarily for amusement”. However, using games for training is not something new. Serious games have been used for a while in the field of warfare to explore, plan, test and train military strategies and operations. War-gaming as it has been referred to in published literature has provided an ideal test bed for gaming methods as an exploration space. There are multiple other instances of serious games being used to train personnel:

  1. Institutions like Dubai Police, Lockheed Martin, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems use the CryTek 3 Game engine to develop serious games for training.
  2. OLIVE (Online Interactive Virtual Environment) by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), has been used to develop multiple virtual games for training.
  3. Supervisor is a simulation built in close cooperation by Shell and Delft University of Technology. It is a serious game in which the player plays the role of a supervisor on a drilling site and is expected to handle hazardous situations, watch over personnel and take care of health safety and environment requirements.
  4. The e-adventure game engine has been used to develop various check list based training games.
  5. SafeWork SA is South Australia’s occupational health, safety and welfare (OHS) agency. They use both virtual games and table top exercises to train and educate students.
  6. Virtual Reality Technologies develop virtual reality based training to train coal miners.
  7. 3DiTeams is a first-person, multi-player virtual game developed by Virtual Heroes in collaboration with Duke University Medical Center. It is used for medical education and team training.

Players tend to experiment and explore more  in a game environment. Often, not following safety procedures and protocols results a very costly error, in the form of loss to human life, monetary losses and environmental losses. In a game, the players experience such losses in a realistic manner, thus sensitising them to the consequences of their actions, however small. Here are some examples where serious gaming based training has improved the adherence to protocols, performance and decision making capabilities of personnel:

  1. The Rosser Top Gun Laparoscopic Skills and Suturing Program, or Top Gun, is a training program for surgical residents in laparoscopy. Surgeons who played video games in excess of 3 hours per week showed 37% fewer errors and 27% faster completion, thus indicating a clear correlation between video game skill and surgical skill.
  2. The Office of Naval Research and Raytheon BBN Technologies have collaborated with University of Southern California to test, evaluate, and provide quantified research findings about the effectiveness of game-based training.  Damage Control Trainer (DCT), a 3D first-person game was tested with the US Navy recruits in November, 2008. Decision making errors were reduced by 50%, communication errors were reduced by up to 80%, and situational awareness and navigation skills were improved by 50%.
  3. Mining accidents are a common phenomenon and have for long been using virtual environments to train people in safety procedures. On an average ten haul truck accidents lead to fatalities, a virtual training environment was designed to investigate and train the drivers. After training, the control group had only drivers making non-fatal errors. Filigenzi et al. describe the results from the training simulation in this paper.

At Fields of View, we are working on designing and developing games for awareness, training, and planning. You can read more about how we use games here, and more about our games and the various other projects here.