Working to bridge the Digital Divide with Servelots

In 2020, we worked with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to identify 5 organizations working on projects that strengthen connectivity in their communities – in particular those responding to the COVID-19 crisis. We provided financial contributions to these 5 organizations for them to specifically address the fact that the pandemic has made digitalization and connectivity more necessary than ever before. This series of blogs introduces the organizations that we worked with and what they achieved with their projects. 

Committed to Community Connectivity

Servelots came to life in 1999 as a community-centred connectivity enterprise in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India. The organisation’s first project was an open-source CMS (content management system) called Pantoto, a platform-independent and web-enabled software product which allows users to configure information management systems and online communities for their specific needs. 

In 2002 Servelots initiated Janastu, a non-profit collective that seeks to understand and support the technology needs of other non-profits and communities. Servelots and Janastu have worked regionally, nationally and internationally with a wide range of partners on a remarkable array of projects involving media; the law; archival exhibitions; academic research and digital connectivity. 

The latter is the area which Janastu and Servelots are most committed to: they have been involved with the creation and maintenance of wireless mesh networks since the 2004 tsunami wreaked havoc on the east coast of south India. Servelots champions the use of mesh networks and was the driving force behind the groundbreaking AntHillHacks, a gathering of artists, techies, educators, environmentalists, local villagers and students from nearby schools who debated the many ways in which to unleash the potential of wireless mesh networks.

Lately, Servelots has been collaborating with the Pragathi Foundation, which operates with rural public schools and village communities, in developing mesh-based community radio services. They do this primarily by using – and making their own – Raspberry Pi-based devices (small, simple and customisable single-board computers) for media recording and dissemination over the network archives.

Gender Equality in Education

Servelots is determined that agricultural and low-income communities not be disadvantaged by a lack of internet connectivity. To actively address this issue, Servelots partnered with 48percent.org to embark upon the project known as the Rural Webinar Mesh for Minority Clusters. 

This purpose of the project became one of utmost urgency after Covid-19 shut down schools, with only online teaching and learning allowed to take place. In communities where access to the internet and devices such as smartphones are either non-existent, prohibitively expensive or strictly controlled, this amounted to a form of technological discrimination which required immediate redress. 

Those hit hardest were young women and girls in signal-dark areas where they were unable to access their online classes. They were also unable to get hold of a smartphone in their predominantly patriarchal societies. Thus the aim of Servelots was to provide a safe, connected setting for girls in a region comprising five villages in which Servelots has been engaging with the community for several years. Having already experimented with a small wifi mesh, Servelots was able to bring the internet to the mesh and provide a few Raspberry Pi-based computers for groups of girls to meet their online learning needs. 

The project took place at a village called Durgadahalli which is located in a valley where the data speed is low and extremely spotty. This despite Durgadahalli being barely a 90 minute drive from Bangalore, the tech hub of India. In the nearby town of Tumkur, 15 kilometres away, data speeds of up to 100 mbps are the norm. Servelots linked the wireless mesh network of their rural lab to Tumkur in order to bring four villages in range of the mesh for learners to attain the high speed connection required for online learning. 

Keeping the Doors of Learning Open

Despite the many logistical obstacles in their path, Servelots was able to achieve its goals of building local capacity; achieving independence from the global internet and facilitating the online learning process by engaging with the community for mesh and internet node support.

Some delays in deployment notwithstanding, around 50 youngsters who were preparing for matriculation exams (not to mention their parents!) were thrilled to have this facility so they could learn despite the closure of schools. Similarly delighted were the school teachers who had been volunteering to conduct physical classes under a tree of other open safe spaces. 

This exam is a crucial one as it is the first public exam where students are graded on the state level rather than in-house by their schools. Also known as ‘the 10th exam’, it is the standardised secondary school certification that would allow one to apply for colleges or to demonstrate the minimum necessary literacy to be considered for many basic jobs.

Although schools reopened for a brief period, when the second wave hit they were closed anew with online learning becoming imperative once more. 

Taking the Initiative

Aside from meeting the primary objectives of the project, a few unexpected benefits took Servelots pleasantly by surprise. The initiative has been such a success that the community is already eagerly implementing further means of taking advantage of their newfound possibilities: many are making use of the internet for authentication of ID for government services while others are already investigating work-from-home possibilities. 

Within an hour of successfully enabling the wifi internet hotspots in Durgadahalli, several elders from the village requested the password for the mesh. There had been significant delays in food distribution due to the unreliability of the ISP phone data required for the authentication of ID. Using the newly established mesh, they were able to overcome this obstacle, thus expanding the potential for using this technology to address the many struggles faced by those still excluded from a newly digitised India. 

Although the government and those living in the big cities tout the reduction in fraud that has been a positive result of internet-based authentication of beneficiaries, this does not apply to large parts of rural India where the internet is unavailable. In much the same way the mesh had come to the rescue of students in need of online education, it proved a lifeline for elders in need of food. 

Safeguarding the Future

Although lockdown restrictions have currently been eased and physical classes have resumed, such is the unpredictability of COVID-19 that the situation could worsen overnight. However, with the wifi mesh in place, Durgadahalli is now in a position to smoothly transition to online learning once more. Furthermore, many boys, girls and college students have discovered the power of the internet to independently further their education outside of the classroom.

One of the villages covered by the mesh is a popular tourist attraction. Servelots, together with the residents, is exploring a number of ways to take advantage of the internet to boost the profile of this village. With the immense potential of the internet now unleashed, those in rural India who might otherwise have been left behind are rapidly discovering the myriad means whereby they can bring themselves up to speed with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.