4 innovative ways India is using WhatsApp

A boy uses a mobile phone as he sits inside his father's snacks shop along a road in Kolkata, India, February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX27ZEW

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In recent years, the authorities have caught on to WhatsApp’s potential for engaging more directly with the Indian public, especially in some of the country’s megacities.

Increasing women’s safety

A WhatsApp safety group enables New Delhi women who travel by public transport to send photos and details of the vehicle to the police before boarding it. Set up as both a deterrent for sex crimes and to boost women’s confidence, the group can also be used to alert the police in emergencies.

Reporting offences…

Holding politicians to account…

Helping flood victims

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WhatsApp, Crowds and Power in India

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The gifts of free usage and anonymity have made WhatsApp the most popular tool to spread both outlandish stories and politically motivated rumors. On an ordinary Indian morning, messages on the app can include the rumor of a popular mango drink being laced with H.I.V.-positive blood, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s rating of Narendra Modi as the best prime minister in the world or Julian Assange describing him as an incorruptible leader.

WhatsApp forwards are deftly tailored toward target audiences. Last year, the Indian middle class debated for weeks whether new 2000 rupee bills introduced by the Indian government after demonetization featured a chip that could be used to track the bills. There was no chip, but the rumor lived for a while.

Nationalist rage, often with sectarian overtones, dominates the world of India’s WhatsApp messages. One of the most popular WhatsApp hoaxes of this year featured the purported beheading of two Indian soldiers by Pakistani soldiers with a chain saw and a knife. India’s national song played in the background.

No, Google’s Not a Bird: Bringing the Internet to Rural India

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Babulal Singh Neti was sitting with his uncle on a recent afternoon, trying to persuade him of the merits of the internet.

…Mr. Neti, 38, pressed on earnestly, suggesting that he could demonstrate the internet’s potential by Googling the history of the Gond tribe, to which they both belonged. Since acquiring a smartphone, Mr. Neti couldn’t stop Googling things: the gods, Hindu and tribal; the relative merits of the Yadav caste and the Gonds; the real story of how the earth was made.

Access to this knowledge so elated him that he decided to give up farming for good, taking a job with a nongovernmental organization whose goals include helping villagers produce and call up online content in their native languages. When he encountered internet skeptics, he tried to impress them by looking up something they really cared about — like Gond history.

His uncle responded with half-closed eyes, delivering a brief but comprehensive oral history of the Gond kings, with the clear implication that his nephew was a bit of a good-for-nothing. “What does it mean, Google?” his uncle said. “Is it a bird?”

…So it is instructive to follow Mr. Neti as he tries to drum up a little interest in Taradand. Young men use the internet here, but only young men, and almost exclusively to circulate Bollywood films. Older people view it as a conduit for pornography and other wastes of time.

Women are not allowed access even to simple mobile phones, for fear they will engage in illicit relationships; the internet is out of the question. Illiterate people — almost everyone over 40 — dismiss the internet as not intended for them.

Indian commuters are coping with their terrible commutes by watching Netflix

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Netflix’s subscribers are setting their own “primetime” streaming hours around the world.

Globally, streaming on the web-video service peaks around 9pm on weekdays, according to data provided by Netflix—the US included. Keeping in line with Americans’ viewing habits in the 90-year history of television, that’s also when most viewers tune in to traditional TV, Nielsen data shows.

But, in India, Netflix streaming peaks at 5pm, the earliest primetime in the world. It’s not unusual for workers in India to spend one to three hours commuting each way by bus, train, or car, which explains the heavy viewing during those hours. Mobile video, which accounts for 60% of mobile data traffic, is also on the rise the country, so viewers can stream on the go. Subscribers there are also 82% more likely to watch Netflix at 9am than the rest of the world, Netflix found.

Indian women face ‘digital purdah’

Excerpt from this article on Warc (thanks for sharing Rina!):

India has one of the world’s wider gender gaps as regards phone ownership as 43% of men have one compared to just 28% of women; the proportions are broadly equal in other major regional markets such as China (49% v 48%) and Indonesia (43% v 38%).

…There is a reluctance among parts of a socially conservative male population to see wives and daughters carrying phones, which they regard with suspicion when in female hands.

“Mobile phones are really dangerous for women,” according to an elder in one Uttar Pradesh village which has confiscated mobile phones from every woman under the age of 18. “Girls are more susceptible to bringing shame upon themselves,” he added.

 

Putting Technology in Its Place

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Kentaro Toyama went to India with noble intentions for using technology to improve people’s lives. Now he’s wrestling with why the impact was so small.

…I ultimately took stock of 50-odd projects that I had either been directly involved with or supervised. Very few were the kind where we felt, “This is working so well that we should really expand it.” Very often, it was because there were just limits to the human and institutional capacity on the ground that could take advantage of the technology.

For example, in education, one of the most difficult things to overcome is the way in which education is done—everything from how the public school system is managed to how it’s administered to how the government interacts with it. In India, we found instances where teachers were often called away by the government. The government feels that they’re government employees and, therefore, can be called upon to help with other government tasks.

Another example is the health-care system. If you go to a typical rural clinic, it’s not the kind of place that anybody from the United States would think of as a decent place to get health care. Bringing along a laptop, connecting it to wireless, and providing Internet so you can do telemedicine is just an incredibly thin cover. It’s a thin, superficial change.