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Frugal Digital: Tele-Panchayat

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Tele-Panchayat is a design research project for Frugal Digital that is exploring low-cost solutions
for improving citizen participation in municipal level governance.

The project, initiated by my colleague Manas Karambelkar at CIID, is in progress in Mumbai. You can follow the entire project here and follow our process on the blog, which is updated regularly.

Brief Overview
In a vast and diverse country like India, people often feel disconnected from the act of governance. Even at the local level, initial research found that people feel that (1) there is no clear idea about where to go to express their opinion on issues; (2) People are unsure about whether their opinion will reach the correct officials; (3) Individuals wonder whether their own opinion counts; (4) Getting timely and appropriate reciprocation from the Government is lacking.

Common questions asked by people concerning communication with the government.

Common questions asked by people concerning communication with the government.

So, we started by asking the question, how can a community be more involved in local governance?

The first prototype, called “Tele-Panchayat“ is a platform via which community activists or other concerned stakeholders can gather public opinion on issues related to local community planning.

How does it work?
The way it works is simple: retrofitted public call office (PCO) pay phones are used as a voting mechanism for recording public consensus on particular local issues. For example, citizens may be asked the question: should water meters be installed in houses to keep a check on water wastage in the area? They can access the above and vote on it at a locally situated public phone. The information can be collected can be used to communicate the needs and desires of a community (in numbers) to the local corporators or municipal authorities.

The Tele-Panchayat phone prototype 1 is a working experience prototype for a public consensus gathering platform that we are currently in the process of testing in India. The following is a demo video we shot in Pune:

The System
The system is developed on public payphones which are ubiquitous in India. This provides users with a familiar interaction and added simplicity for illiterate citizens via audio interfacing. The results are open to the people and can provide a reliable overview of public opinion on various local issues. The municipality then becomes answerable to its citizens and should provide valid reasons for not meeting their needs. The hope is that this could create transparency and dialogue between citizens and the municipality.

The Tele-Panchayat System

The Tele-Panchayat System (Please click to see larger image)

The goal: Create links between the people and local governance.

The goal: Create links between the people and local governance.

We took the prototype onto the streets of Pune to do some initial user-testing and made a quick video of some of the highlights below:

The original Tele-Panchayat System is being explored as a multi-modal system, with access points for different classes in the city. We are currently prototyping and testing a mobile-phone app that could work as part of the system shown above for those cannot vote on location.

Functional prototype of a mobile version of the Tele-Panchayat platform.

Functional experience prototype of a mobile version of the Tele-Panchayat platform.


Second prototype: T-P voting device (retrofitted PCO phone), fingerprint scanner & display

We are also looking into ways the communication between citizens and municipal authorities can be made more accessible and easier to use. The following video is of a spec application for the municipal authorities and Nokia:

We also felt that complaint tracking systems could be improved and made this quick video sketch to think through how this could be made easier for citizens.

The above combination of video and working prototypes are being used as prompts during our research phase where we talk to potential stakeholders in these systems as well as conduct ground-level user research. We are exploring the system in a multi-pronged agile design process, where we come at it from different angles and with prototypes and prompts of different levels of fidelity.

We were lucky to have been able to have demoed some of the project at IDF’s Pune Design Festival where we got valuable feedback and made some interesting connections with people in the design fraternity.


Teammate: Manas Karambelkar
Advisors: Vinay Venkatraman and Priya Mani
Additional support: Nishit Desai Associates (many thanks to Nishit and Suril Desai and Milind Mundankar).

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