Karekura

And here’s a story from me – Neha Kumar.

My introduction to “this new field called ICTD” took place on a rainy Saturday evening in January 2006 at a Starbucks on Highway 84, when one Joyojeet Pal – then graduate student at Berkeley – was generous enough to meet with me, a disillusioned software design engineer at Microsoft. He gave me a quick primer and suggested some readings, including the famous Brewer et al. paper that had just been published. I was ready to make my departure from “developing technology for technology’s sake” (as I saw it) and these papers showed me the way. Chance encounters, good fortune, and hard decisions got me admission into Stanford’s Learning, Design, and Technology program one year later. I decided to quit my job early and use the summer for getting some “field experience” (and whoever knew what that meant!). This led to a clueless, impulsive, and very verbose email to Eric Brewer, who kindly connected me with Matthew Kam so I could maybe help him with his PhD project.

Matt’s MILLEE deployment was about to begin. He was working with a team of Indian undergraduates, trying to get primary school-children in Karekura – a village 15 km from Mysore – to learn English on MotoRazr mobile phones. My first order field experience entailed building a relationship with these all-male students (and I remember them fondly to this day). My second order field experience began right after, when I visited the school in Karekura for the first time.

Perhaps I had no reason to be, but I was nervous as hell. I wasn’t sure how to be with the kids – what to do, what to say – and there were no words to exchange because we did not speak the other’s language. One might have thought these kids would be afraid or shy but really it was I who was terrified. The kids stared at me unabashedly and curiously as though I belonged to an alien species. I looked away, sticking with the team when I could, anxious to get through the day somehow. Who knew how things would change.

About an hour later, I was done twiddling my thumbs. I brought out my big DSLR and started to take photos of the team engaging with the kids. Photography has often come to my rescue this way. The kids were quickly entranced by the sight of the camera and came running towards me. The repeated sounds of “torsi aunty, torsi aunty” (“torsi” means “show” in Kannada) ring ever so clearly in my ears even today. We took photos – lots of them. They posed and posed, insisting on reviewing every shot. I obliged with a singing heart. The ice was broken.

My stay in Mysore did not last long. The partnership came to its conclusion – and we moved ten days after to Lucknow. But those ten days were unforgettable. Over the weekend, we even had a visit from Susan (Dray) whose warmth enveloped us instantly, perhaps planting the seeds for this workshop nine years later! We made a visit out to see the village one day, letting the kids guide us to the Cauvery river, their local temple, their playing field. Even bugs, as you see in Anusha’s photo below.

Anusha was one of the fifth graders. And head girl. One day, as she and I sat together in class, going over the mobile games, we digressed from the task at hand and she started going through the photos on my memory card, asking me who was who. We shared a little of our lives, our selves with each other. I explained what I could using words and gestures. She chattered on in Kannada, trying to throw in the few words of English that she had just learned. We somehow understood. And connected.

I miss those ten days in Karekura. I miss the kids. And I especially miss Anusha. I have not seen her since, but my mind goes back to thinking about her often. She will be 19 this year. Did she finish her schooling? Will she be married soon? Does she remember me? And if she does, is it as the outsider who came to do a “project” in her school for a few days, promised to come back, and never did?

This aspect of ICTD research is the hardest for me – having to make and sometimes break many, many connections with people far away, far from me and from my reality. Nine years in, I haven’t found an easy way to do it. I doubt I ever will.

I’m currently at Georgia Tech, an Assistant Professor at the Schools of International Affairs and Interactive Computing. Here are some more of my photos from Karekura. 

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One thought on “Karekura

  1. Akhil Mathur says:

    Great post – brought back so many memories for this member of the “all-male team of Indian undergraduates” :). The Karekura deployment was super fun, an fantastic learning opportunity for all of us, and it shaped our careers to a great extent.

    Now that I think of it, my Karekura experience was quite different from yours. Being a sophomore, I had the mindset of a ‘game developer’ those days, and didn’t empathise with the kids as much. I just wanted my games to work well, do the user studies as I had learned, and get back to our house for the next round of coding! 🙂

    But this all changed in the next-year field trips to Lucknow and my later research in other parts of India. Partly by training (i.e. reading ictd papers), but mainly by the experience of being in the field, I began to care more about how the kids/adults are using my technology solutions, and whether they are getting any benefit from them. I certainly formed stronger relationships with the users in my subsequent research studies, which helped my projects a great deal.

    I believe this transition from a ‘system person’ to a ‘user person’ has to be made by every CS student, if they want to be good at ictd research. And it can only happen if you spend a substantial amount of time in the field – observing or talking to the users.

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