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EVOLUTION ON STEROIDS

The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the adoption of emerging technologies in India

Police personnels in India are using drones for surveillance and monitoring people amid coronavirus outbreak.
AP PHOTO/AJIT SOLANKI
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The Covid-19 pandemic has catalysed, rather unexpectedly, the evolution of many industries and technologies in India.

Encumbered by an extended lockdown, people are seeking new solutions to routine tasks, be it food-delivery, medical consultations, or education.

“Consumers’ uptake of technologies, to stay informed or safeguard their health, can instill confidence in a stressful period, and this may be the unforeseen catalyst to assert broader, longer-term adoption of technology platforms and solutions,” said Nicole Corbett, director of intelligence at market research firm Nielsen, in a recent note.

Brands, too, are trying to reach out to the consumers who are confined to their homes. For this, novel alliances are being forged between the old and new.

Supermarket chain Big Bazaar, for instance, has partnered bike aggregator Rapido and food delivery service Scootsy to deliver essential goods. Consumer giants like Marico, meanwhile, are hitching a ride on food aggregators Zomato and Swiggy for delivery of products.

Even the government is adopting newer methods for surveillance that may, in the coming days, become the new normal.

Quartz here provides glimpses into some of these new technologies that have abruptly become mainstream in India, all thanks to coronavirus and the lockdown it has brought about.

Telemedicine

This emergent field has, for a while, allowed healthcare professionals to diagnose patients in remote locations over smartphones and video calls. Now, it is not only having its moment in the sun, but fast becoming a part of daily life in the country.

Startups like Practo, Portea, and Lybate, which facilitate remote medical checkups, are witnessing a traffic bump as panicked Indians reach out to doctors over the mildest of symptoms. They are “trying to keep a social distance so that the virus doesn’t transmit in nursing homes, and hospital waiting rooms,” Alexander Kuruvilla, chief health strategy officer at Practo, had told Quartz earlier in March.

Realising its inevitability, India’s ministry of health, on the first day of the lockdown, March 25, released a 50-page document outlining new guidelines for telemedicine.

On March 29, Practo announced that residents of Mumbai could book government-authorised coronavirus tests on its platform for Rs4,500 ($60). Four days later, rival Pristyn Care, too, partnered with over 50 laboratories across the Delhi National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Chennai, and Hyderabad to conduct Covid-19 detection tests.

Beyond coronavirus-related concerns, people are also turning to calls and chats for other issues. Diabetes care and management app BeatO is trying to emulate the real-life experience by giving patients the option of adding their regular doctor to the platform.

Meanwhile, Meddo Health, which lists over 200 doctors across 16 specialties, has opened up its platform to doctors free-of-cost. “By offering this platform to doctors for free, we want to help get timely medical attention to as many patients as possible; not only related to Coronavirus, but also any other chronic or episodic ailments,” said Saurabh Kochhar, Meddo Health co-founder and CEO.

—Ananya Bhattacharya, writer

Open-source designs

The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare and frontline workers fighting Covid-19 has prompted adoption of mass manufacturing using open-source designs.

Tech innovators, besides India’s ministry of electronics and IT, have called for various hackathons to create ventilators, testing kits, apps for contact tracing and contactless devices for elevators and rest rooms, among other things. Some have even succeeded in creating working prototypes.

Maker’s Asylum, a community hackerspace in Mumbai and New Delhi, has designed face shields for healthcare workers. The M-19 shield can be made in just about three minutes by anyone following the guidelines of the prototype. Each face shield can be made for as little as Rs55. Maker’s Asylum estimates there are 500 hackerspaces in the country that can replicate M-19’s design which is itself open source and published on the software development platform GitHub.

Another key innovation has come from a team of biosciences and bioengineering researchers at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. It has developed a full PPE kit that, when mass-produced, would cost less than Rs100.

These designs, are becoming increasingly prominent, given that traditional medical suppliers may not be able to fulfil the high demand.

Manavi Kapur, writer

Online education

As India’s schools and educational institutes shut down in March, education technology, or ed-tech, turned into a bare essential overnight.

While upskilling platforms such as Coursera and Unacademy had a large customer base in India, they were seen as supplementary modes of education rather than substitutes for traditional ones. Also, ed-tech was limited to specialised courses and modules.

Suddenly now, the sector is exploding.

Established platforms such as Byju’s are going all out to attract users. Last month, it made all its learning modules for Class 1 through Class 12 free, resulting in a 60% increase in new enrollments within a week. Unacademy is offering 20,000 of its modules and slive classes for free to candidates appearing for various competitive examinations in India.

A huge number of schools in urban India have shifted to online classrooms.

The worry, though, lies in smaller towns and villages, not all of which have dependable internet infrastructure. Nevertheless, experts believe such widespread adoption would eventually lead to ed-tech furthering its reach beyond elite institutions and pockets of population.

Manavi Kapur, writer

Surveillance

With panicky patients fleeing India’s hospitals and violating home quarantine, authorities were forced to adopt surveillance technologies.

Shortly, personal devices like cellphones were deployed in the fight against Covid-19. Under normal circumstances, this would have raised privacy worries. Now, these concerns are rather muted.

The Indian government, on April 6, launched the Aarogya Setu app, similar to Singapore’s Trace Together, for contact-tracing.

The government of Karnataka informed the state legislative assembly on March 18 that it will track the phones of people in quarantine. Additionally, home-quarantined persons in Karnataka have to upload their selfies every hour via the Quarantine Watch Android.

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the state government is using geo-fencing technology to ensure quarantine. Geo-fencing creates a virtual geographic boundary, setting off alarms anytime a mobile device leaves a particular area.

Kerala, another southern state, is using location data and CCTV footage to track patients, besides geo-fencing. Authorities have also used call records and GPS to track primary and secondary contacts of coronavirus patients.

—Niharika Sharma, writer

Use of drones

India has so far not been too forthcoming of drone technology. In the post-Covid-19 world, though, the police and civic authorities are shedding their wariness.

Aerial surveillance helps track large gatherings, minimising physical contact, and monitoring narrow bylanes where police vehicles cannot enter. They can also be used to spray disinfectants in public spaces and residential colonies.

In future, drones could lead to privacy issues.

“A balance will need to be struck within a robust framework that recognises citizen rights while seeking community welfare,” Mahesh Makhija, partner and leader of digital and emerging technology at EY India told business newspaper Mint on April 6.

Sangeeta Tanwar, writer

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