Using technology for the greater good

Brij Kothari was watching a subtitled film for a Spanish class seven years ago when he had an epiphany: Words on a television screen might help millions of people in his native India learn to read better.

By Jon Fortt
Mercury News

Kothari’s idea — stripping subtitles along the bottom of popular Bollywood Indian music videos — was enough to earn him a nomination for the third annual Tech Museum Awards, which were presented at a gala Wednesday night in San Jose. Research has suggested that the Hindi-subtitled music videos improve the reading skills of barely literate viewers.

“Technology’s not just about smaller, better, faster,” said Peter Giles, chief executive of the Tech Museum of Innovation. “It’s about the impact it can have in making life better.”

This is not the type of technology Silicon Valley is known for; it’s not faster computer chips, bigger hard drives or cell phone cameras. The Tech Museum said it received about 500 nominations from seven countries, and picked the 25 finalists based on how much good the projects could do for the world — not how much money they could make. This year’s five winners included a low-cost satellite radio that is bringing socially conscious messages to Nepal, a program that trains local videographers across the globe to document human rights abuses, and a wire bridge that allows people in the Himalayan foothills to travel more safely. Each winner receives $50,000.

“Silicon Valley gets a little bit of a rap that a lot of people are working for only stock leverage,” said Jim Morgan, chairman of Applied Materials, who helped create the awards program. “A lot of these people are working on accomplishing something — if they get something in addition to that, it’s a big plus.”

Technophiles eager to spot the latest hot gadget would be wise to find another awards program; Upendra Aryal has bigger ideas.

Aryal, a broadcaster in Nepal, has tried for more than a decade to use radio to bring socially conscious messages to the countryside. Harsh issues face the population there; poverty is widespread, girls are sold into sex slavery along the border with India, and there is little knowledge about such dangers as HIV and AIDS.

Signal over mountains

But Nepal — one of the world’s more mountainous areas — is a difficult place to broadcast. You might get a radio signal on one hill, but nothing in the valley a few yards away. The solution has been to use satellite technology from San Francisco-based Equal Access, which is less limited by landscape. Battery and solar-powered devices, which cost about $70, resemble radios and boom boxes and allow aid workers to deliver relevant programming to local community centers. Today, the Equal Access Asia Development Channel says it reaches 600 communities and 9 million people.

The heart-warming aspect of the projects of Tech Awards finalists — their commitment to changing the world rather than just making money — has also proved to be one of their greatest hurdles. After all, it takes money to bring these innovations to the people who need them, and often those people can’t afford to pay the tab.

In response, the Tech Museum has set up a sort of entrepreneurial boot camp. Nominees learn to talk to reporters and stoke interest in investors, plus they get an opportunity to network with their peers.

On Tuesday night, Intel took the environment finalists it sponsored to dinner, said Edward So, an Intel corporate vice president for manufacturing. They got to talk about their concerns and share ideas, and even talk a little about money.

Building businesses

“I think it would be good to have some of these come with a business proposal,” he said; it seemed evident that many participants weren’t yet accustomed to thinking in terms of building businesses.

Kothari said he’s working on a business plan for his Indian subtitling project. Though the operation is small now — he has two people who are able to type in music video subtitles at a rate of about 20 songs a week — he has grander visions and can recite the type of statistics that venture capitalists like to hear. About 150 million people see the subtitle work, he says, and surveys show that 90 percent like the programs better with subtitles. Even better, ratings are up 12 percent since the station added subtitles. He can imagine spreading the subtitling work to other languages and using his research to convince broadcast titans to give his group a cut of the profits.

“I’m not looking for funding,” Kothari said. “I’m looking for an investor.”

To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Mercury News discloses when people associated with the newspaper are involved in news stories. Knight Ridder, parent company of the Mercury News, sponsors the equality award.
Contact Jon Fortt at [email protected] or (408) 278-3489.

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