Over the last three months, Samagra has been working with the Department of Education, Government of Himachal Pradesh to develop three technology products that can significantly change the way the education system operates in the state. The objective of Samagra’s Samarth team, which works with the Department of Education in Himachal Pradesh, is to improve the learning outcomes of students across the state by bringing about a systemic transformation in the government school system. While systemic transformation by its very nature is a long process, technology has been a crucial enabler in this journey and accelerated the pace of reforms.
All three tech products were developed in a matter of just three months, because of the use of configurable open source platforms. In its own way, each product tries to bridge the information gap in the education system which adversely affects the ability to take timely corrective action.
1) The first product is a dashboard providing multi-layered analysis of the annual state-level assessment results. It contains assessment data of nearly 5 lakh students across the state in Classes I to VIII. The dashboard will provide the state government with useful insights into the performance of each school, cluster, block, district, as well as the state at a macro level. This would include information on weak and strong learning outcomes in the state, number of students achieving a particular grade in a class or at a subject-level, subjects in which performance is satisfactory and subjects in which performance needs to be improved, etc. Armed with such granular insights into the performance of each unit of the education system, the state government will be able to design data-backed, targeted interventions. These could be as specific as devising strategies to improve the performance of a particular class in a specific school for a specific subject.
2) The second product is a parent-involvement platform through which a school can send regular SMS updates to parents about their child’s attendance, homework completion status, assessment results, and information regarding important events in the school. The objective is to provide parents with all necessary information about their child’s progress at school and recommend steps they should take to improve the child’s performance. The idea behind the product is to keep parents, whose involvement is critical for improving the learning outcomes of a student, informed and engaged about the child’s academic performance.
3) The third product is a mobile application to enable the monthly monitoring and mentoring visits to schools conducted by officials in the state. Monitoring and mentoring visits are a way for officials at all levels in the administrative hierarchy to assess the academic performance of schools and provide teachers with requisite. Using this mobile application, officials across different levels in the education system can record observations like usage of supplementary teaching material in the classroom, teacher awareness about various academic interventions, availability of infrastructure, etc. during school visits. This is a useful tool because critical issues pertaining to student performance, teaching methods get identified at the school level and can be discussed at district-level review meetings. The data collected on these visits is available as an easy-to-understand visualization on a dashboard for officials to take stock of how interventions are being implemented at the school-level. District officials then work with block-level officials to create an action plan to resolve these issues. The action plan is reviewed in subsequent meetings to ensure the resolution.
How open source platforms can help governments
Designing and creating a tech product from scratch for government departments can be a long and tedious affair. Because of the lack of requisite tech capacity within the department, they have to onboard a vendor through a tendering process, which alone can take up to two months. Once a vendor is finalized, the next step is a series of discussions and back and forth to explain the government’s requirements. The process doesn’t end with just the creation of the product. Because what comes next is the day-to-day management of the platform, maintenance, and fixing bugs that might come up later. It is also possible that the government’s requirements change and therefore the product would need necessary modifications. But with a contract-bound vendor, modifications or maintenance would require another tender, more time and more delays. In effect, neither the product development process nor the product itself is flexible, while the needs the government might keep evolving. Without requisite tech capacity within the government, in most cases, a department is dependent on the vendor during the time period defined in the contract and once the contract ends, there is little it can do to sustain the product in the long run.
It is in this respect that the global open source community offers a unique opportunity to rethink the way we look at developing tech solutions for governments. An open source technology platform is one in which the source code of the software is available in the public domain for free. Anyone can configure the source code according to their needs and build new products. There are chances that you might find products configured by someone else that have the same use case as yours. The global open source community is large and supportive and can be leveraged for developing better solutions, fixing problems and improving the product further. The platforms are flexible and can be configured and reconfigured in accordance to the ever-evolving governance problems that the government faces. The global community can be imagined as a support system to brainstorm tech solutions for better governance and co-create platforms with assistance from developers across the world. The prospects of the long-term sustainability of the products are therefore better.
The open source approach also doesn’t have any financial implications—no tender is required, which also reduces the administrative procedures involved. And as there is no dependence on external tech vendors, there is no hassle of managing annual maintenance contracts either. The only aspect the government needs to work on is one-time augmentation of the internal tech capacity, so that they are able to configure and design open source platforms as per their need in collaboration with the global community.
The school mentoring and monitoring mobile application developed by the Himachal Pradesh government is built using the various tools offered by the Open Data Kit–an open source community providing free and open-source software for collecting and managing data. The app is built on the Open Data Kit Collect platform which is a configurable open source android application. It was customized as per the needs of the Government of Himachal Pradesh. Metabase, another free and open source data analytics tool, was used to create dashboards to analyse the data collected by officials using the mobile application. Together, both open source tools helped in developing this comprehensive solution. This platform will be used by around 3,000 officials in Himachal Pradesh to conduct their monthly visits and the data available on the dashboard will help in taking evidence-based timely decisions.
As the Himachal Pradesh government’s experience illustrates, use of open source platforms to build tech products could be the way towards finding innovative solutions to governance challenges, with little or no financial implications.