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G N IA India's incubator first technology on business and




com ercialising grassroots innovations. m G rassroots innovations are essentially solutions generated by people at the

grassroots levels to tide over persistent problem s, the solutions to w hich are

either not available or not affordable by a large section of the consum er m asses in developing countries like India.

These innovations, therefore, capture an unm et need of a large section of the population and building a value chain around these innovations to take them to m arket creation holds in a the potential of w ealth and



equitable m anner. The objective of G N IA is to build the value chain around these innovations w ith the end objective of m aking these available to the m asses through otherw ise. the m arket m echanism or

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What is the developmental paradigm based on grassroots innovations? Can grassroots innovation be a source for wealth creation? Can I have some examples? Can I undertake a project with NIF where research inputs are needed in commercialization of grassroots innovations? What could be possible areas of projects? What kind of educational background should we have to take up internship projects? What is the framework (application, selection criteria, stipend, duration, deliverables, etc.) of undertaking a project withNIF?

What is the developmental paradigm based on grassroots innovations? Grassroots technological innovations by definition are need-based, simple, cost-effective and sustainable. The possibility of these technological solutions addressing local constraints in an effective way is reasonably high, simply because these solutions originate from someone who has first-hand experience of the issues involved. On the other hand, given the lack of financial and technical resources present with the grassroots innovators, many grassroots innovations are rudimentary and limited in terms of design. The experience of NIF shows that quite often people at the grassroots develop solutions without any or with very limited external assistance. The magnitude of demand also varies depending on how widespread the need is, how important the element of regional specificity is and so on. This describes the challenges and opportunities for grassroots innovations. In essence, these innovations address the key needs of grassroots consumers, which have not been met or satisfied by the existing Trickle-Down products and services. Hence, there is ample scope for wealth creation by linking grassroots need-based technologies with formal sector technical & commercial knowledge, to make them scalable and commercially attractive. There is a lot to be done on this front. Therefore, there is a need to build a value chain around these innovations and to provide incubation support, if the benefits from these innovations have to be disseminated to consumers far and wide NIF is mandated to fill this gap by linking the informal knowledge system (grassroots genius) with formal knowledge system and thereby have a distributed knowledge system in place. Such an attempt would ensure the reach of economically poor-knowledge rich people to the masses and will also prevent the erosion of indigenous knowledge base. Can grassroots innovation be a source for wealth creation? Can I have some examples? Grassroots Innovations have an immense potential for wealth creation as it is the result of unsatisfied human demand. Innovation when developed into product, have the potential to convert this demand in potential market. Further market may be explored through identification of similar geo-political–socio-eco area. Some of innovation with success in wealth generation are available at http://west.gian.org/success_stories Top an I undertake a project with NIF where research inputs are needed in commercialization of grassroots innovations? What could be possible areas of projects? Yes, NIF regularly associates interns/volunteers the requirement for which is at http://www.nifindia.org/volunteer_nif.htm. The Interns with their concerned assignment guide can mutually identify assignment to works on area such as;

Technical documentation of innovations from nearby areas

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Technical benchmarking of technologies Prototype development & validation/ Product Development Market benchmarking of technologies (Market research) Exploring licensing opportunities for several of these innovations through venture mall, or entrepreneurship clearing house, Building technology networks by linking experts from technical institutions around each technology, Managing some specific pages or functions at site (www.indiainnovates.com), Scouting innovations and traditional knowledge from slums, other localities, industrial clusters, through students or otherwise, and Developing business plan for technologies from all over India but which have potential in your regions.

What kind of educational background should we have to take up internship projects? NIF regularly offers internship projects, to students having educational background in engineering, Management, Agri-business, Rural development, Social Work and Intellectual Property Rights. What is the framework (application, selection criteria, stipend, duration, deliverables, etc.) of undertaking a project withNIF? The Applicant should have social, technical and management background. Following experience (skill and knowledge sets) is desired;

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Good understanding of business planning Exposure in market research/ Concept testing /Test marketing Good analytical skills Understanding of financial feasibility tools Good language and communication skills (report writing, presentation) Prior work experience in industry will be an advantage

Stipend may be decided on case to case basis. Deliverables may be mutually decided with the concerned project guide.

Indian grassroots innovation in Pakistan for the first time!!!
17-06-2005, Ahmedabad: In a momentous agreement that added a landmark dimension to India-Pakistan grassroots partnership, Mr. M. Nagarajan of Madurai, Tamilnadu successfully signed a deal with Perfect Food Industries of Lahore, Pakistan for his grassroots innovation - Garlic Peeling Machine. The final payment was received today and the machine has been despatched, according to Mr. Manish Saxena, National Coordinator-Business Development, National Innovation Foundation. The deal was closed after 6 months of pitching and negotiation. Prof Anil K Gupta, Exec. Vice-Chairperson and Ms Riya Sinha, Acting CIO –NIF congratulated Mr. Nagarajan- the innovator and SEVA-who scouted this innovation. Mr. M. Nagarajan of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, one of the thousands of grassroots innovators scouted by NIF, was awarded at the hands of The Honourable President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on 5th January, 2005 on the occasion of the 3rd National Grassroots Technological Innovations and Traditional Knowledge Practices Award function of the National Innovation Foundation held at IIM, Ahmedabad for his innovative Garlic Peeling machine and lemon cutting machine. The garlic-peeling machine developed by Mr. Nagarajan has a number of advantages over its contemporaries. It is extremely cost effective with low initial investment, low operating cost and low maintenance cost. It is also particularly suited for the Indian variety of garlic, which has 3-4 times more cloves in each fruit than the one grown in Europe. Hence, peeling this garlic with smaller cloves would need higher levels of effectiveness, which has been achieved through this innovative technology. The cost of peeling garlic using this machine is one fifth that of peeling garlic manually

and on an average half the cost of peeling using other Chinese or Taiwanese machines available in the market. Genesis Mr. Nagarajan owned a small lathe workshop for manufacturing rice hulling units, grinders, etc. In the last few years continuous drought affected not only the farmers but also all dependent industries. These circumstances forced him to seek some other avenues for survival. Mr. Nagarajan’s close interaction with some of the local pickle manufacturers exposed him to the problems prevailing in the industry and they requested him to design and develop a system to peel garlic cloves for making pickles. He successfully designed and developed a garlic-peeling machine in 2002 after two years of hard work. Many Indian companies such as Cavin Care, Pandiyan Pickles, Priyam Foods, Eye Pickles, Patak Foods, Tasty Foods and others are the satisfied users of Mr. Nagarajan’s machine and Cavin Care has even placed a repeat order giving a testimony of its performance. Pursuing his innovative spirit, Nagarajan later developed a lemon-cutting machine as well. Mr. Muhammad Riaz Chaudhry, Chief Executive and Mr. Asif Muhammad Ali Shah, Director Technical of Perfect Food Industries, Lahore, Pakistan contacted NIF after seeing Nagarajan’s machine on its website and later followed this by a visit to Madurai, Tamil Nadu to see the machine and meet the innovator - Nagarajan and other users of this novel product. A deal was struck and the machine has been despatched by road. Another feather in Nagarajan’s cap- an order from USA is under process and will be delivered soon. What are Grassroots technological innovations? By definition these are need-based, simple, cost-effective and sustainable technologies. The possibility of these technological solutions addressing local constraints/ unmet needs in an effective way is reasonably high, simply because these solutions originate from someone who has first-hand experience of the issues involved. Innovations like this garlic-peeler address the key needs of grassroots consumers, which have not been met or satisfied by the existing Trickle-Down products and services. Hence, there is an ample scope for wealth creation by linking grassroots need-based technologies with the technical and commercial knowledge in the formal sector, to make them scalable and commercially attractive. NIF is committed to this goal of wealth creation for grassroots innovators like Nagarajan and is also helping other innovators in locating licensors/ franchisors in India and abroad. The technologies available with NIF from the grassroots innovators are detailed at www.nifindia.org/bd About National Innovation Foundation (NIF): Making India an innovative and creative society and a global leader in sustainable technologies is a very big challenge. To meet this challenge, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Ahmedabad, an autonomous body was set up in March 2000, by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India to provide a nurturing platform for augmenting unaided green grassroots innovations and traditional knowledge practices developed by local communities and individuals to solve their problems (www.nifindia.org). NIF is committed to making India innovative by documenting, adding value and protecting intellectual property rights of the contemporary unaided technological innovators as well as outstanding traditional knowledge holders on a commercial as well as noncommercial basis. Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, an eminent scientist and Secretary, DSIR and Director General, Council of Science & Industrial Research, India, is the Chairperson of NIF. Under the guiding vision of Executive Vice Chairperson, Prof. Anil K. Gupta of IIM-A and the efforts of a dedicated team, in a short span of four years, NIF has been able to scout more than 51,000 innovations and traditional knowledge practices from over 360 districts of India. Out of which, 14 technologies have been successfully commercialized. Contact for additional information: Mr. L.Chinzah, National Coordinator-Business Development National Innovation Foundation (NIF)

Little space for grassroots innovations

From biogas to solar cookers and improved cookstoves, from agricultural tools to drudgery reducing technologies, most research and development in appropriate technologies has not been backed-up by appropriate market incentives. In contrast, hi-tech is totally market driven, says Sudhirendar Sharma.

3 May 2005 - Be it endogenous or exogenous, technology has in many ways shaped lives and livelihoods in the rural areas. From the humble sickle to the mighty combine harvester, technology has come to symbolise the level of progress of a society. Yet, the access and acceptability of the technology per se has remained influenced by diverse socio-economic and cultural conditions. Limited reach Statistics clearly indicate that despite the best of political will, investment environment and the media thrust, the benefits of modern technology have reached only about 200 million in the country. An estimated 800 million living in over 100 million households have neither the purchasing power nor the physical access to products of modern science and technology. The role of technology in improving the lives of the poor has rather gone unnoticed. Neither has the research and development infrastructure in India invested in backstopping such concerns nor has the mainstream media considered providing consistent space for voices from the margins. In the process, both the technology and the poor have stood to suffer. Unlike modern technology that has invaded cultures with impunity, appropriate technology has remained rooted to a context. Consequently, its penetration in terms of reach and impact has been countered by a variety of factors, varying from one set of social conditions to another. Mahatma Gandhi had long opined that the poor couldn't be helped by mass production but by production by the masses. But to reconstruct the nation liberated from the colonial rule, the successive governments have sought to toe the industrial path. Extensive industrialization has polarised the society leaving the poor at the mercy of welfare schemes and a subsidised living. Not only has the welfare budget of the government reached its limits but also it might not be possible to sustain such expenditure for long. But there is no let down in the number of people who are sought to be benefited through such measures. Technology promises to lift people out of poverty by generating gainful employment but only if it is viewed in the production by the masses concept.
Though a host of state-sponsored research institutions, universities and IIT's are engaged in appropriate technology developm ent and dissem ination, these haven't been held accountable to the society. Is it because it concerns the poor and the underprivileged? • B rains and bullocks • Technology for rural w om en

In his answer to the problem E F Schumacher, who was adviser to the Indian Government in the 1960s, had advocated simple technologies to reduce drudgery, improve production and enhance income of the poor. Although he did not say it in as many words, the author of Small is Beautiful apparently cautioned the poor governments against making substantive investments in hi-tech when the benefits of appropriate technology stood to benefit them the most. In his report to the Planning Commission Schumacher had argued: "It requires no lengthy argument to agree that India is 'long' in labour and 'short' on capital. This means that she requires a level of technology that is likely to be very different from that currently in the west, which are 'long' on capital and 'short' in labour. But there were few takers for his ideas, then and even today. The Rural Industries Section of the Planning Commission was enthusiastic and tried to get some action, but they were very much in minority. But for the launch of Schumacher's inspired world's largest cattle-dung based biogas programme, progress on appropriate technology has remained cosmetic in nature. No wonder, rising unemployment and social unrest is the order of the day. A market-driven economy riding on hi-tech has literally failed to offer any solutions to the problem of economic stagnation.

Likes of T ej Singh fade into oblivion For the media, these are one-time human-interest stories. Used as a dressing to make the horrendous news palatable, such stories relieve newsroom overdose of politics and violence. However, such stories are never turned into an end in themselves as they must be. Neither is there any conviction to take such ingenious efforts to their logical destination. Tej Singh Goyal, 55, has been a victim of media apathy. Though a high school dropout, the innovator in him bagged the National Innovation Foundation award in 2001. He has developed a device that can lift water to a height without any external source of power. A few kilograms of waste paper is needed to lift water to the second floor height of a house. "Gas laws had intrigued me a lot," says Tej Singh. Way back in 1972, he came up with his first notable invention. Taking two drums of equal volume, he filled one with water and kept the other empty. Both were attached through a pipe. He lit fire beneath the one that was empty. The gas inside the empty drum expanded and moved to the water-filled drum. Finding no space to escape, it lifted water instead. Tej Singh knew that the principle of gas expansion was at work. In no time, he enlarged the scope of his experiment by scaling the size of drums to 500 litres capacity. Most of his savings were spent on the experiment. But for the capital investment for procuring drums, the running cost for lifting water was bare minimal. He found the technology ideal for farmers who were looking for diesel pumps for lifting water or those who were aiming to reduce their electricity bills for water-lifting in urban areas. But it took several months of sustained efforts before Tej Singh could get some recognition for his work. Dr M S Swaminathan, then Director of General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) awarded him a short-term fellowship to work on his invention in 1977. But his experiments there failed to scale-up the innovation. However, he did not give up. He continued his crusade against the system that did not recognize the talent of a common man. He found a peaceful technique of drawing attention by camping at Delhi’s historic Jantar Mantar. Expectedly, he made it into the column-inch of few newspapers. However, that was the last the media took note of him. His is a simple innovation. All that is needed are the two metal drums of 500 litres capacity each that are linked to each other by a pipe. There has to be a water outlet point too. There is a valve contraption in the water outlet so that the lifted water does not return to the tank. The entire investment including, pipefitting rarely exceeds Rs. 15,000. The Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES) has shown some interest in promoting the system. On its request, a working model was installed at the Government Polytechnic in Sundernagar, Himachal Pradesh. Clearly, Tej Singh needs more support than such one-time favours. It has been 30 years since Tej Singh came up with his invention and there are few takers to the idea that has potential of making substantive energy savings under diverse conditions.

Dangerous trend Though a host of state-sponsored research institutions, universities and IIT's are engaged in appropriate technology development and dissemination, these haven't been held accountable to the society. Even the impact of investment hasn't been questioned to any appreciable degree. Is it because it concerns the poor and the underprivileged? The appropriate technology programmes, be these on renewable energy or on related small-scale technology development, haven't stood any enquiry. Apparently, a majority of these programmes in the public-sector domain have reached a dead-end. If nothing else, these decades-old programmes are a drain on the development exchequer of the country.

From biogas to solar cooker dissemination; from improved cookstove to solar lantern development; and from agricultural tools to drudgery reducing technologies, most research and development investment in the sector hasn't been backed-up by appropriate market incentives to bring about desired impact. In contrast, hitech is totally market driven.

Inversely, emerging markets for individual innovations plan to exploit the informal knowledge pool of the poor too. Thanks to the patent regime that threatens to lay control over the rich heritage of peoples' knowledge and under-acknowledged contemporary innovations, the development of appropriate technology has assumed a new dimension. A host of government institutions have set-up mechanism to tap peoples' knowledge, notable being the ill famous National Research Development Corporation, the National Innovation Foundation, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC).

A lthough the N ational Innovations Foundation has already registered over 11,000 innovations and aw arded quite a few there is no , m echanism yet in place linking 'inform al' to the 'form al', i.e., w here grassroots innovations are value added by research at the form al institutions.

As an autonomous institution NRDC is mandated to support innovations in science & technology. In the process, the NRDC acknowledges innovation through its annual innovation awards. Earlier these awards were given out on Republic and Independence days but now the Technology Day (May 11) has been chosen for the annual awards. Though anyone can apply for these awards, majority of the awards are bagged by research institutions and private companies. Rarely, if ever grassroots innovators bag such awards. Part of the reason is that no mechanism is in place that the like of Tej Goyal from the 'informal' set-up can compete (in language & presentation) with the counterparts from the 'formal' institutional set-ups. However, over the past decade or so the presence of 'grassroots' innovators has been acknowledged by the setting up of a National Innovation Foundation (NIF), an autonomous national innovation register that has been set-up under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Although NIF has already registered over 11,000 innovations and awarded quite a few, there is no mechanism yet in place such that the 'informal' gets linked to 'formal', meaning that the grassroots innovations are value added by research at the formal institutions. Critics fear that this register will, in the long run, usurp the intellectual property rights of grassroots innovators. Whether or not these programmes serve the individual inventors and benefit the poor at large has yet to be seen. And ultimately, the market determines what is made of these innovations that are developed out of sheer necessity by citizens are the grassroots. If developments thus far are any indication, the poor have yet to benefit any degree from such innovations. Media apathy The media has been driven by market interests, nurturing products that offer higher levels of incentives to the consumers. As products of appropriate technology are driven by public money and are short on incentives, these meet limited patronage from the media. Similar has been the fate of grassroots innovators who haven't been able to dent the market either. Media's apathy towards the state of appropriate technology and the plight of grassroots innovators is evident. For the largely market-driven media, these are one-off stories that do not warrant serious attention. The contention being that neither do such stories elicit advertisement revenue nor enlarge the subscriber base.

By giving right exposure at the right time, the media can help the cause of such innovators in the national interest. In a rapidly globalised world, intellectual property is being targeted by corporations and vested interests. Media can rise to the occasion to safeguard the interests of the poor innovators. Not only will it help in getting patents on the innovations, press coverage will also help protect piracy of this valuable knowledge. The beauty of smallness had spawned the appropriate technology movement. But in spite of its grassroots orientation, this movement has been largely dominated by tinkerers instead of entrepreneurs and mass marketers. The unfortunate result has been that hundreds of creative technologies that have simply not been marketed properly are now gathering dust. There are several appropriate technologies that have proven their worth and yet such technologies do not win the hearts of the media and the minds of the politicians, because `planners and politicians prefer big buildings and large dams - things you can put a plaque on and hold an inauguration ceremony - that media can then cover as events. ⊕ Sudhirendar Sharma 3 May 2005
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a development analyst attached to the Delhi-based the Ecological Foundation.


D liv rin G s ro ts e e g ra s o In o a n fro n v tio m M ro o ic s ft’s W e e d e k n C d rs o e
You’ve seen a few of the team’s projects on the site and now we’re excited to bring you more great ideas from a new group, Microsoft’s weekend coders. Microsoft is full of creative people in love with the promise of technology. Their passion extends beyond their day jobs. At Microsoft you’ll find many people who spend their free time building new and interesting projects. One of our goals here at Office Labs is to give these grassroots innovation efforts an easy way to get out and into the hands of people like you! We call these projects “community projects” and they are all about grassroots project from inside of Microsoft getting traction and having impact. Many innovators will tell you it’s easy to have a great idea, but to know if you have a successful idea, you have to build it and try it out. Unfortunately building your ideas can be a bit lonely and hard if you’re working on it by yourself, but if you work at Microsoft it doesn’t have to be that way. In every department of Microsoft, employees are creative and the ones taking a Do-It-Yourself approach are finding help from Office Labs. Office Labs is working to offer these weekend coders greater support for their Do-It-Yourself projects. It starts with a series of events such as our Community Science Fair and our Community Project Selection where these grassroots innovators can share their work, give feedback, get support, and make connections. Office Labs works with the community to build tools and services that make these weekend projects easier to build, deploy, and test. In addition, at our Community Project Selection the community gets to vote on which projects have the greatest potential to enhance your productivity. The top two projects get hands on support from Office Labs for the next few months in an effort to accelerate the project’s deployment. During these months we use our expertise in rapid prototyping to iterate on the project and ultimately release it in a short amount of time. While working with our team, grassroots innovators have the opportunity to learn some tricks from us and they always teach us some of their own. Now, with officelabs.com these weekend coders have an easy way to get these projects out to you!Watch for community projects coming soon to officelabs.com. Just like the concept tests currently on the site, these are ideas people wanted folks outside of Microsoft to try out. They are not alpha or betas of a product. We hope you will take these prototypes for a spin and would love to hear if these projects help make technology work harder for you.

W Is the R hy ecession a G reat T e to Kindle im G rassroots Innovation?
February 13, 2009 If you think that innovation projects should be shelved to cut costs in these challenging econom tim ic es, you'd be very w rong. Q uite the opposite is true. N ow is the best tim to grow e innovation in your em ployees— and you m ight be surprised at the outcom es.

B A y rupa T esolin Innovation is the w ay out of recession and into a m ore sustainable econom W y. ith the right attitude, these challenging tim es provide all organizations an opportunity to rally em ployees together and encourage them to invest m ore of their creative energy. But organizations don’t innovate… People do. In fact, som of the best kinds of innovation e com from the "G e rassroots," the people w ithin your organization— your em ployees, clients and often your extended netw ork of suppliers and associates. And the good new id that innovation s does not need to be com plex or costly (R . em ber, em even M icrosoft w as started in a garage.) Seeding Innovation A ny com pany can find w ays to m ake innovation pay off. B oth sm all and large com panies can look to their em ployees, clients and beyond for w ays to be m ore innovative that add value to w hat they do. Investm ents in innovation, training and productivity now w recoup their investm ill ent and increase profits later. Executive leaders and em ployees need to have a w ay to challenge the "idea orthodoxy" prevalent at m any large com panies. Those w ho are successful at doing this today w ill becom the econom and e ic brand leaders of tom orrow Com anding an . m innovation destiny requires industry leaders and their em ployees to take both business innovation and personal creative pow to the next level. er This is the right tim to turn em e ployees into innovators and help them learn to m aster new creative thinking skills, like how to create from scratch, think creatively see things differently be , , m ore intuitive, com unicate ideas better and to m appreciate the benefits of both thought and cultural diversity W . hen people think differently , learn and try out new things, they have m ore energy and are m ore alert, engaged and responsive to clients and colleagues. U sually they're also having m ore fun.

Innovation Is a T eam Player Innovation rarely happens alone. Innovative com panies often have a cadre of innovative m inds outside their ow organization. I spoke recently on n innovation at the W orld A utom otive N s C ew ongress along w ith D A r. ndrew B row Jr., Executive n D irector of Innovation at D elphi Corporation, w hich developed the innovative O n-Star com unication system for G m eneral M otors C orporation. H identified that for every internal e em ployee there w ere about 200 external sources. Innovative brand leader Proctor & G am ble, he explained, has about 500 external sources per em ployee. There are a m illion w ays to innovate and every organization can find w ays to m ake innovation profitable and generate an R I— O return on im agination. The im portant thing is not to innovate for innovation's sake, but to plan innovation in a w ay that offers the greatest value to your product, services or brand. So w here to start? Look at your business cycle from start to finish. Look at the lifecycle of your interaction w ith clients or custom ers. Every point along that process provides an opportunity to innovate. 1. Identify high return opportunities to innovate in key grow areas. th C onduct an innovation survey that review all aspects of your business from s recruiting, custom satisfaction, sales processes, er new product and service developm ent or other areas. 2. C reate an innovation culture. Support trying

som ething new Em . pow your em er ployees, involve them and give them a w ay to challenge old w ays of doing things in favor of better w ays. 3. D evelop creative skills in em ployees, and apply them to your business in key areas. 4. Increase em ployee productivity and proficiency starting w ith the highest im pact functions. Im plem ent learning paths or fast-track training processes that increase proficiency and perform ance. 5. M easure results of innovation. m etrics that are useful for planning future innovation. 6. H ire creative m inds outside your organization find people w ho think differently and can add value to innovation. Be an Innovation M aster H ow do you know w hen som ething is innovative, rather than just good business? Innovation attracts attention. It show up differently It s . creates energy because it’s interesting, unusual, or brings an elem ent of surprise, evokes positive em otion, joy or reveals an unexpected connection w ith som ething else. W are only at daw of the "Innovation A e n ge." The road to tom orrow w ill be paved w ith the results of the ideas that w dream and apply today It's an e . exciting tim I can't w e. ait to see w hat w e’re able to do. D evelop reliable ,


G randfather builds W brow eb ser for autistic boy
By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer Tuesday, June 3, 2008

LeSieur tried to find online tools that could guide autistic children around the Web, but he couldn't find anything satisfactory. So he had one built, named it the Zac Browser For Autistic Children in honor of his grandson, and is making it available to anyone for free. LeSieur's quest is a reminder that while the Web has created important communication and educational opportunities for some people with cognitive impairments, computers can also introduce new headaches for families trying to navigate the contours of disability. The Zac Browser greatly simplifies the experience of using a computer. It seals off most Web sites from view, to block violent, sexual or otherwise adult-themed material. Instead it presents a hand-picked slate of choices from free, public Web sites, with an emphasis on educational games, music, videos and visually entertaining images, like a virtual aquarium.

Other programs for children already offer that "walled garden" approach to the Web. But LeSieur's browser aims to go further: It essentially takes over the computer and reduces the controls available for children like Zackary, who finds too many choices overwhelming. For example, the Zac Browser disables extraneous keyboard buttons like "Print Screen" and turns off the right button on the mouse. That eliminates commands most children don't need anyway, and it reduces the chance an autistic child will lose confidence after making a counterproductive click. Children using the Zac Browser select activities by clicking on bigger-than-normal icons, like a soccer ball for games and a stack of books for "stories." The Zac Browser also configures the view so no advertisements or other flashing distractions appear. "We're trying to avoid aggressive or very dark or complicated Web sites, because it's all about self-esteem," LeSieur said from Las Vegas, where he lives. "If they're not under control, they will get easily frustrated." Autism generally affects a person's ability to communicate, and Zackary doesn't speak much. But his mother, Emmanuelle Villeneuve, reports that the boy can start the Zac Browser himself. He enjoys listening to music through the program and trying puzzles — things he always liked before but hadn't been able to explore online, she said from her family's home in suburban Montreal. Perhaps most tellingly, while he still acts out aggressively against the TV, she said, he doesn't try to harm the computer. LeSieur didn't create the browser by consulting with people who are considered experts in disorders on the autism spectrum. The small software company he runs, People CD Inc., essentially designed the Zac Browser to meet Zackary's needs, and figured that the approach would likely help other autistic children. Early reviews have been positive, though LeSieur plans to tweak the program so parents can suggest new content to add. Several autism experts were pleased to hear of LeSieur's work, and not surprised that he had not previously found anything suitable for Zackary. After all, the autism spectrum is so wide that a particular pattern of abilities or impairments experienced by one autistic person might be reversed in another. In other words, creating software that would work for huge swaths of autistic children is a tall order. Indeed, the Zac Browser might do nothing for another autistic child. That said, however, LeSieur's approach of limiting distractions and using the software as a confidence-boosting tool "is a very good idea," said Dianne Zager, director of the Center for Teaching and Research in Autism at Pace University. She said many autistic students tend to do best with educational materials that make unnecessary stimuli fade from view. "Some parts of the Web have so much extraneous material that it can be distracting, and for the nonverbal child, there might not be an ability to negotiate that information," added Stephen Sheinkopf, an autism researcher at Brown University. This is not to say the Web is necessarily barren for autistic children. James Ball, an autism-education consultant in New Jersey, said many children he works with enjoy Webkinz, where kids care for virtual pets. Others find chat rooms and instant-messaging a lower-anxiety way of socializing than talking to someone in person, he said. But the Zac Browser might turn out to be the rare tool that can be configured to strike a chord with a wide range of autistic students, said Chris Vacek, chief innovation officer at Heartspring, a special-education center in Wichita, Kan. Vacek is considering using the Zac Browser at Heartspring. One huge advantage is that the browser is free, while many assistive technologies cost upward of $5,000 and work only on specialized devices. But Vacek, himself a parent of an autistic child, said the Zac Browser's best credential is that it appears to pass what he calls Heartspring's "acid test": It has a high chance of increasing a child's ability to do things independently.

"Let's hear it for grassroots innovation," Vacek said.

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