INK Fellow and linguistic enabler Sunil Khandbahale talks to us on how he feels about INK, his way forward with education, his work with developing platforms to help people bridge language divides and his innovative project, the ‘Kumbhathon’ to help solve challenges during the Kumbhmela event in India.
Like he humbly says, “We still have a lot of work to do!”
1. Tell us a bit about how your experience has been as an INK Fellow at the 2013 INK Conference.
I would say the INK conference is not just to attend and watch but to feel and live. It was a whole new learning experience for me! Coming from a rural background, I had never been exposed to a global platform like INK before and there were many things I did for the first time in my life. My first time on a flight, first time in a luxurious hotel, first time to be around global thought leaders and to attend a Bollywood themed party. I was curious about everything! The people were so humble and down to earth that on the very first day they considered me a part of the ever-growing INK family. That is the INK culture, very welcoming and caring. For me, it was not just about speaking at the conference but observing the whole process. Seeing the coordination, teamwork and different collaborations were some of the biggest learning opportunities. When I had a chance to peep backstage, I saw the round-the-clock hard work of many technicians and experts to make the INK Conference a world-class quality event. That atmosphere naturally made me pressured to perform well on stage, not for my sake but to give justice to all those hardworking hands and minds. But I thank Lakshmi who helped me just be myself on stage.
A few people who I met at the Conference left a lifetime influence on my thinking. One incident had me overwhelmed. Immediately after my talk, a gray haired American lady from the audience approached me with tears in her eyes, hugged me, put a $250 bill in my pocket and disappeared into the crowd before I noticed. It was such a touching moment that for the first time I realized how people care about what I do. Since then I follow my passion even more seriously. In short, the INK conference has opened my eyes and expanded my horizons.
2. As a linguistic enabler, you’ve founded a hugely successful multilingual digital dictionary. Tell us how it has expanded in the last ten years and what new ventures it has started/branched out into?
UNESCO estimated 2.3 billion people, nearly 40% of the world’s population, lack access to education in their own language. Research across 26 countries show that over 50 percent of students who dropped out of school did not speak the language in which they were being educated. In short, language barrier is a reason for academic failure. Fortunately, I am a survivor of the same challenge and that is why I want to dedicate my life to this cause.
In 1999, I started developing a second language acquisition technology for my own native language – Marathi. Our platform www.khandbahale.com has now grown to 23 Indian regional languages including Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Konkani, Kannada, Kashmiri, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. The platform offers a technically compatible access on various devices online and offline and has scaled up to over a hundred million user base worldwide. The diverse nature of our domain has encouraged a process innovation, resulting in a virtual model of collaboration between linguist and subject matter expertise, which has helped in cutting down costs drastically to serve a broad audience. Now we are in the process of adding more verticals to existing languages and also adding commonwealth country languages. However, creating something is the most easy part, it is the implementation which is the real challenge. We are still working on how to reach out to the needy who otherwise do not have access to Internet, especially in remote areas. If it is the UNESCO itself who admits that the major reason of school-dropout is language barrier, then we have our work cut out for us!
3. As a staunch supporter of innovation in India, you’ve co-founded the Kumbhathon, along with Professor Ramesh Raskar of the MIT media lab. How has the journey been so far? Any mind-blowing innovations that have stayed in your mind during any of the Kumbhmelas?
I met Professor Ramesh Raskar accidentally at INK 2013 and coincidentally both of us happened to be from the same town – Nashik, which hosts the Kumbhmela every 12 years, the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims on the planet – more than 30 million at one place! Taking this opportunity, we founded Kumbhathon, a technology buildathon revolving around the Kumbhmela.
Ramesh and I, along with bunch of like-minded people, initiated a number of potential challenges with event stakeholders. We built an open collaboration platform for the city government, local innovators, entrepreneurs, academia and corporates to work together on mutually chosen areas of the event, such as crowd steering, health and hygiene, transportation, communication, food and housing, safety and security, cashless payments and so on. The idea was encourage creativity and innovation around social issues and to create opportunities for local human capital. This was a grand success which spun off a bunch of startups and resulted in the model being replicated in many other cities of the world. To name a few, it was first time in the history of Kumbhmela that the Kumbhathon handled crowd steering with cell-phone tower data while creating heat-maps of the moving crowd. There was not a single incident of stampede. Another technology to match lost and found items to their owners in real time was on smartphones. Another team replicated the idea of Uber for immediate access to health assistance. More than technologies or startups, the Kumbhathon demonstrated possibilities of opportunities with active collaboration. The leading technology company TCS has gone on to support the initiative by starting a physical state-of-art innovation center called ‘Digital Impact Square’ in Nashik.
4. Other than the desire to bridge the linguistic divide in our country, what are some other causes you are passionate about and would like to work on?
I care a lot about education. I believe all of us do. But for me, it is more personal. My generation was fortunate enough to attend school. Thanks to my parents determination, despite of all odds. You can imagine from almost no school to make it to MIT was definitely not a straight path for me and my family. But it happened. Such that when the youth of my background listen to me, they get inspired. I do not want to be their role model but their companion. Education has been a transformative tool in my life. Inspired by my parents vision, my family and I have started a local school in a nearby area of my hometown Nashik. Students living within 10 km distance come to school everyday. But there are still hundreds of them left out because of transportation challenges.
So with globalprosperityfoundation.org, we started ‘The Education on Wheels’ – a doorstep school program. We are looking for collaborators to reach more of the population. Being a school-dropout for any reason is a shame. Every single child should have education as a birth right. Every single child counts. They are our future.
5. What is on the drawing board for this year?
This is really a great question! I took one year off to invest in education. I moved to Boston to pursue the MIT Sloan Fellow Program in Global Leadership and Innovation. It was a most insightful year-long journey to travel with 121 highly accomplished top level executives belonging to 46 diversified industries from 37 countries. The MIT Media lab was like my second home. A thrilling place where the future of our planet gets its shape! I also got an opportunity to experience a “move fast and break things” work culture at the Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley. After my MIT degree, I have a whole lot opportunities calling. But I want to stay focused and pursue my passion for entrepreneurship. A lot has to be done when we have such a complex challenges. We may be solving one issue but actually it gives birth to many others and we don’t even realize it until they grow. Education, language barrier, dropping out of school, unemployment and many others challenges are all correlated.
I have three priorities. Number one – ‘Second-Language-Acquisition’. In 2017, our target is to scale-up our multilingual platform where we are working on growth strategies to reach maximum audience. Number two – ‘Early-Age-Education’. We are in the process of deploying a curious learning interface to check technology interventions at early-age-education in our school. Number three is ‘Open-Innovation’. I am trying to foster co-innovation and entrepreneurship by mentoring youth and sharing my knowledge and connections. I am completely open for new ideas and collaboration to build this ecosystem together!