A visit to the Revolutionary Optimists

Posted on Mar 6, 2014

When I was in India recently, I took the opportunity to visit Kolkata and the organization Prayasam. Prayasam is an amazing organization that works to empower youth from slum communities in Kolkata. The 19 year old organization, whose title roughly translates to “effort”, was recently featured in the Revolutionary Optimists movie. I got to know them when they were touring with the movie to New York; they came to visit us because they use Formhub in their work. The film was incredibly moving for me, and I was eager to see the organization’s work and help in any way I could.


Prayasam’s philosophy was explained to me by Saptarshi Ray, who works with new media and technology at Prayasam. The most important thing that Prayasam does, Saptarshi told me, is to change the mindset of the youth (hereafter, “members”) they work with. It empowers them to be creative, believe in themselves, and become change makers in their communities. It takes them from thinking about a linear life path to one with many possibilities, makes them aware that there are options and choices involved. Many of the members become leaders; Prayasam’s change reaches through its members to the communities they live in. The philosophy, in general, echoes the popular education philosophy [1], including getting rid of internalized oppression that members may come to Prayasam with.

This philosophy is embedded deeply into the ways in which Prayasam works. The Prayasam board members are mostly their youth members, whose opinions are taken seriously. I was helping Prayasam with the surveying work (using Formhub) for community-based advocacy [2]. For this upcoming year, the organization will be surveying garbage disposal options in their communities, making a Human Resources directory of their communities and looking at household water usage. To develop these surveys, Prayasam staff (who have worked with and know the communities well) developed first draft questionnaires. Then we put up the questionnaires on a projectors and went through them, question by question. Members of all seven communities gave feedback, making modifications, adjusting wording here and deleting an unnecessary question there.

Prayasam members had keen intuitions for what questions worked and didn’t, since many of them had been out doing surveying themselves. In fact, they brought up field issues with electronic surveying I didn’t realize existed–in some of their communities, high tension overhead wires cause the GPS in the phones to fail. In the end, I provided two main guiding suggestions. The first was to emphasize the purpose of the survey and focus in on it, to think about data usage as survey design is happening. It is all too easy to collect extraneous data without thinking through how (or whether) the data can be used later on. The second was to emphasize the importance of actually testing out surveys in the same contexts that the final surveying takes place. In all of the survey work that I have advised, prototyping and testing on real field usage has never failed to provide insight on how to do things better.

I was most helpful to Saptarshi, the tech guru of the organization, who writes the surveys of Formhub (using its XLSform language) and helps manage the mobile data collection efforts. He had only had a day or two of Formhub training, so I was able to re-inforce some of the XLSforms language, and show him some skip logic authoring. We also had some technical discussions which boiled down to the trade-offs between ease of data collection on the one hand and data usage and visualization on the other.

The one topic that I wished I could have had much more time with was OpenStreetMap. I showed Saptarshi how to edit data in OSM for the briefest of moments, and we added Rishi Aurobindo Colony, the playground in the colony, and some road names to the map. Longer term, I hope that the members of Prayasam are able to digitally represent their entire communities. They have already made beautiful paper maps representing their communities in a fabulous amount of detail. Soon, I hope that they are able to work with someone to create digitally represent the same in OSM. I know from the loud cheer I heard when we announced that Rishi Aurobindo Colony was now “on the map” that the members will really cherish this.

Parting Thoughts

I went to Prayasam knowing little about their actual ways of working, only knowing that they use Formhub and do surveying, and that I might be able to answer some questions for them. I did, and the trip was both productive and inspiring.

The visit also help re-inforce two things I have been thinking about recently. The first is technology’s role as an enabler. Mobile data collection enables Prayasam members to catalog issues in the community, which becomes powerful when (and only when) coupled with community leadership and activism. The second thing is the value of participatory and user-led design. As I think about design thinking and user-centered design more in the upcoming years, it will be useful to take inspiration from the kind of user-led design that Prayasam practices.

Discussing Android phone issues.

Thanks Prayasam team!

[1] – I serendipitously ended up learning about population education in the context of Adult English Education at Adhikaar just a week later.
[2] – The Revolutionary Optimists catalogs a great example of this. Salim and Shikha, from the Rishi Aurobindo colony, have done surveys about the quality of water in their communities, and used this data in combination with community lobbying to get municipal water installed in their community.