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Exploring the potential of mobile technology

Khanna, right, speaks to the attendees

On Thursday, August 28, SAI traveled to the West Coast for its second event in its San Francisco Series, which brings Harvard faculty to California for events on a variety of topics related to South Asia.

A group of Harvard alums and SAI supporters gathered in Palo Alto for a conversation with Tarun Khanna, Director of SAI and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School. Professor Khanna discussed SAI’s role as a bridge between Harvard faculty and South Asia, as well as his research on emerging markets and mobile technology.

The 2013 multi-school research on “Mapping the Kumbh Mela” spurred Professor Khanna’s research on the impact of mobile technology. This project brought together a team of over 50 faculty, students and staff from Harvard to travel to the world’s largest religious gathering.

The Mela inspired interdisciplinary research in a number of complementary fields: pilgrimage and religious studies, public health, design, communications, business, and infrastructure engineering. Professor Khanna traveled with a team from the Business School to analyze cell phone data from the festival, which has the potential to enable economic and social mobility.

Professor Khanna also shared four SAI-coordinated research projects, which are led by faculty from various schools at Harvard: The Contemporary South Asian City looks at rapidly urbanizing cities in South Asia; the Harvard Gender Violence Project‘s goal is to elevate the status of South Asian women by engaging societies to reject violence and foster respect for all people; Disaster Relief and Mental Health will form a plan for disaster response, including training for first responders and senior decision leaders; and Formal and Informal Businesses in India: Data, Linkages, and Regulations aims to examine the landscape of the informal economy, address legal regulatory issues, and reform policies, given that approximately 93% of India’s economy is informal.

All of these projects have the potential to cross disciplines, including Professor Khanna’s mobile technology research project, which is co-led by JP Onnela, Harvard School of Public Health. Professor Khanna expanded on several questions that his research aims to answer: How is data from cell phones being used to impact social change? Should regulations and regulatory infrastructures in developing countries be considered enablers or barriers to the use of cell phone data? What can ‘big data’ tell us about social networks and social patterns?

This study aims to reveal the capacity of this data to improve the livelihood of billions of people in the areas of education, health and financial services. The study also aims to reveal the challenges and obstacles for using the data, particularly related to privacy.

Read more about SAI’s research project on mobile technology.

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