SABT programming equipment

Dining table + workspace

As week 4 draws to a close, it has come to my attention that I have talked very little, if at all, about the actual work I’m doing here. As much as I would like it to be a travel blog, this is far from one. And in the interest of presenting a balanced perspective of the summer in Bangalore, I must shift focus to what I occupy myself with on a 9-to-5 basis.

Truth be told, the day my email inbox informed me about my selection for the iSTEP team seems like it belongs in a time far removed from the present. That’s not an entirely inaccurate statement, mind you – it has been about 7 months since I learnt I was going to be on the technology development team for iSTEP 2013. Did it come as a surprise? Not really. Was it what I wanted? Most certainly.

Fast-forward through 2 mini courses worth of ICTD field research prep, a couple of weekend prep sessions and a week’s worth of training and I was ready to hit the ground running with the rest of the iSTEP team. (I swear, the last sentence was not copied verbatim from any of my previous posts, but I do apologize for the redundancy, if any.) The iSTEP team consists of 2 teams – the technology development team and the needs assessment team. As a member of the tech team, I get to work closely with my teammates, Madeleine, Maddie and Poornima, who is our team lead. The needs assessment team consists of Aditya, Aveed, Avia and Shree Lakshmi a.k.a. SL, who is also the needs assessment team lead.

The iSTEP 2013 team has a few broad goals. The technology development team is supposed to iteratively user test and develop the Braille Writing Tutor, the Stand Alone Braille Tutor and a third new project that is yet to be determined. We also help train teachers at the Mathru School for the Blind’s primary centre to equip them with basic computer skills. The needs assessment team conducts interviews and leads user tests at both Mathru’s primary centre for the blind as well as their new multi-disability centre. Their work informs both current development as well as future projects. They are also in charge of all marketing activities related to iSTEP (this blog being a case in point). Of course, the needs assessment team is free to correct me if I’m wrong (and by correct, I would implore on them to follow the reasonable person principle and not chase me with pitchforks).

Having broad goals like these is all well and good, but this means that there are often other tasks and responsibilities that come up that are crucial to coordinating work on these goals. Also, naturally, it makes sense to break such broad goals and secondary responsibilities into smaller responsibilities that can be individually pinned to people on the team. The importance of this process was highlighted by the fact that a session during our orientation week focussed exclusively on divvying up these responsibilities as a team. At the end of it all, I present to you my four key responsibilities for the summer:

A picture of 3 teachers being trained at Mathru.

A teacher training session at Mathru. The teachers are using Microsoft Word to perform a typing exercise.

Coordinate SABT Project Tasks with Poornima – I guess this has taken up the biggest chunk of my time so far over the internship. The SABT or Stand Alone Braille Tutor is a portable battery-powered device that serves as a learning aid for visually impaired students by making a number of blind literacy exercises and games available to them. The device has multiple interface boards that can be swapped in and out depending on the proficiency level of the student. While the device has been tested before, this will be one of the first opportunities to extensively user test the device in the field. Poornima and I are in charge of debugging existing code, adding new functionality to the device and coordinating user testing with the needs assessment team. So far, we’ve reworked the user interface by removing a couple of bugs and adding a little functionality, improved the animal game, and added modes for free play and Hindi, with modes for Kannada, Math and household sounds also in the pipeline. The codebase is written exclusively in C and the device itself is powered by an Atmel 1284p microcontroller, along with a bunch of peripheral chips such as a VS1053 audio codec chip. In other words, this project is my personal heaven of messing around with embedded electronics along higher level user interface design and testing.

Coordinate and Monitor Version Control – While this does not seem like a major issue at first glance, the importance of well-organized and maintained git repositories becomes apparent as soon as you let more than 2 people have at a codebase at the same time. My job here had the potential to be quite a challenging one, but all it took was one team huddle for us to arrive at a consensus on a good strategy to prevent us from ending up with a completely wrecked codebase at the end of the summer. All changes are tested with the devices first by the developer, before being committed to a ‘testbed’ git branch, which is then extensively user-tested within the team before being merged into a ‘working’ git branch. So far, the only impediment to good version control has been patchy internet access.

Coordinate BWT Project with Madeleine C. – The BWT or Braille Writing Tutor, much like the SABT, is also a learning aid for visually impaired students. However, it was developed before the SABT and is powered and acts as a peripheral to a Windows PC running BWT software. The fact that the software runs on a PC instead of an embedded micro controller means that it can afford to be more advanced, and consequently, more complicated than the SABT’s. Think a multi-threaded object oriented programming approach with plenty of potential for adding modes on-the-go instead of at compile-time. Of course, Madeleine is the real expert on this code – she is leading BWT development and so far has not asked for my involvement apart from the occasional infuriatingly elusive bug. Mathru currently has 2 BWTs and we hope to update the version of BWT software on the PCs before the end of the summer with new modes and a better user interface.

Coordinate Teacher Training with Maddie G. – While not a task key to the advancement of any of the technologies we are developing, it is a request from Mathru that we took up. It’s an example of how we must work hand-in-hand with our partners to meet mutual needs. Personally, I’d like to believe this has been the most challenging and rewarding part of the summer so far. We are working with 3 blind teachers and 4-5 sighted teachers to impart basic computer operation skills to them. While seemingly straightforward, this task is compounded by the fact that many of the teachers had varying levels of proficiency to begin with – with the blind teachers having had significant experience in typing and word processing and this being the first interaction with a computer for some of the sighted teachers. Add persistent aggressive virus infections on some of the PCs and power outages and Maddie and I pretty much had our work cut out for us. It’s challenging in that I want to be able to impart practical knowledge to the teachers in the short time that I have with them, but not at the risk of leaving other concepts that come up along the way unexplained. It’s rewarding in that I get to see the progress before my very eyes such as how someone who used to previously peck at keys individually on a keyboard now naturally rests his hands on the home row of the keyboard and types with all 10 fingers.

Poornima programming the SABT in bed

I cut myself off here since I have the tendency to ramble. But before I leave, I leave you with this picture that demonstrates just how much Poornima’s “heart is in the work” as a tech team lead and SABT co-developer, even at 9pm. 🙂


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