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DNA Mumbai Edition Feature on Social Media and the Web Do gooders- an interview with Sriram Bharatam

A web of do-gooders

R Krishna / DNA
Sunday, December 27, 2009 0:48 IST
Mumbai: Sriram Bharatam, founder and CEO, iridium Interactive, an internet consultancy firm based in Hyderabad, runs a non-profit called Cause an Effect Foundation. Last week, the foundation installed a water treatment facility in a village near Hyderabad. Bharatam, who was in the village to oversee the operations, started tweeting and updating his Facebook status message about what he saw there — the villagers, their culture and the curiosity they showed in the project.

Within a few hours, close to 100 people on his network responded, says Bharatam. “Initially, the comments were about how great the project was. Then, a few started asking more serious questions such as ‘What is reverse osmosis?’. I started getting into the details like the chlorine levels in the water which can cause disability, and that it takes Rs2 lakh to install a water treatment unit. It was then that five people came forward to donate money. In one day, I inspired these five people to give around Rs10 lakh.”

According to Bharatam, 10 years ago he would have had to put in a lot of effort convincing people. “Today, I am having a simple conversation and call to action is happening.”

The internet, especially social networking, is a great enabler for people who have a cause, but lack the wherewithal to get a large number of people to pay attention offline. Ask Ranjeet Walunj, a Mumbai-based professional, who started The Sapling Project this month. The project aims to get people all over the city to plant saplings (which were given away for free at the inaugral event) and nurture them for two years.

Walunj and his friend Satish Vijaykumar with whom he started the project, talked extensively about The Sapling Project on Twitter and Facebook. “The first level of contact with people we have is on social media,” says Walunj explaining why social media was central to The Sapling Project. “We could have opted for offline media, but the problem is that I cannot measure its impact. For example, I won’t know how many people will come for distribution. But in online media, I know exactly who is doing what. Measurability is an important reason for opting for social media.”

There was also an off-shoot. Following Walunj’s posts, bloggers from Chennai and Bangalore too got interested and started chapters of the Sapling Project in their cities.

Collaborative Tool
Social media can be used not just to raise money, spread the word or get people together. It’s a great tool for collaboration and drawing upon a diversity of expertise. IIT Bombay, for example, has built an online service called aAqua ( that allows farmers to post queries related to farming or allied activities (such as setting up a dairy).
According to Krithi Ramamritham of the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at IIT Bombay, a set of experts from various Krishi Vigyan Kendras and some agricultural universities then provide solutions to the problems which the farmers can implement.

This is similar to Yahoo Answers, where you post any question, and someone from the community provides the answers. The key difference, Ramamritham points out, is that “both the farmers and experts are shy of computers.” Still, after about five years of operation, close to 15,000 people have registered with aAqua and now around 25,000 farmers get their answers on SMSes, says Ramamritham.

Social media’s “reach” however does not ensure success. Many causes that grow through tweets and pokes fizzle out quickly. Netra Parikh who works with Pinstorm, a Mumbai-based online marketing agency, and an active Tweeter, says, “I myself have experienced that. Causes tend to fizzle out due to lack of consistency, determination, and focus. But most important, one needs to own that cause.”

Beyond I, Me, Myself
Bharatam agrees. “Conversation is merely the trigerring point to start anything. And social media is where conversations happen. But you have to follow up. A casual conversation should turn into a serious conversation, then into an organised conversation, which finally will result in concrete action.” Bharatam who started Cause an Effect as a website to raise money to help victims of the 1999 Orissa cyclone, says that while the online medium makes things easier, it is also very demanding. “Internet itself was a new concept in India when I first started the website. People wanted to know who I was and how they could be sure I wouldn’t run away with the money. It took a week for me to convince people about the cause. Initially we were asking people to send in cheques. But that was taking too long. So we set up a system where people could wire the money. Next, someone suggested that we put up a payment gateway so people could pay with credit cards. I didn’t even know what an online payment gateway was!” Bharatam was just an ordinary citizen with a regular job when he started the website. But it turned out to be a 24/7 job. “I don’t know whether people have that kind of commitment. If you look at Twitter or Facebook right now, it is all about I, me, myself. There is no agenda. There is no focused activity. If there’s a single point agenda, people will respond to you.”



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