MIT and the shortcut to Nirvana

A team from MIT visits a Kumbh site. Photo via Ramesh Raskar.
A team from MIT visits a Kumbh site. Photo via Ramesh Raskar.

It is the largest religious gathering on earth. The colorful and chaotic Kumbh Mela, (Kumbh, for short), a triennial event hosted by one of India’s four second-tier cities, draws devotees by the millions. Now, thanks to Ramesh Raskar, a MIT Media Lab professor whose hometown, Nashik, is the venue for upcoming Kumbh, it has drawn tech-minded folks from Boston as well.

Nashik is Mumbai’s Worcester, but during the month-long Kumbh, it turns into a pop-up megacity for millions every 12 years. But Kumbh attendees didn’t always fare well during the event. During this joyous festival, dubbed “shortcut to Nirvana,” disaster has struck in the form of deadly stampedes, disease outbreaks, and children getting separated from their parents in the crowds (the lost child trope became a regular staple in older Bollywood films.)

Raskar is the head of the MIT’s Camera Culture Group and co-founder of EyeNetra, the Somerville startup behind cellphone-based optometry products. He is also the brains behind Kumbhathon, an ongoing series of tech build-a-thons in Nashik, created to address Kumbh-specific problems. This time, the problem solvers are collaborating with stakeholders in Nashik to develop mobile technologies to avert such tragedies.

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Professor Ramesh Raskar with students in Nashik.

“This is a bottom-up approach to innovation,” says Raskar. Pete Bell, co-founder of Endeca Technologies, who taught entrepreneurship at an earlier build-a-thon, says solutions will emerge from the resourceful lot in Nashik. These stakeholders are collaborating with students from MIT, institutes in Nashik, and elsewhere in India.

Here is a sampler of projects they’re working on: They’ve designed the Epimetrics app to allow medical staff to track the spread of viral diseases and intervene faster. The “MilApp” will help cops speedily reunite lost individuals with their loved ones. Data from cellphone towers can tell authorities if a site is getting too crowded, so they can re-route pilgrims accordingly.

Pickpockets could have a field day at the Kumbh, so innovators have developed an app for cashless payments. Even an ascetic with no electronics on him can use it by depositing money to buy a barcoded band which storekeepers will debit value from for each micro-transaction.

The Kumbh offers an unparalleled opportunity to test products instantaneously, at scale, says Caitlin Dolkart, a MBA student at MIT, who will attend the upcoming Kumbhathon. Its larger goal is to create a new generation of social entrepreneurs, says Raskar.

The organizers say there could be takeaway lessons from Nashik for other emerging cities, large gatherings, and refugee camps, the world over. Kumbhathon will take place in Nashik, India from Jan 24-31, 2015; Kumbh Mela comes to Nashik in the fall of 2015.