Home / Politics / Policy /  Mobile One: Governance at your fingertips

An anganwadi worker in rural Karnataka can register her attendance through a service called Mobile One, which a software professional in Bengaluru can also use to pay electricity and water bills or book tickets.

This innovation is not by a start-up but by the Karnataka government’s centre for e-governance, which pitches its mobile governance offering, available in both Kannada and English, as anytime, anywhere, anyhow services for anyone.

Launched in December 2014 after a pilot in 2013, Mobile One, certified by the Internet and Mobile Association of India as the world’s largest multi-channel mobile services platform, now has over 4,000 services, both public and private.

The services can be used not just through a smartphone app, but on the Web at mobile.karnataka.gov.in, through interactive voice recognition (IVR—a system where users interact with an automated system through their mobile keypads), or using unstructured supplementary service data by dialling *161# (USSD; in which an SMS is sent to the network provider, usually requesting some data which is sent in a basic format) or by sending SMSes to 161 (a short code that is uniform for all telecom operators in India).

Mobile One offers the same user interface across all channels and is device-agnostic. This is one of the main features that distinguish it from other such initiatives, and helps in bridging social, urban-rural and digital divides, says Rathan Kelkar, chief executive of the centre for e-governance. Although he claims he is not tech-savvy, the MBBS graduate who joined the civil service spearheads the project, and leads a team of 15 working on Mobile One.

The tele-density of phones in rural Karnataka (the number of telephones per 100 people) is 46.24, against the tele-density of 167.20 in urban Karnataka. This skew is reflected in the majority of services that Mobile One offers, which are useful mainly to those in the urban areas.

Kelkar said the centre is now working towards rectifying this by expanding its services for the rural market by integrating with the horticulture department, and setting up farmer registration for weather alerts, crop, pesticide or water information.

The centre for e-governance is waiting for funds from the government to launch an aggressive marketing campaign that would attract more users to the platform. Despite the lack of publicity, the app and the website have recorded 9.8 million visits and over 4 million IVR calls.

An automated personalized dashboard for app users, which would suggest services based on their transactions, and a mobile wallet for easy payments are also in the offing, which strengthen the app’s positioning as a platform for discovering services.

“Nobody has invited a private guy to come onto a government platform, whereas lot of innovation happens in the private sector. Here, it (Mobile One) allows entrepreneurship, it allows the platform to develop on par with industry standards, and that no government has attempted," Kelkar said, quoting the example of Nano Ganesh and Buffalo Grid, private services available through Mobile One, which allow users to switch on water pumps at their convenience and to access solar power to charge devices, respectively.

Anand Parthasarathy, editor of India Tech Online, who served on the panels for various e-governance awards, said Mobile One’s simple interface and mix of private and public services make it a model other state governments can emulate instead of creating everything from scratch.

Services from government departments are free, while private providers are charged a fee for using the platform. For certain services, users pay a convenience fee. The revenue is divided between the technology partner IMI Mobile (which developed and maintains the platform), and the government.

One of the main criticisms of electronic and mobile governance is the lack of a sustainable revenue model, but Mobile One seems to have figured it out. It has generated about 4 crore in revenue so far, almost matching its government grant of 3.99 crore for 2014-15. Although it relies on central and state government funds now, Kelkar is optimistic about Mobile One becoming self-sustaining once the number of users rises.

However, the huge volume of services may become an impediment to some users. “It took me about 10 minutes just to figure out where the birth certificate application was. I had to browse through every option," said Santosh G.T., who decided to try the app after a week of trying to get his birth certificate corrected in the Bengaluru municipal corporation’s office. Currently there is no option to search for services.

Many departments were reluctant to join Mobile One as it required an overhaul of their business processes, but a few, such as the social welfare department, which opened up registration for birth and death certificates, and the road transport office, which enabled applications for learner’s and driving licences, simplified their forms to suit the medium.

Kelkar said the success of the project depends on how departments leverage the platform. “The biggest challenge is going and convincing and getting the back-end and the databases ready. The departments have to be e-ready to become m-ready."

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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