India CSR Network interviewed Manoj Balachandran, Head – CSR, IBM India & South Asia to discuss challenges, interventions, achievements and plans of CSR. Excerpts:
What have been the major challenges to implement CSR initiatives during the Covid-19 outbreak? What were the COVID relief initiatives?
IBM’s CSR programs are long term engagements that are designed to create impact across years. Following the onset of Covid19 the world has entered an extreme digitization mode and technology has become key to navigating it. The pandemic forced businesses to quickly adapt to online workplaces and business models driven by technologies like Cloud & AI which also drove the demand for new skillsets suited to the situation
We focused on supplementing India’s skilling efforts through programs that can be delivered online as well as through traditional methods. IBM’s flagship programs like STEM for Girls, SkillsBuild, Open PTECH, though launched before the pandemic, took on a digital format during the second half of 2020. Despite the prolonged lockdown of schools and educational institutions, we have onboarded over 600,000 learners across our digital learning programs indicating high engagement and retention among the youth. As of today, we have reached over 10 million learners in India through our good tech initiatives, skilling engagements, collaborations with clients and partners.
For our Covid relief activities, we are leveraging the collective power and resilience of IBMers to create a real impact.
NGO volunteers : IBMers are volunteering to become first responders on Covid-19 helplines through a collaboration with StepOne and Jeevan Raksha Trust. StepOne is an NGO having an interface with 18 state governments and is helping to train & deploy volunteers to respond to queries on the government helpline. Jeevan Raksha Trust needs these volunteers to work with the Karnataka COVID-19 task force to coordinate the smooth transition of patients, who are discharged from hospital to the lower dependency beds or home setting. This includes calling COVID-19 patients, counselling and educating them, find out if they need help to consult doctors, and escalate if they should be shifted to a hospital for further care. With over 1700 volunteers already signed up, this is really making a difference to quickly triage requests and ensure that needs are matched to resources available nationally.
IBM has partnered with United Way of India to drive an employee giving campaign. Employees can donate financially to the NGO and they in turn are working with several partners at the ground level to provide critical and emergency care for the community. Together with their network of ground partners, the United Way of India is helping to equip hospitals and healthcare workers, provide food to those who have lost their source of income, and facilitate vaccinations, especially among low income communities.
Some of the employee volunteer programs that had started in 2020 are continuing.
In 2020 when the pandemic had started, IBM volunteers created a website for an NGO Simply Blood to bring together NGOs on a common platform to help in COVID-19 relief work across India. The website is http://www.sankatcare.org/ still active and supporting donors & healthcare workers.
In 2020, IBMers organized Feed the Needy campaigns across major locations to pool resources and serve ready meals to thousands including daily wagers, migrant labours and others who had lost their livelihood due to lock down. There were IBM volunteer groups to provide ration and medication support to diversity groups such as transgenders who were impacted due to lockdown and isolation.
We had groups of IBMers taking care of stray animals in cities with food and water.
The health & wellbeing of our employees is a number one priority for IBM. We have put together a comprehensive support plan for our employees and their families to tide through this pandemic including vaccination camps, Covid chatbot assistant for IBMers, medically supervised quarantine facilities, emergency transport and hospital facilities and Oxygen concentrators for IBMers.
COVID squads : We have organized squad groups staffed by IBMer volunteers to take service requests and match them to verified sources of available resources – Hospital Beds, ICUs, Oxygen requirements, ambulances, medicines etc. We have created COVID squads in each of our Delivery Centers to cater to the local requirements.
Employee support groups have been set up across cities to provide employees with a platform to discuss issues, challenges, concerns and coping mechanisms such as managing stress, staying active and promoting self-care. Covid Warrior stories to energise teams.
How is IBM using technology to solve real-world problems and create social impact in the agriculture sector?
At IBM we not only solve business problems, but also put the power of tech to work for good. Being a responsible steward of technology is core to IBM culture and GoodTech is at the heart of it.
Farming has always been a complex undertaking that requires farmers to manage an interconnected web of pre-season and in-season decisions with dependence on ever changing weather conditions. With the explosion of data from farm equipment, environmental sensors, and remote input, they no longer need to rely only on intuition or traditional technology to understand what drives variation in yield or derive insights. Combining artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and predictive analytics can aid stakeholders across the agriculture ecosystem in gaining insights into projected yields and potential problems, helping to enable better decisions.
With one of the objectives to help farmers to better anticipate and prepare for dramatic shifts in weather and more, IBM leverages IBM Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System (GRAF), the first hourly-updating commercial weather system that predicts something as small as a thunderstorm, virtually anywhere on the planet. Compared to existing models, IBM GRAF provides a nearly 200 percent improvement in forecasting resolution for much of the globe (12 – 3 km)
In India, crop damages due to pest attacks causes billions of dollars of loss annually.
With the help of Precision Agriculture techniques, growers can identify certain types and severity levels of pest and disease damage. IBM has brought Data and AI together to create Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture – an innovation that draws upon our most advanced capabilities in AI, analytics, IoT, Cloud, and weather to create a suite of solutions that extracts valuable insights. For example, a grower can take a photograph of a plant up-close and with the help of Watson identify what type of pest is affecting the plant. This solution also uses satellite imagery to help producers understand which parts of their field are under stress.
The Call for Code Global Challenge by IBM is the largest and most ambitious Tech for Good platform bringing together the world’s developers and problem solvers to take on pressing societal issues. India’s developer community has been one of the major participants in this global effort. Indian team AI Farm won the Call for Code Asia Pacific Challenge 2020 for an intelligent system that evaluates climate and soil conditions to provide farmers with information to adapt their crop strategies. The solution is currently being tested out as a pilot in Maharashtra.
How has IBM collaborated with the government to bring out agriculture solutions? How many state governments have you collaborated with so far?
The Government of India is now taking steps to deploy AI, IoT and data analytics in agriculture so that farmers can take advantage of a tech-driven, sustainable approach to agriculture.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare collaborated with IBM to deploy IBM’s precision agriculture solution which combines AI and weather technology to obtain and analyse farm level insights. IBM Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture was implemented as a pilot study in Nanded (Maharashtra), Bhopal (MP) and Rajkot (Gujarat) to obtain farm level weather forecast and village level soil moisture.
Krishi Vigyan Kendra, part of Baramati, Maharashtra-based Agriculture Development Trust, has developed ‘Krushik’ mobile app specifically for farmers in the state to boost overall agricultural productivity. The digital information portal, made available for free & in Marathi language, provides weather based agro-advisory, agriculture related news, crop market rates, information about government schemes and most importantly, 15 days village-level weather forecast powered by data from The Weather Company, which is part of IBM. With monsoons in India impacted in the last few years owing to changing weather patterns, the detailed and accurate weather forecast information delivered through the app have helped more than 150,000 farmers make more informed decisions on their crops.
IBM has always been active in terms of social responsibility. Can you tell me what the other IBM social responsibility initiatives are?
IBM is working with multiple government bodies across sectors to incorporate technical and professional skills training as part of curriculums and to provide free digital education through initiatives like STEM for Girls, Open PTech and SkillsBuild.
We are the technology partner to NITI Aayog and Ministry of Education to build sāmShiksha, a digital education platform to provide last mile connectivity for quality higher education. As the technology partner, IBM is applying its Enterprise Design Thinking framework and leveraging IBM Cloud to design and build a secure, unified platform that brings together quality content from multiple governments and private content providers. sāmShiksha has the potential to scale up to become a “single-point” source for higher education in India, by serving as a virtual university that enables easy access to knowledge and skills as well as be a bridge between students, faculty, schools and service providers.
In 2019, we started the STEM for Girls India program with a vision is to prepare over 200,000 high school girls, across multiple states to pursue and understand their potential in STEM careers. In 2021, STEM for Girls have reached over 180,000 students through 1200 schools across 11 states —Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Odisha, Assam, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. IBM has onboarded over 290,000 learners on our skilling platforms Open P-Tech and SkillsBuild combined – a key milestone towards fulfilling our skilling commitment to the nation.
CBSE has collaborated with IBM to develop a curriculum of Artificial Intelligence, to be introduced as an elective subject for class IX to XII. The pilot project was launched as part of the CBSE SEWA program last year with the aim of reaching 200 schools across 13 states in India. We have now covered 160 schools and over 12,000 students have benefitted from the program. IBM is collaborating with National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) to offer ‘Open P-TECH’, a free digital education platform focused on emerging technologies and professional development skills, to empower Indian youth on various skills to succeed in future careers.
IBM also works with various NGOs to help marginalized communities. We partnered with the Abheda Foundation to design and build a Chabot that simulates human conversation. “Professor Idiom” is an AI-based chatbot application that teaches English to students aged 10-16 by utilizing story-based scenarios. A volunteer team of IBM research scientists has created a framework using artificial intelligence and machine learning to help aid organizations identify and hire lay counsellors. EmancipAction, an NGO working to disrupt child sex trafficking, is using the new model to identify and shortlist potential counsellors.
During the past four years twenty volunteers from IBM in Bangalore have been coming together every Saturday to teach basic computer and soft skills to the differently abled children of the Spastics Society of Karnataka – an NGO dedicated to the welfare of people with Neuro-Muscular and Developmental Disabilities. Students receive IBM certifications on completing the program and their parents receive feedback on their child’s strengths. This and the EmancipAction project were two among just 14 teams worldwide to receive the IBM Volunteer Excellence Award with USD 10000 grant from our CEO Arvind Krishna.
How do you think can businesses contribute towards achieving social responsibility goals?
In my opinion, businesses need to look beyond cheque-book philanthropy and the mandatory spend commitments towards leveraging their skills, expertise, talent and resources to help communities and human lives tackle their core challenges while at the same time contributing to National priorities.
IBM’s long-standing commitment to GoodTech reflects our company’s most deeply held values as well as our pledge to put responsible stewardship at the core of our business strategy. As the leading Hybrid Cloud & AI company, we consider it our responsibility to leverage our expertise and our strong ecosystem collaborations to tackle and solve some of the most pressing problems that our communities face daily.
This commitment will continue through these top 3 areas – Skilling, Volunteering & Sustainability.
We will continue to invest in skilling & reskilling to strengthen India’s digital education system. We will look at continued collaborations with government and corporate partners to build platforms and promote projects that accelerate the country’s Digital India vision.
The IBM Service Corps deploys teams of employees to partner with social enterprises, NGOs and governments on issues in education, health, disaster preparedness and economic development which also helps the employees’ get a perspective around societal issues to address.
We are committed to environmental leadership in each of its business activities, from its operations to the design of its products and development of solutions using its technology. We will leverage our expertise in Cloud, AI, IoT & data analytics to build actionable assets, strategy and resources that drives sustainable practices for ourselves, clients, and partners. We recently announced our commitment towards achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – a key milestone in this direction.