U-M students gain hands-on design experience during summer in India

Six teams of University of Michigan students in the Global Information Engagement Program (GIEP) recently concluded a summer semester in India, where they spent six to eight weeks testing information project prototypes they had developed with partnering institutions. 

GIEP, led by assistant professor of information Joyojeet Pal, began at the School of Information (UMSI) in 2013 as part of a larger U-M initiative to create sustainable partnerships in India. The program connects carefully selected student teams with non-profit, research and educational organizations in an international location.

The six teams this year were tasked with projects that included designing learning management systems in health and education settings, improving health service delivery to mothers in rural communities through mobile technology and formalizing library collection and management procedures. 

“Students are prepared through a one-semester class with readings on international issues and a week-by-week preparation on how to implement their projects,” said Pal. “Following this, the second semester for the students is spent on the ground in India implementing on site with their partner organizations.”

Pritika Dasgupta (left) and the India Elderconnect team present their project.

One of the projects this year, India ElderConnect, is a web portal designed for senior citizens across India. The team of students collaborated with Nightingales Medical Trust in Bangalore to improve access to health resources for South Indian elders, their families and elder care organizations. 

“India’s population of senior citizens is rapidly growing, and a reputable eldercare NGO, Nightingales Medical Trust, saw a need for an easily accessible repository of information online,” said Pritika Dasgupta, a first-year master’s student in health informatics and member of the ElderConnect team. “While many Indian elder care websites exist, they have numerous disadvantages, including that they are not user-friendly, comprehensive, updated often or compatible on mobile phones.”

While the team spent a semester designing, developing and building the web portal, Dasgupta said working on-site allowed the group to observe the importance of social support systems in elder care services which led the team to include more prominent social features on their site. 

Malcolm MacLachlan (right) and the Urban Informatics team meet outside their partner institution.

Another team of GIEP students specializing in Urban Informatics developed a web interface to improve pricing transparency in India’s developing property market. The team, which includes students from UMSI and U-M’s Master’s in Urban Planning program, aimed to bridge an information gap affecting both buyers and city government by providing access to property valuations in Bangalore.

“For me it was a great experience to be a technical lead in an interdisciplinary team,” said Malcolm MacLachlan, a second-year UMSI master’s student and the only UMSI student on the Urban Informatics team.  “I was able to provide a disciplinary background in information skills during the product development phase – wireframing, contextual interviewing, situation and persona development and user experience materials. I also learned a great deal from my team members about the social issues of planning, geospatial tools and visualization, and about a different approach to design.”

While in India, the teams received support from their partners including the provision of data, facilities and an intern to assist with the technical work. 

“Once we came on-site, we started working at a fast pace to get everything done by the program’s end date,” said MacLachlan. “While at times it was a challenging amount of work, my team and I stepped up to the challenge by spending additional time at our work site and even working at home. We worked with our partners to continually update and refine our data sets. At one point it seemed like we were getting new data every day. The guidance and input of our partners was invaluable in building the functionalities of the site and deciding what data to show.”

MacLachlan said that his team has been invited to speak in both academic and organizational settings, as well as received invitations for both research and corporate opportunities in areas such as real estate analytics.

"With GIEP we give students first-hand experience running a complex client project in both a situation where they are expected to perform as professionals and leave an end output that has real-world usability,” said Pal. “Students are challenged on two fronts. First, they are typically placed in multi-disciplinary teams. We try to comprise each group with at least some non-UMSI students. Second, most of the students are working internationally for the first time, which is an additional learning experience for them."

“Overall, I had a very rich experience with the project in India,” MacLachlan said. “I found the organizations and partners that we worked with to be collegial and eager to help us succeed in our project.”

2015 project teams:

Centre for Internet and Society | Edukitchen: Flexible Learning System
Location: Bangalore, India

IIHS and IIIT-B | Urban Informatics Portal
Location: Bangalore, India

iKure | mobile Maternal-Child Health (mMCH)
Location: Kolkata, India

National Institute of Speech and Hearing | Library Management / Disability and Sport
Location: Trivandrum, India 

Nightingales Medical Trust | Eldercare
Location: Bangalore, India

Sundaram Medical Foundation / Be Well Hospitals | Hospital Learning Management System
Location: Chennai, India

Posted on August 18, 2015