Social Enterprise: PlanetRead
Social Entrepreneur(s): Brij Kothari
Sector(s): Education, Media
Repurpose an existing technology to meet a social need.
The Innovation Explained
Closed captioning, the display of text synchronized to the audio portion of a TV program, has been around since the 1970s for the benefit of hearing impaired audiences. Similarly, the technology of subtitling is used in karaoke bars around the world, prompting singers to sing along to their favourite songs.
Same Language Subtitling (SLS), the innovation pioneered by social enterprise PlanetRead, repurposed this simple yet powerful tool to reinforce reading for people of all ages. In SLS – where what you hear is what you read – the words are lit up or synchronized in real time with the audio. When SLS is applied to popular films and Bollywood songs, millions of functionally illiterate Indians learn to read as they consume their daily entertainment. As Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, explains, “Whether we subtitle or not, people will be watching Bollywood anyway. By subtitling, reading practice becomes a by-product of entertainment.”
PlanetRead partners with India’s national television network, Doordarshan, to provide 5 hours of SLS programming across 10 different programmes each week – in ten of India’s major languages. This critical partnership enables PlanetRead’s innovation to reach over 200 million weak-reading viewers each week.
Why This Matters
India, where PlanetRead was born, has low literacy rates. A third of India’s age 6+ population, or 300 million people, are illiterate; another 600 million are officially ‘literate’ but half of whom are actually ‘functionally illiterate.’ With 22 official languages and a population spread across 645,000 villages, reaching people with reading matter presents a major logistics challenge as well.
TV, however, is already accessible to 750 million Indians. By leveraging this existing pathway into citizens’ homes, SLS is not only a robust tool to improve literacy, it is extremely cost-effective. The estimated cost to provide SLS on all aired film songs, in all the official languages in India is US$1 million per year, relatively miniscule compared to other literacy programs. And when you consider the staggering figure that 27 million Indian school children complete primary school each year as “non-functional readers,” SLS serves as a remarkably effective home-based complement to reading lessons at school, especially in areas where access to books is scarce but TV viewership is high.
Recombine passion and technology to achieve social objectives. “Subtitling is an existing technology, and TV is obviously an existing channel of communication,” said Brij Kothari. “What we did is add Indians’ existing passion for Bollywood movies and shows into the mix, and we recombined all three of those existing elements for huge educational impact.”
Back up your work with rigorous data to convince funders and policy makers. For nearly a decade, PlanetRead has collected data and supported rigorous research efforts, including third party evaluations. Multiple studies attest to the efficacy of SLS. Regular exposure to SLS, even as little as 30 minutes a week over a period of three years, significantly increases people’s functional literacy. “Any serious partner wants documented evidence, so research must be at your core,” said Brij Kothari. “With our solid research base, no one can dismiss this idea as ineffective. Certainly we would not have moved the policy establishment in India or abroad without robust data.”
Learn from the best of what’s out there. “Do not be driven by your own set of solutions,” said Brij Kothari. “It’s so easy in the information age to look for and find the best solutions that exist already. Give me 30 minutes on Google and I can find several social entrepreneurs tackling any social problem – most of whom would be willing to set up a skype call within days. Have a conversation and see what existing solutions you want to build on. It’s so easy to do today but we don’t do it enough.”