Fellows Friday with Gautam John

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Once an Intellectual Property lawyer that guarded knowledge, Gautam John is now dedicated to radically improving access to information. From open-source children’s books to collecting and analyzing school performance data, Gautam works to bring systemic change to India’s education system through a freer flow of information.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Gautam asks:

Ideas versus execution: Which side of the equation are you on, and why?

Click here to respond!

You have been a lawyer, an agriculturalist, an entrepreneur, and more. What first got you interested in working in education?

I was fortunate to have an absolutely brilliant education, going to some of the best schools in Bangalore. It wasn’t until I started working that I discovered my experience was far more an aberration than the norm in India.

Because I had done a lot of work previously with an agriculture-based business, where I went out to rural areas and dealt with farmers, I soon realized that education was something I’d taken for granted. The more time I spent in rural India, the more I realized how important education is. Education allows people to make a choice. It allows people to change jobs, and gives people flexibility to do different things.

I wanted to do something in the education field that was larger than one child, one school, or one cluster of individuals or institutions. I wanted to do something that was able to bring about systemic change.

How does your work with Pratham Books and Akshara Foundation help you work toward that systemic change?

Both organizations have these really large, ambitious goals. The mission statement for Pratham Books is “A book in every child’s hand.” I used to be an avid reader as a child and I know how important reading can be to a child. Akshara’s mission is “Every child in school and learning well.” Both organizations have allowed me to take on these goals using practical tools.

Gautam (top left) with the Pratham Books Bangalore team.

As head of Karnataka Learning Partnerships at Akshara Foundation, your goal is to improve government transparency and accountability in public education. What does that process look like?

Over the last 10 years Akshara has worked in pre-primary and primary education. But it has worked primarily in the supply side, which means improving the teaching and learning materials, providing remedial interventions in public schooling, etc. The model I’ve been working with has been to use all of our experiences working on the supply side to help build a demand side push on the system to actually get the communities where children go to public schools to start to hold the entire system accountable.

While Akshara might only focus on teaching reading, arithmetic, and English, there are other organizations which do health and nutrition and science and other programs. We take the data from these different programs to tell a compelling narrative about each school to the community. This allows the community, that now has access to greater amounts of data about the schools in their area, to hold the system accountable, to ask for better facilities, to ask why the school isn’t doing as well as the neighboring schools, and so forth.

There are already innumerable children’s books in print in the world. Why is Pratham Books’ work publishing children’s books so important?

There are two issues there. One is that the Indian market is multilingual. We have 21 constitutionally recognized languages. There certainly aren’t a sufficient quantity of quality books being produced in these 21 languages.

The second issue is just the sheer number of books being published. For roughly 300 million children, we don’t produce many books. For every child in India, there is roughly one-twentieth of a book published. In the United Kingdom, there are six books produced for every child. So there’s a huge gap between the variety of languages of books being published in India, and the sheer number of books being published.

What’s going on behind the scenes at Pratham Books?

We’re trying to build an entirely new publishing model. The reason Pratham Books was set up was simply because there weren’t enough low-cost, high-quality children’s books in multiple Indian languages being published.

Children listen while a Pratham Book is read aloud.

We’ve been working with interesting licensing models. We build community with technology to grow the number of titles that are distributed in the country, and to grow the quantity and variety of books produced. We also utilize it to publish in new languages, to publish in new formats and new mediums, and also to be more inclusive — that is, publishing for children who would otherwise not have an opportunity to read, like the visually impaired and blind.

The model has two components: online and offline. For the large part it’s online: we use pretty much all digital content.

We publish seed content online and use Creative Commons license. Then the online community creates the magic. It translates our books into French and Italian and Spanish and Assamese and languages that we don’t publish in. It converts it into iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle versions, and in to Braille.

We also have the offline community that acts as a sort of free agent of bridges between the online and offline community. They find places that need books and they help take this digital content and translate it into physical forms.

How does your offline community reach people who need books?

We’ve been working on some different models. We’ve been working on using post offices, trains and rural malls to see if we can use them as points of distribution. We’re starting an experiment with a cell phone provider to see how we can push content out via cell phones. As everyone keeps saying, 500-odd million people have cell phones in India, which is over 50 percent of the population.

We’re always trying new models. About a year or so ago we tried to see if we could use vending machines to sell our books at train stations and bus stations.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

Two things. First, don’t be afraid to experiment. But secondly, when you do experiment, make sure you’re honest about failure. And if you do fail, fail fast.

You were instrumental in bringing about an open-access business model at Pratham Books. Is it really a money-making model?

It’s surprising, right? We’ve been experimenting with this model for two years now. Our sales have actually gone up over 50 percent every year. The market is so vast. In India, giving away your content for free does not affect the largest part of your market, which is not online. The books are priced at cost or just under cost.

Even when the content is online, there is something about reading books in the printed form. Because we do it in such scale, we’re able to price it at very low costs.

Gautam in Pratham Books gear.

You used to be an intellectual property lawyer, but now you promote free access to information. What caused the epiphany?

The more I examined it, the more I saw that existing legal frameworks and structures were actually restricting some of the things that we’d like to promote. And it was interesting finding a solution for our business problem within the existing copyright framework.

Are there some IP laws that should be changed to allow more sharing?

For me, intellectual property rights have probably strayed too far from their original intention. The original intention was a delicate balance between promoting innovation and new content and balancing our right to consume that content freely. I think it’s been weighted now too far in favor of those producing the content, or the people representing those producing the content.

The constant extension of the term of copyright is an example of a law that has swung too far away from the public right. I think it’s now between 60 and 70 years from the death of the author. That is something that has consistently extended over time. It started at just 14 years. That’s really uncomfortable for me, because it locks up so much content for such unnecessarily long periods of time, and makes it unavailable to the public domain.

Do you do any other work promoting access to information?

Well, I sit on the advisory board of Inclusive Planet, an organization that’s helping build an online platform for the visually impaired to connect socially, and to be able to share content. I think the work they do is very important and tremendously powerful. It’s traditionally an area that falls off most people’s radar. But visually impaired people want the same things you and I do: a place to socialize and a place to share content, and all of that.

I’m also part of a group of people that help set up the local chapter in India to help promote Wikipedia as a method to spread free knowledge. And I spend a fair amount of time mentoring youth start ups. I have experiences that I think is nice to share, and in sharing, I learn, too.

How has the TED Fellowship impacted you?

It’s been absolutely mind-blowing. It’s given me access to a bunch of people who are all so much smarter than me. I can now call upon them to bounce ideas off them. They are my personal brain trust. The TED Fellowship is the gift that keeps giving.