Beginning in 2009, while working with Microsoft Research India, Aishwarya Ratan spent 15 months figuring out how to help local microcredit co-ops, which often struggle with handwritten entries that are illegible, incorrect, or incomplete. Her solution combines digital technology with the familiar paper notebooks that villagers prefer. Co-op members use an electronic ballpoint pen to write in ledgers placed on a slate equipped with software that recognizes handwritten numbers. The slate provides feedback on whether the records are complete and legible, stores them in a database, and gives real-time balance updates, both on a screen and verbally in the local language. The database can be shared with the nongovernmental organizations and banks that back each co-op.
In field tests, the hybrid slate yielded entries that were 100 percent complete and made record keeping faster while letting co-op members retain the paper records they are comfortable with. The potential of the system is tremendous: microfinance co-ops serve 86 million Indian households. High-quality record keeping could make them more efficient, helping members save more and repay faster, and it could allow the co-ops to borrow more easily from banks.
In June, Ratan became the director of the Microsavings and Payments Innovation Initiative at Yale University, which as part of its mission studies how technologies can help the poor financially. Meanwhile, the NGO that Ratan was partnering with continues to test the slate in villages. —Prachi Patel