IIT-H spearheads interdisciplinary cross institution, cross country research

Dr U B Desai explains how IIT Hyderabad,IIT Madras, and IIT Kanpur and Japanese universities—Keio University, and University of Tokyo are working together to minimise the adverse impact of natural disasters

Dr U B Desai, Principal Investigator, DISANET (India); explains how they manage to seamlessy incorporate and work with the specialised inputs of multiple institutes using management best practices. The myraid institutes were brought together in an Indo-Japan effort under DISANET to alleviate the damages that natural disasters can bring in the region.

The 5WH in brief

Who: Dr U B Desai, Principal Investigator, DISANET (India); Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering; and Director, Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad and Professor Jun Murai, Principal Investigator, DISANET (Japan); Dean/ Professor, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University.

What: Professor Desai is leading the implementation of DISANET from the Indian side; DISANET is a Indo-Japanese joint research project spanning multiple Indian institutions including IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur and two leading Japanese universities—Keio University and University of Tokyo.

When: Between 2010 and 2015

Why: To mitigate the adverse impact of natural disasters by accurately assessing the earthquake hazard risk of earthquake-prone areas in North India and establishing systems that will aid recovery and relief in the eventuality of a quake

Where: Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad and in the premises of other participating and assisting institutions

How: By reaching out to specialist organisations in India, and implementing management best practices to lead the team.

        Dr U B Desai, Principal Investigator, DISANET (India)

Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad (IIT H) is one of eight new IITs established during the eleventh Five Year Plan. It started to function from a temporary campus in Hyderabad in 2008. Around then, the Government of India asked the Government of Japan for assistance for developing one of the new IITs. IIT H is fortunate to be the chosen one. The governments have jointly identified five focus areas for academic collaboration—nano-technology and nano-science, next generation communication technology, environment and energy, design and manufacturing, and sustainable development.

Japan is assisting IIT H through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). JICA’s integrated support to IIT H encompasses joint research collaboration, a loan for the development of its new campus, and academic exchanges through technical cooperation. In particular, joint research between IIT H and other higher educational institutions in India and Japan is expected to build strong research networks and long-term partnerships between the two countries.

Taking on big challenges

One of the early areas of collaboration is the Indo-Japanese research project DISANET, short for Information Network for Natural Disaster Mitigation and Recovery. DISANET aims at assessing the earthquake hazard to the Indo-Gangetic plains from the seismically active Himalayan range. It entails deploying robust motion seismometers to record actual earthquakes occurring in the region, and analyzing the data so gathered, pertaining to moderate size earthquakes, to predict strong ground motions during future large earthquakes. Such pre-disaster monitoring is vital for disaster mitigation.

A second project component aims at developing robust, highly accurate and affordable weather hazard monitoring sensors, and a communication system to transfer the data so collected to a network control centre. It also involves developing rapidly deployable communications infrastructure enabling Internet access, telephony and multimedia data transfer for post-disaster recovery and relief, and data sharing among various stakeholders such as victims, emergency workers and government agencies.

As a research project, DISANET is especially challenging because its key deliverables span several disciplines, some of which aren’t even strong points of engineering specialists. Then, how has Professor U B Desai, Principal Investigator of DISANET in India successfully got the project off the ground and moving ahead at an appreciable pace?

Many brains are better than one

Applying these proven management principles and out-of-the-box thinking has helped DISANET get off to a good start and progress without hindrances:

THINK BIG, LOOK BEYOND: Natural disaster mitigation is a complex issue. It’s not only about communication and engineering but also has meteorological and geo-physical components. Therefore, disaster mitigation research requires an interdisciplinary approach cutting across various areas. The tricky thing is—one institution may not possess all of these skills. What then?

Professor Desai strongly recommends institutions getting involved in big research projects to stay open to the possibility of partnering with others who possess complementary skills—“When you are tackling big challenges, think big. Look beyond your institution for skill sets that you may not possess.”

Sharing his own experience, Professor Desai says—“When we were getting this project off the ground, we became aware of the need to complement our strengths in information and communication technology with skills in weather monitoring and seismology and in working with very large sets of data—data gathering, data monitoring and data analysis. So, we invited onboard the National Geophysical Research Institute and Indian Metrological Department respectively.”

IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur came onboard the project for the same reason—“to complement IIT H’s skills, especially since our faculty strength was fairly low at the time we started.”

CHOOSE THE RIGHT PEOPLE: “Research cannot be forced. It must be allowed to proceed at its own pace,” says Professor Desai. “Still, the best you can do to ensure that it moves ahead as intended is to select the right people.”

Selecting the right people has other benefits, such as enabling a decentralised approach, which has proven very useful for the smooth implementation of DISANET. Professor Desai advocates “building self-organising groups comprised of highly capable and responsible individuals who have clear understanding of the project and its deliverables.”

BREAK UP THE PROBLEM INTO COMPONENTS: Professor Desai has been instrumental in putting together a formidable team in India, which is working with Keio University and the University of Tokyo in Japan. Dr Jun Murai of Keio University is Principal Investigator, DISANET in Japan, and also Dean of that university’s Faculty of Environment and Information Studies.

DISANET is unique because it brings together several academic institutions and research organisations in India and Japan, to work collectively to tackle a major societal problem. But this very uniqueness, the sheer scale of the project presents management challenges. DISANET has been broken down into four areas for better management.

Group 1 is looking at earthquake disaster mitigation, Group 2 is creating a weather monitoring platform, Group 3 is establishing sustainable communication infrastructure, and Group 4 is designing an ICT platform and resource development for emergency and disaster mitigation. IIT H is playing a role in each of these groups.

BE OPEN TO ADJUST: In supervising the overall implementation of large projects, leaders may need to make adjustments here and there. Professor Desai explains—“It can be tricky to put together the pieces of a large task, each of which is being implemented by different teams. You may need to tweak an algorithm or adjust something else to ensure that the outcomes of one group match that of another. Fortunately, these have been minor issues for us. But whether minor or major, it is a job that team leaders must take in their stride.”

PUT THE PROJECT FIRST: DISANET review meetings are held at six monthly intervals, alternatively in India and in Japan. Professor Desai has religiously attended all of these, sometimes by video-conferencing. Additional meetings are scheduled as needed, “but always at the team’s convenience rather than my own,” he says. Giving team members their due in turn elicits their cooperation and ensures project success.

Ground-shaking outcomes  

So far, 10 papers have been written on the project, team members have been invited to deliver 21 lectures and presentations on the project, and five posters on the project have been presented.

Technologically speaking, the project has helped to improve the accuracy of earthquake hazard assessment by identifying a previously unknown active fault, the Kangra Valley Fault. Cutting through the valley of Kangra, this fault is important because it lies in a region that suffered extensive damage during an earthquake in 1905.

Continuous progress made by DISANET shows that Indian educational institutions can be successfully involved in interdisciplinary cross-institutional cross-country research projects. Most off, interdisciplinary research can not be handled by one institution. But pressing challenges facing humanity are so complex that they mandate interdisciplinary research. And, technological institutions have the responsibility to conduct research for the greater good. DISANET can serve as an inspiration to Indian higher education institutes to get involved in large research projects.

Not only has DISANET brought together academicians and researchers from the participating partners, teams implementing its various components have forged strong working relationships with other educational institutions. As examples, for the installation of earthquake sensors on buildings in Chandigarh, the team made contact with Punjab University and Punjab Engineering College. To deploy Automatic Weather Stations in and around Hyderabad, the teams got in touch with Loyola Academy, Secundarabad, Gitam University and International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad.

Observes Professor Desai: “So much can be achieved when academicians elicit cooperation from each other. Even small interactions can help build strong academic networks.”

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