Women Leaders: Prerna Mukharya
Alumna Prerna Mukharya on Social Impact Through Data
Prerna Mukharya (GRS’09) is the Founder of Outline India
Q: Your background is fascinating and you’ve traveled a long way from your education at BU. Tell me about starting Outline India and the origins of its intensive work as a collector of national data.
A: India, like many developing countries on the cusp of change, is data deficient. This is a problem when you need good primary data to inform research and policy making. Our think tanks, philanthropists, donors and academics are doing their part to support the government in its battle to find solutions that work. Outline India is an effort to catalyze the work of these stakeholders by being their eyes and ears on the ground. We are the data collectors—the story makers and number crunchers—behind the reports that decision-makers are using to revise policies, draft social schemes, check on fund usage, and monitor ongoing programs. So really, the idea of Outline India originated with that lack of evidence-based research in the development sector.
What’s most important is, my team and I love data and the stories that make people.
Q: Can you say why your company is valuable to India?
A: Our work is at the confluence of human capital and technology. We are here to capture the stories of peoples’ lives, and our work necessitates that we bring with us different points of view. So at Outline India, we have researchers who are statistics, economics, geography, sociology and engineering majors, among others.
Technology is crucial to our work, whether for digital platforms for data collection, digital pens for qualitative data collection, tracking data quality using different software, and so on. Right now, we are piloting the usage of UAVs (drones) for social research. If we map access to infrastructure, while looping in metrics such as distance, topography and elevation, we can potentially re-imagine and visualize what data means! (So if I can see the location of a household in a local village and map its elevation and distance to the nearest school or health care facility, I can get a deeper understanding of student absenteeism from school or doctors from health care facilities.)
Q: How has the company done so far?
A: From our standpoint (my team and I), I am extremely proud to say that in about four years, Outline India has generated about 5000+ person-days of employment for individuals with little or no high school, or some college education, across rural India. This includes our field trainers, workers, supervisors, coordinators, and data entry and transcription operators. We’ve covered ground in 21 states, 1400+ villages and may have actually reached a million-plus people. We’re always striving for accountability, authenticity, humanity, and an understanding of peoples’ needs—and for a reason larger than you and me: a developed India.
Q: I read that you weren’t hungry for a corporate job after college, but something propelled you into first working on a World Bank study, including rural field work. Can you talk about that?
A: I knew I wasn’t cut out for consulting early on and wasn’t ready for a PhD at that point either. I wanted to experiment a little within the confines of academia. So after my research stints at Harvard and MIT, I took a research job at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank. This position exposed me to the realities of India, the kinds that so many of us who live in the cities and speak in English are unaware of. I spent weeks traveling, working, coding, and talking to people from across the spectrum. And I realized that the quality of data being offered by market research agencies was unfit for use in the social research domain. And that angered me. I felt that India, on the cusp of change, was formulating its policies based on data that was flawed, unreliable, incomplete, or archaic. I saw a huge business opportunity and no contenders.
Q: So your fieldwork was frustrating but also inspiring. What’s the best thing about immersing yourself in rural fieldwork towards the collection of good data?
It’s a good feeling, as a field worker, to go to bed knowing that in some measure, your work is helping people voice their opinion, irrespective of geography, language, connectivity, culture, or gender. But fieldwork in India is not for the faint-hearted and this is exactly why good data is hard to come by. And, we are not just collecting data; we are indirectly influencing peoples’ lives and building local capacity.
As India struggles to find its niche in innovation, we often forget that in India our problems are basic. We’re home to 300 million illiterate adults, and about 700 million people who don’t have online access. In such a scenario, there is one way, and one way only, to reach out to Indians, 70 percent of whom live in rural areas: by stepping onto the field and striking up a conversation, and listening to them.
Q: In describing your work, you use the phrase “pain-point.” What does this mean?
A: By pain point I mean ”critical need.” When your goal is to feed, educate, provide jobs, good health, and a dignified quality of life to a teeming population, you’re talking about very basic needs, so our solutions need to be sustainable, verifiable, executable, and realistic.
Q: What are your next steps with Outline India?
A: We’re now scouting for impact investors. We need a mentor who can help us think bigger, expand to other parts of the Indian subcontinent, potentially guide us on at data sharing platform, and magnify our impact.
This is an extremely exciting phase for us as we develop new data solutions, and look for collaborators and individuals who can help us jump into our next orbit of growth.
Q: And finally, can you say how BU influenced your business choices?
A: The University opened my eyes to the idea of possibilities and opportunities, and I think it gave me a worldview. When I started out, and had little credibility, I believe the validation of being an alum from BU helped me get my foot in the door in places.
Our director of partnerships, Arya Shekar (Law’10), is a BU alum too and is working with us to grow our reach and impact in the US.
BU also opened my mind to a lot of interesting things that were never a part of my thought process, like ice skating, fencing, and finding the planes on which to connect with people. As I met with people from different cultures, I realized that in spite of our varied origins, people are essentially the same.
I owe BU for a big part of who I am today.