We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Vigyan Ashram

Vigyan Ashram is a center of Indian Institute Of Education (IIE) Pune. A scientist turned educationalist Late Dr.S.S.Kalbag started Vigyan Ashram in 1983 to find out solution to the problems in education.

For us “Vigyan” means ‘Search of Truth’ and “Ashram” symbolises ‘Simple living and High thinking for us, a organization where all are equal, it’s a modern version of old Gurukul system’

More on this here ...


An idea whose time has come ...

"An idea whose time has come", is a common term heard from many think thanks and visionaries. Recently it was quoted by Ms. Sushma Swaraj, a BJP member, from Indian politics. She said that in the context of "Indian corruption".

Ok. Lets consider it in a different context. There are many ideas that come to my mind daily, and I note them down diligently, who knows some day the time of that idea might come and I might be able to en-cash on it. So when the time would arrive, I would be required to be in the context to remember that "Oh, this is the opportunity and here its time has arrived." Lets en-cash on it.

I just received an e-mail about Social Entrepreneurship proposal for using Information Technology for benefit of emerging countries. CITRIS the whose member I was during my California graduate student days holds this competition every year. This year cash prizes worth $45k are to be awarded. I felt like wow. Expected input is a nice proposal on how the idea that you have in your mind could transform http://citris-uc.org/big-ideas-citris2012 the lives of people around you in countries like India, where things are messy in terms of healthcare, infrastructure, education, civic governance etc. Condition on members is that they must be students of UC Berkley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced. Or atleast one member should be a student from these universities.

So this is the time for putting my thoughts together and an action for writing a nice proposal for this event. Lets hope I am able to jot down some nice thoughts and come up with a good proposal.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Technology and Poverty line in India

The role of technology in deciding the poverty line in India at least shows some improvement in using infrastructure such as Tablet computers to collect data. I got an opportunity to attend one such function through a new friend I made today through a mutual friend.

The discussion was held under by the socialist movement of India. Government of India is planning to have a country wide census to decide the poverty line and determine the families living before poverty line. Rs. 32 per day is the income criteria decided for poverty in Cities and Rs. 26 is decided for rural poverty. Are you kidding me?

This discussion was about different strategy formations to make concerned representatives of people from various Indian villages aware about their role in this activity and make them understand the flaws in the way definition of poverty is defined.

I do not want to comment out on the ways the definition of poverty is defined. This is a huge propaganda to make another show off by the Indian government without any sincere attempts behind it. However, some striking positives out of this meeting that I noticed were.

1. One union leader stressed on why Government is not considering educational qualification and only insisting on economic qualifications.

2. How Government is going to verify authenticity and not manipulate the data.

3. How people's involvement could be made more such that they could be able to assist better in this survey.

4. How there is a need for people to be aware of the potential harms of manipulation of such schemes and how people should prevent it, by stressing on correct corrections. An interesting suggestion was, "Instead of counting number of poor, count the number of rich, and let them defend their richness and then declare all the rest of them to be poor".

5. Make government aware that food, healthcare, education are basic necessity of anybody and not just poor and the government should try to shed off its responsibility by trying to decide number of poor based on some nonsense norms, than actual facts and then get involved in corruption.

6. Role of technology such as tabloid computers in collecting information.

Well, this discussion made me aware about how different people at low level think and discuss when government introduces new schemes, how they are totally helpless when it comes to implementing the feedback provided by them to government, How Maharashtra government is a total moron and no will at all to implement any schemes with sincerity as compared to rest of the state governments in India, what are the different ways in which people could be made aware.

However, I strongly felt, most of the points which were stated were well known to any person who is well aware of these problems and why they exist. The discussion lacked any effective mechanism by which these things could have got implemented, the suggestions could have reached the government and their would have been a successful channel to propagate these discussions to grassroot people.

Technology has a huge role to play in such discussions. Community radio is a great idea that could help in having such discussions across different sections. However, a better scheme to have is make people aware the incentive behind attending such functions. People are selfish and if you are able to tune up your motivations into correct incentives which hit well with the people's moderate ambitions to make their lives a little better either in terms of economic improvements or materialistic comforts, people would turn in hoard for such must discussions. Well, that is what politicians in India do. They provide economic incentives for people to vote and people react. I wish our activists have a vision to make some logical tacticts like this to attract more crowd and make them dedicated to a cause, by making them realize its importance for them in the long run.

An interesting idea came to my mind in deciding about poverty of a person. Can a person by identified as poor by looking at his picture? For example. A poor person would be thin, he will be underweight, he will have dark skin because of constant labor etc. So there are some points in a person physical characteristics that could decide whether a person is poor or not. Calorie indicator is one such method of measurement for poverty.

So, here is an interesting question. Lets say I provide you with 100 digital photographs and ask you tell me who is poor amongst these? Could you do that solely on the basis of picture? I believe yes to some extent. There are sophisticated image processing algorithms, which could decide different parameters by taking a look at the person, for example, height of the person, ratio of various stats etc,. This is a hugely complicated problem, however I believe with more and more fine grained parameter control, such an automated process could be done to some extent.

Its a huge irony that in a country like America women activist take protests to get a right to bare their body in public citing reasons that male are allowed to go bare chested, then why not us? While in a totally different part of world like India some women do not have proper clothes to cover and could not find people to support this cause. Huge contrast across different sections of society across world.

Technology for emerging countries

CGNet Swara is an effort by Microsoft Research's "Technology for Emerging Countries" research group to make lives of people (mostly adiwasis in the Gondwana region) better by providing them a method to register their voice on web. The portal is gaining popularity as it is able to bring changes in peoples lives.

CGNet Swara.
Community radio and how it could be used for improving communication across villages in India.

A similar initiative on a different note to increase citizen participation in civic governance
I have had discussions with these founders, on the role of technology in enriching the lives of people and feel there should be more awareness about such initiatives in the Indian society.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mobile based jobs

Could mobiles be used to generate employment in developing countries? This is an interesting question.

Mobiles by far are used as the means for communication in the present context. Right from an top end executive to a low end construction worker owns a mobile now. And the penetration in the low end section of the society in India is going to increase in coming time.

A crucial question to ask is. Could this vast technological device be used to generate legal employment. Could low end micro-tasks be generated, distributed and completed on mobile phones? If yes, what type of tasks could they be? Who would generate them? What kind of payment method be employed for such type of jobs.

This is a hugely interesting question and as mobiles become more powerful mobile based employment would start picking up slowly. A key question could be, if such jobs are available, would the low end people be willing to work on such jobs in temporary time? For example. imagine an auto driver instead of chitchatting with his friends in his idle period of waiting completing a temporary job on mobile and earning some income.

Interesting proposition and I feel slowly this type of trend will pick up. There are already some moves in that direction.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Civic Sense and Technology

Can Civic sense be employed in people using Technology? This is a very interesting question and one really applicable in the context of Indians.

Indians by and large are one of the worst in the world when it comes to civic sense. It is a common sight to site a wealthy businessman letting open his Mercedes or BMW door and spitting his mouthful of beetle juice on road. It is not uncommon to see a housewife from a posh apartment throwing her garbage unattended in an unhygienic conditions just outside her apartment. It is one of the most common sights to see bottles of liquor, drinking water, etc. thrown at tourist places. Can technology be made to use to avoid such behavior? Can behavioral psychology of a person be changed using some sort of incentive / reminder in terms of technology?

What causes a person to throw away trash / disfigure public places. Lets for time being not consider the lower uneducated Indians. Lets focus on educated middle class. Is it their upbringing where parents themselves being ignorant of the civic sense, do not inculcate such values? Is it the inability to teach such values in schools as a school kid? I do not have exact answer.

However, here is an interesting experiment. Will people stop throwing garbage etc. if they are reminded constantly? I think this works to some extent, however after a period people become blind to such reminders as their mind gets used to it and the brain does not generate quick signals to recall the purpose of this reminder. So a quick solution could be change the method of delivery of the reminder.

Here is a solution. What is least bothersome way in which people could be reminded? By putting a signboard, asking them not to disobey the civic sense. Now, think of this other alternative. Instead start a sms service which in innovative ways sends people reminders about not to indulge in such activities. Now, the problem is how would you determine when to send such sms. The location of the person in question should be traceable for that matter. Well, the current advances in cellular technology does allow, a person's location to be traced based on his position in the cell unit, by collaborating with the cellular operator. Don't you get on your mobile the location of area you are in any city etc.? GPS is a very advanced technique for which you need your phone to be gps enabled. Now, who should run such a service. This could be run by some NGO for trial basis initially. I wont go much into its details further.

Who are the targeted users? Should they opt in or opt out? Why would a user want to opt out for such a service if he already is a responsible citizen? Questions are endless. Lets not try to bother ourselves with the endless such questions. This is just an idea based on a hypothesis, that by constantly training your mind to do a certain task you can train it to behave in that manner permanently. I can build on this method to enhance this scheme in further ways, however for time being I will not elaborate.

Now how can such garbage generated be used to create jobs? The next question to ask is, will people with no income at all be willing to take up such jobs at odd places such as some tourist location to clean up the place? For example. Lets assume a hypothetical organization "A" that delivers services of cleaning up famous tourist spots in various pockets by carrying out their service vans and by using professional sweepers etc. Next question to ask is, who would pay for these services? A good answer is these services could be made to some extent sustainable by running advertisements on the company vehicles, by promoting such services in the philanthropic NGO grants for trial basis etc. With experimentation would arrive more possibilities.

There could be decent amount of brainstorming that could go here too. Thus my point is, India is such a problematic country that, a clever and smart person with a little business sense could be able to provide services of any sort to such a large section of society who is slowly having capability to spend money and is willing to search for alternatives that would offer a better living standard.

Technology would have a huge role to play in all these services and slowly services with Indian specific problems resolving would slowly increase.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Computing and bureaucracy

Building on my previous post, Computing, Encoding and Decoding, here is a next food for thought. How would you convert a lethargic bureaucratic Indian Government to a action oriented, speedy governance.

E-governance as most of you must have heard. If we analyze the most fundamental question of why Indian bureaucracy is so much in-efficient and corrupt we can understand the problem lies in layers of hierarchy of controls created for permitting the licenses etc. For example, if you want a birth certificate, the only person who can sign the document and make it authorize is the Regional Commissioner in respective Corporations of Indian cities. Why burden him by making him sign the document when that time could be used for some better purpose?

The second most fundamental problem is transfer of documents in hard copy format. For example, a Birth certificate needs to be printed, the records for it are needed to be searched in old archives, the birth certificate is needed to be transferred from one place to another for authentication and validation etc. All this takes time, because it involves variable human factors such as travelling time, record searching time, data entry time, human negligence time etc etc.

Now imagine, if the physical files are converted to virtual files represented on Computers. Imagine the records are stored in Computer Databases, and now imagine, the travelling time on roads is represented by network transfer time in Computers. Once this is done, there will arrive huge respite because in all this procedure, human involvement is minimal. Most of the work is done by Machines aka Computers. And All these steps could be done at the cost of a few clicks by the governing officers. This would save a huge amount of time and would improve productivity.

E-governance is thus an important aspect for making the bureaucracy efficient and fast paced. We stay in a modern Computerized world and I hope India builds a solid e-governance infrastructure soon.

Computing, Encoding and Decoding

Computers were invented for the sole purpose of doing computations, i.e. number crunching. Because number crunching was a repetitive, yet hugely important task and any errors in it could mean disastrous effects. So this boring task needed to be automated and done by a machine, which would keep on doing it until it was provided by sufficient power to be able to do it.

However, soon computer became a general purpose tool for doing lots of real life tasks. For example. Gaming, document editing and storage, managing virtual infrastructure etc. Why was this possible? One simple aspect of encoding decoding enabled this transformation. Computers used a format called binary representation, to store, and compute its work. The work itself was converted to this format, and when the work was done, the work was re-converted to human understandable representation again.

This is in crux what is termed as encoding (converting one format to another format) and decoding (converting back the new format to original / another format). One important aspect here is, the input format was variable, however the format in which computer works was always fixed, termed the binary representation. For example. If I say, Mrunal is represented by - 0 and Ninad is represented by - 1, then in a coded language I can use many such combinations of 0s and 1s to represent different words and form a meaningful sentence. If I am able to form a meaningful sentence, I can go one more step ahead and use more such representations and build a complete full-fledged language out of just different combinations of 0s and 1s.

If encoding / decoding is the crux of doing things, I can literally encode (convert) any thing present on this earth to binary representation ( or for that matter any other representation), do some processing on it and convert it back to some another form / original form. For example. Lets assume I want to transfer smell of a rose to a person in America from India. I can use sensors which detect smell (Think how our nose works to detect thousands of smells it encounters daily. Our nose is a super sensor, it senses converts it to appropriate format which is understandable by our brain (processor) and brain works on how to use that smell to stimulate further action, like smell of a perfume might make you recall some fond person you were associate with and trigger those memories to come back etc.), so lets assume if we have such a artificial nose sensor, whose input is smell and output is a binary format (different combinations of 0s and 1s), then as long as we have corresponding decoder, which is able to reproduce such smell at the other end in American by using this binary representation as input, we have transported smell from your home to another country. Hurray.

Entire computer systems work on this magic of encoding /decoding. Thus you can apply this logic to any thing around you and if you are able to design such an encoder, decoder, you will be able to do amazing things with it. This need not be limited to physical things, abstract things such as emotions could also be encoded, decoded and transferred to the correct fine grained details.

This is the art of computing and its secret of success. As technology proceeds, and scientist are able to build better encoders/ decoders we will see plenty of such new utilities. Some day, by advances of Physics you will be encode a human being in entirely at source and send him to another place by decoding him.

Science is beautiful because it thrives on such ideas and helps humanity prosper in better ways. Only hitch is science should be made affordable to all types of people and not stay limited to only a certain section of society, who can afford it. Personal computers were an item of super luxury for middle class individuals a decade ago. Now, it has become a necessity. Mobile phones were also a luxury however, now your maid has a mobile phone. Thus, mobile phones will carry the sole onus of spreading technology to different strata of society. Because, for encoding / decoding you need an access to a device and mobiles will provide that access in coming time.

Bill Gates wanted his Windows OS to be a part of people's home computer, and he did it. I want our low end section of society to own a mobile and be able to afford access to information, which would empower them to be more knowledgeable, and help build a better India.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Economics and Education.

A nice piece of article on role of research and development and education on the Economics Index of leading countries.


Each year the World Economic Forum (WEF) competitiveness of countries. As a partner of the WEF, the Dutch institute INSCOPE collected the data for the Netherlands. Professor Henk Volberda, scientific director of INSCOPE states: "The indicators clearly show that the Netherlands is shifting gradually to a high knowledge". The strong competitiveness of our Dutch economy is in Volberda a reflection of our real economy and also great confidence in future growth. Volberda continues: "Despite the threat of" double-dip by rising budget deficits surrounding advanced western economies, the competitiveness of the Dutch economy improved again. The rise of an eighth to seventh position in times of high uncertainty may be seen as an historic achievement. " Switzerland leads rankings to, even Singapore, Finland and Denmark in the top-10 Switzerland remains the league lead Superior knowledge institutions, high investments in Research & Development (R & D) and the continued focus on innovation through collaboration between industry and universities, along with an excellent infrastructure, efficient markets and a reliable government guarantee for the Swiss number one position. Singapore, the leader of the Asian economies, increases this year for the first time to a second position. Singapore has not only the most effective government, but also excels in investments in infrastructure and education. The Scandinavian countries continue to dominate the Top 10 because of their high investments in R & D and education. Sweden is in a third place and Finland has increased from 7th to 4th place. Besides excellent education at all levels, these countries also have high quality public institutions, its capacity for innovation and a high influx of advanced knowledge. In particular Finland is at the forefront of innovation in Europe.