TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Village Vision

Let us start by outlining our vision for the solution that we want to offer at the village-level from the viewpoints of the four stakeholders: the villagers, the village administration, the district administration and rural marketing organisations.

Today, the village is singularly isolated. It is not part of a larger community. Its interaction with the external world is quite limited. In a sense, it is an idyllic world, unspoilt by modernity. Yes, villages can now watch TV, talk on phones, and get newspapers and magazines. But by and large, the village voice is silent, except when it comes to the ballot box. What is needed is an interactive solution, with the villagers having a say in what they do and how they grow.

What is needed is for the village and its people to have greater access to new opportunities. Even as the nation moves ahead, the village for the most part has remained an island of its own. This is what has to change. The village needs to become a self-sustaining unit, and at the same time integrated with the rest of the ecosystem. The underlying idea is to use the solution to put more power and responsibility into the hands of the local community at the village, by providing them with the right technology and information they need to make decisions.

From a villagers point of view, this is what he would like to see:

A connected computer which provides access to computing resources and the Internet.
A programme to ensure that he and his family can be made literate and e-literate. At the minimum, there should be at least one person in the family who knows English and can use a computer.
An email ID, ensuring that he can be reached electronically.
Storage Space for keeping electronic copies of key official documents (eg. land records, certificates) and other information (eg. medical records).
Access to various eServices for government interactions from accessing information to doing transactions. This should be combined with service-level guarantees from the government departments.
Computer-enabled education for his children in schools, so they are comfortable with technology from an early age.
Access to electronic markets where he can sell his products directly without being dependent on middlemen who take away much of the profit.
Programmes to upgrade his and his familys skillsets, so they can become better at what they are doing and learn new skills.
Protection of data, so that unauthorised access does not happen.
All of this to be available for a monthly basic fee of no more than Rs 20 per family.

Tomorrow: Village Vision (continued)

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Self-Assembling Networks

Emergence at work. Reports TRN:

Drawing heavily on the chemistry of biology, researchers from Humboldt University in Germany have devised a way for electronic agents to efficiently assemble a network without having to rely on a central plan.

The researchers modeled their idea on the methods of insects and other lifeforms whose communications lack central planning, but who manage to form networks when individuals secrete and respond to chemical trails.

The researchers found that what works for ants and bacteria also works for autonomous pieces of computer code. “The idea is inspired by chemotactic models of tracking trail formation widely found in insects, bacteria, [and] slime molds,” said Frank Schweitzer, an associate professor at Humboldt University and a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Autonomous Intelligence Systems (FHG-AIS) in Germany.

The work could eventually be used for self-assembling circuits, groups of coordinated robots and adaptive cancer treatments, according to Schweitzer.

Insect, bacteria and slime mold communities coordinate growth processes based on interactions among chemical trails left behind by individuals. The researchers set up a similar network using a computer simulation of electronic agents moving randomly across a grid containing unconnected network nodes.

Slashdot thread

Macromedia Central

An interesting product, which is “designed to extend Macromedia Flash beyond the browser.” Writes MacWorld:

Applications designed to work with Macromedia Central can be used to “grab” online info and make it available for examination and manipulation on the desktop when you’re offline. If you’re interacting with an application running inside Central and go offline, when you return online the info that you’ve worked with on your desktop will be automatically synchronized with the online (if it’s interactive data).

Adds InfoWorld: “The Flash applications detect when the user is online and can automatically connect to download weather reports, movie listings and recipes, for example. Applications can also be linked, allowing a user to, for example, move a recipe from a cooking site to a grocery store Flash application and order the ingredients.”

Knowing What To Do

The Basex TechWatch newsletter provides a summary of the week’s events. Every so often, they have a good commentary. This week, its by Steven Friedman (I couldn’t find a link to it online.)

Everyone has his own system for managing tasks or to-do items. Some rely on memory, some use e-mail, some use a big list, some have a personal assistant. But no KM package I know of handles the to-do problem
adequately. Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes, for example, include to-do functions but they are widely under-used. Why has to-do functionality consistently failed? How can we make our to-do management more efficient?

The very nature of the to-do problem makes it particularly hard to formalize to-do lists in a KM environment: how we go about choosing the tasks we do and the order in which we do them is a very personal matter. Compound with this the fact that many feel that their memory is much better than it actually is. And remember that to-do functionality inherently suffers from an acute case of feature-creep (for each item, we want to categorize and add in lots of other information, but the more
buttons included, the less likely users are to use it for the small stuff). We now have a KM market that is waiting to be conquered.

The integration of to-do lists within Groove Networks’ eponymous peer-to-peer software is precisely what makes Groove such an intriguing product with much potential; it seems as though it was designed specifically to tackle the to-do problem. Groove’s basic insight is that knowledge workers often organize themselves through e-mail, and that such organization can otherwise be formalized in a smart collaborative environment. Groove – with a good amount of success – turns actions into parts of a project and workflow, and allows users to jot down quick notes, all through a slick user interface, thus going a long way towards solving
the to-do list problem. It replaces the tendency to use e-mail as a to-do
list with actual project management. And other vendors, such as Team Direction, have add-ons to Groove that make it even more useful as a collaborative to-do list.

But the problem isn’t only technological. One of the most successful techniques for managing and improving your to-do efficiency is by writing down everything you have to do, from the smallest possible item (“respond
to John’s e-mail”) to the largest – and to cross-out, but not delete, items from the list once you complete them. The useful technique of recording even the smallest items, together with the psychological reinforcement of leaving a big visible list of how much has been accomplished, helps people improve their own task management skills. No productivity tool exists in a
vacuum.

I fall in the category of people who tend to write down things in my (paper) notebook. Of course, its a list which grows and grows and grows….!

Information Tsunami

David Kirkpatrick, reporting from PC forum, says: “As the data problems get more complicated, so do the solutions. More and more, businesspeople will have to become conversant in software issues if they’re going to run an effective enterprise. If we don’t keep inventing, and companies don’t keep buying, we will all drown in the oncoming tsunami of information.”

I think the time has come to see how to build out the Memex as envisioned by Vannevar Bush. Blogs, RSS, Outlines, Links are the ingredients. Steven Johnson has been writing about this [1 2 3].

Its something I’ve been thinking about as the next big leap for BlogStreet. More on this soon.

Cheaper Monitors Needed

Slashdot has a discussion on an IDC report “claiming that revenues for LCDs by the end of this year will top the CRT revenues.”

In emerging markets like India, what is needed are not necessarily better displays but cheaper ones. As we work on the Rs 5,000 (USD 100) PC, the monitor cost is becoming a big issue. In India, it is now hard to find 14-inch monitors. One is being asked to buy 15-inch monitors for a few hundred rupees more. In a few months, it will be 17-inch monitors for another few hundred rupees more. The trend is exactly the opposite of what we want!

Perhaps, the focus should now be on sourcing older monitors which have a long lifetime. I just wonder why Samsung or their ilk cannot make real cheap 14-inch monitors. Is it a technology issue or just a desire for forcing price increases in a commoditised market?

Business Process Management

William Gurley writes:

The Deming revolution–built around concepts like continuous improvement and just-in-time (JIT) inventory–had a universal impact on global manufacturing. Today, there is a new form of enterprise software that has the ability to do for white-collar business processes what Deming did for manufacturing. Delphi Group believes that business process management (BPM) is “quickly emerging as the moniker for the next killer app in enterprise software.” Believe it or not, this may actually undersell the potential impact of BPM. BPM will not just change the software industry–it will change industry in general. Just like Deming.

What type of enterprise software could possibly have such an impact? BPM is a new programming paradigm for the enterprise that leverages browser-based applications, e-mail, global connectivity and enterprise application integration (EAI) infrastructure to deliver a powerful, business-focused programming solution. A mix between workflow, EAI and application development, BPM makes it easy for companies to codify their current processes, automate their execution, monitor their current performance and make on-the-fly changes to improve the current processes.

Here is how it works. Business analysts work alongside IT staff and create a graphical flow chart of targeted processes within the organization. These graphical designs are typically done in an integrated design environment (IDE) and represent the different events, decisions and actions that are performed by employees as well as the flows of data that are necessary to perform each task. Once defined, people begin to interact with the new application. New “processes” are started by an individual (for example, entering a new customer issue) or as the result of an event (for example, a customer account goes past due). Actions are then passed from person to person through the concept of a task inbox, and typically the passing of a URL.

Gurley describes the six components of a BPM solution: IDE, Process Engine, User Directory, Workflow, Reporting/Process Monitoring and Integration.

I was just having an internal discussion yesterday about the need of the equivalent of a “Sim City” for an enterprise – a framework for a manager to create a virtual model of an enterprise, and then inject a series of events into it. This will let the manager check the software that is about to be deployed and get a feel for the information flow and the reports that are likely to be available, prior to deployment.

The BPM article captures the essence of what I’d like to see as part of our eBusiness suite targeted at SMEs that we are developing.

WiFi Hotspots

Coming soon to the air around you – wireless Internet access, according to the Economist, stating that “Wi-Fi is now moving from the realm of grassroots enthusiasts to that of the big computing and telecoms companies.” A summary of the recent action:

Toshiba and Accenture have announced plans to set up 10,000 hotspots in America. Cometa, a joint venture between Intel, IBM, AT&T and others, has already said it will build 20,000. A consortium of five Asian telecoms firms plans to build 20,000 hotspots across Asia by the end of the year, and similar moves are afoot in Europe. An hour’s free Wi-Fi access is being thrown in with every meal at a handful of McDonald’s hamburger restaurants.

Biotech Survey

The Economist has a survey on biotechnology, stating “It promises much: more and better drugs; medical treatment tailored to the individual patient’s biological make-up; new crops; new industrial processes; even, whisper it gently, new humans. A few of those promises have been delivered already. Many have not. Some may never be. Some may raise too many objections…But the field is still in its infancy, and commercialising the edge of scientific research is a hazardous business.”

Biotechnology, along with infotech and nantech, are the areas of today and tomorrow.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: Rethinking ICT Solutions

Let us look at the requirements for the ICT (information and communications technology) solutions for the rural markets:

Mass-market: The solution needs to address the needs for tens of millions people. In India, this has to be a solution which can in a short period of time penetrate into each of the 600,000 villages to make a difference to hundreds of millions of people. It is a solution on a scale that has perhaps never been thought of before.

Scalable: Being able to scale out the solution is very important, else we will have created yet another demo wonder. Scalability will mean that there has to be a decentralisable element in the solution.

Emergent: Going hand-in-hand with scalability and decentralisation is the need for the solution to have emergent properties where it is driven from the bottom-up, and the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. This can only happen if the solution is driven not by government, but by small entrepreneurs who see a commercial motivation to own, deploy and grow the solution.

Low R&D Costs: There is little time to go out and develop new solutions. The approach should be that of aggregation, not re-creation. This means looking around and pooling together existing ideas and technologies which may be just good enough, rather than spending years on creating what could be the perfect solution.

Extremely Affordable: We are talking of the worlds poorest markets. Affordability needs to be redefined keeping in mind these customers. These are segments of society we dont ordinarily think about. But they are the ones who are the worlds next markets. Costs have to be a fraction of what we are otherwise used to considering or paying.

Technologically Forward-looking: The solution needs to look to the future rather than into the past. What is there under the hood is not as critical as giving the same kind of features and performance as the ones in the developed world are used to. In some ways, there is an advantage in terms of legacy there simply isnt an existing solution to upgrade so there is no need for backward compatibility. This gives us an opportunity to leapfrog.

Platform Orientation: The solution must create an ecosystem in which multiple players can thrive. The approach must be that of creating a platform that others can build upon, without having to redo the groundwork from scratch.

Consider the Constraints: We cannot forget the limitations and realities of the rural markets intermittent and fluctuating power, connectivity which probably isnt there, a market which does not necessarily speak or understand English, and one which has been largely ignored and forgotten by the world (except the politicians who need votes in a democracy). Since connectivity is not a guarantee, the initial focus should be on information and offline communications services, rather than real-time, database-driven transactional services.

Commercially Viable: Above all, the solution needs to be economically sustainable, given the constraints of the rural markets. It must provide the rural entrepreneurs with a business model which enables them to not just make money but also grow the business with their own initiative and innovation.

As we think of the solution, we should keep these words by Stuart Hart and CK Prahalad (writing in Sloan Management Review) in mind: Disruptive Innovations compete against nonconsumption that is, they offer a product or service to people who would otherwise be left out entirely or poorly served by existing products and who are therefore quite happy to have a simpler, more modest version of what is available in the high-end markets.

Next Week: Transforming Rural India (continued)

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Metabolic Pathways

Jon Udell describes an experiment with Virtuoso (“enterprise middleware that unifies SQL, text, XML, and object data will play an increasingly vital role in delivering business data to users”):

Data moves from a SOAP service in Radio UserLand, through an auto-generated WSDL wrapper, into a database stored procedure, which calls out to the Web through a C# extension and stores results in an indexed XML database. Then an XPath-enabled SQL query gathers results, converts them to XML, and virtualizes them as a WebDAV resource, which Excel finally reads and analyzes.

Fascinating flow. Its what Udell describes as “metabolic pathways”, adding that “I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which energy and information flow through biological systems, and the IT realm is starting to feel more and more like that.”

It is the kind of flow we need to enable in our eBusiness suite that we are working on.

PDA as Thin Client

Yesterday, Prakash, who was at Cebit, forwarded me an email from a company in Taiwan (whom he had met there) which offered PDAs for USD 28 in quantities of 2,000. These are very basic PDAs. The only port they have is an RS232 serial port to connect to a PC or a modem.

What amazed me was the price point. This is one of lowest computer price points I have seen. In India, the USD 28 price point would probably lead to a selling price of Rs 3,000 or so, considering shipping costs, import duties and local taxes. That is a very attractive price point. And that set me thinking.

Can we use this PDA as a thin client in addition to its standalone operation? There could be quite a few applications where one may just need to have a small screen and tap through it, without the need for a full-blown desktop PC. So, in a setup, one could have say 5 PC Terminals (proper PCs as thin clients with 14 or 15-inch monitors), and then complement that with some of these low-cost PDAs, which could connect to the thick server either through one of the thin clients or through dial-up. By running “vnc”, one could get the entire desktop on the small PDA screen.

We need to try this out. We have a Sharp Zaurus I had bought a year ago, which we will try it on with. It is already running Linux. Lets see how the apps look in reality.

What could such a PDA-based Thin Client be used for? For one, it could be used for data entry or surveys away from the LAN, and then connect to the thick server to update the data and allow the user access to his desktop. In schools, it could be used for students to go through “micro” pages or tests. In organisations, it offers one more option for some applications, given that the PDA is now a portable device. So, in a sense, one has to think of how a small footprint thin client with some local memory and standalone applications could be used in a server-centric computing environment.

PC co-creator on its Future

Mark Dean was one of the people who put together the first PC at IBM in the late 1970s. He is now at the IBM Storage Systems Division here, where he is vice president of architecture and design. USA Today talks to him. Here are a couple of his thoughts:

Storage systems will be where it’s at. We’re growing data so rapidly. Data will dominate and computing will be an artifact of data. There is just a flood of data.

There’s a time where we will develop a tablet. It will look like an 8-by-11-inch Plexiglas. It will have the resiliency of paper. It will have all the functions of a PC plus many other things. You will be able to play DVDs and music through it, all through this piece of paper.

Social Software

Dan Gillmor writes: “The smaller the group, the more immediate value in the relationship. That’s one notion behind an emerging phenomenon called social software, products that help groups work with each other more effectively.” He discusses about Socialtext and Meetup.

Stuart Henshall has a compilation of various social networking software tools.

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A Book Idea

I have contemplated writing a book for quite some time. I have a fair amount of writing that I have done, and am doing. What a book will do is consolidate all of it together in one place and make it read like an integrated story, rather than the discrete, individual posts that are there today.

Writing a book is a scary exercise. It needs a lot of time commitment, even though the basic raw material in terms of ideas and content exists. Running a company full-time, reading and blogging daily, travelling, meeting people are enough to pack a day. This is what has stopped me short in thinking of a book.

I thought of a title today morning, so this may be a start. The title is “Tsunamis, Slippery Rocks and Disruptive Bridges”. I used it for a talk that I gave last week – covering new technologies (the tsunamis), entrepreneurship (slippery rocks – from Dan Bricklin’s quote) and on the Emergic ideas (disruptive bridges – innovations to bridge the digital divide). This would be the essence of the book.

It would need me to spend a significant portion of time over a 3-month period to get the book done. I will also need the help of a professional editor. The question is: am I willing to do this? Perhaps, now, more than ever before, I am. But the final decision to go is probably still a bit away.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: The Conundrum

There have been various initiatives to take IT to the masses in India Gyandoot, eSeva, Bhoomi, eChoupals are some examples. At best, these have been success stories limited in size, scale or scope. The digital divide is far from being bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly does not seem to be a lack of vision, ideas or even resources. And yet, what is missing is a solution that has been rolled out on a mass scale to make a difference to millions.

As I see it, the problems are the following:

Government as Financer: This is perhaps the single biggest issue which limits scalability. The government can fund 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks costing Rs 100,000 (USD 2,000) each. But the need is for 50 times as many access points. That is where the government-funded model becomes impractical there simply isnt enough money to set up these across a state or a country. And so, without the scale, the costs of operation are high, the villagers have to walk many kilometers to get to the nearest centre and that is simply not going to happen.

Demo Mentality: The thinking when the plans are drawn up is to create pilots. The reasoning goes: let us do 10 or 50 or 100 such demonstration centres, or showcases. Once the proof-of-concept is proved, then we can look at scaling these up. This approach is one which is setting itself up only for a short-term success; it will not succeed in the long-term. This is because it is much easier to put in all that it takes to make a few centres work because the aim is not to prove commercial viability but to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key decision-makers. The approach is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled out rapidly.

Silo Solutions: Many approaches think of the problem too narrowly. We think of solving a telemedicine problem or a land record problem or an email and Internet access problem or a literacyproblem or the voting machine problem. The computing infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost identical. And yet, we think of each in isolation trying to create economic models which will work in the silos.

Internet-driven: Many of the current solutions assume the existence of a Net connection, essentially functioning as Internet Kiosks. This is a big limitation, because connectivity is one of the biggest bugbears in the rural areas. Without connectivity, the computer is crippled, seriously limiting its usage. While transaction services like bill payments and railway bookings which need real-time Internet connectivity can offer immense benefits to the villagers, these services can be hobbled by the lack of connectivity.

Incrementalist, not Disruptive: The need of the hour is for disruptive solutions. Yet, the thinking that percolates is very incrementalist. That may be because there is an interest in keeping things nearly the same, or because we look at technology that exists today, and not at what the future is bringing. The solutions tend to be driven more by what may have worked in the developed world or in the urban areas, because they are the ones who are either funding the solutions or providing the technologies. The need is for a completely fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets, keeping in mind the emergence of cold technologies.

Thus, the result is that the thinking and therefore the solution is flawed. We need to think in terms of millions of villages worldwide as the potential addressable market, and yet work on making each village commercially viable.

Tomorrow: Rethinking ICT Solutions

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Trackbacks Explained

Michael Pusateri explains Trackback. The benefit is “to let a site know that you are referencing them on your on site.” Another explanation comes from Mena and Ben Trott. Trackback is a feature available with MovableType, but hasn’t yet become popular, perhaps because it takes a while for people to understand and still isn’t trivial to use.

Helping Bangladesh’s Poor

Writes NYTimes:

There are 34,000 such schools across Bangladesh, with 1.1 million students. They are run not by the government, but by a nongovernmental organization, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC. Together, its schools represent one of the largest private education systems in the world.

The same organization is providing 3.5 million women with microcredit loans, more than any other organization in Bangladesh, including the better known Grameen Bank. BRAC also runs a commercial bank, a dairy, a hatchery, a poultry feed factory, a plant-tissue culture laboratory, seed processing centers, an Internet service provider, a chain of clothing and craft shops, a university and more. It provides health care at some 90 clinics and more than 2,000 prenatal clinics.

It does, in short, much of what a government should do, and what in many countries, the private sector would do. That is BRAC’s strength but, many say, Bangladesh’s weakness.

I think we should talk to them about our TeleInfoCentres idea.

RSS2Mail

I am excited about a service we’ve been experimenting with internally for a few days. It is a centralised RSS aggregator which allows me to set up subscriptions for RSS feeds and then emails me the items in a separate IMAP account. This way, I use my email client as the RSS viewer. All I need to do as a user is to set up an email account (like I would do with Hotmail) and then add it into my email client. The entire procedure will take less than 3 minutes. And then, as I subscribe to feeds through a web-based front-end, the RSS items now show up in the Inbox of this email account. The separate account ensures that the emails don’t clutter up any existing account and makes sure the account is spam-free.

An RSS Viewer (or News reader) can definitely increase the number of items one can process by a big multiple. Its a “10X” improvement in the way we currently do things. Also,the best part about this is people don’t need to download a separate application – the email client is as ubiquitous an application as we can get on a computer.

We hope to launch this as a service soon. There are still a few more things we want to do – for example, integrate blog posting via the BloggerAPI. Watch this space!