SmartView reports on Yahoo’s entry in local search through its SmartView service.

The SmartView service lets surfers use Yahoo Maps to view information on local points of interest, such as restaurants, hotels, parks, automatic teller machines and post offices. Along with highlighted maps, Yahoo gives details about locations, including addresses and phone numbers, pricing, Web sites and driving directions. Yahoo said it also plans to incorporate a user rating system for hotels listed on the maps.

Yahoo’s renewed focus on search is geared towards regaining its once dominant position in that space. It is in a favourable position to provide local search since it already has address information of users.

Blogging in Business

The Economist adds its voice to the recent articles on how blogs can help businesses. Among companies in this space are Traction Software and SocialText.

Ross Mayfield, the founder of Socialtext, a firm based in Palo Alto, California, wants to move blogging beyond its usual constituency of teenagers and wide-eyed political activists. His company is taking a novel approach, arguing that blogging might actually be useful in business.

Socialtext makes a corporate version of a wikia web page that can be edited by any reader (the word means quickly in Hawaiian). Wikis offer a middle ground between e-mail and a conventional web page, which makes them useful for collaborative projects, particularly those involving far-flung teams. Rather than maintaining multiple copies of a document and sharing ideas by e-mail, a wiki allows members of a team to pool their thoughts more easily. Wikis are not particularly new, but are now beginning to demonstrate the potential to replace other forms of groupware.

Socialtext takes the wiki concept and adds to it some corporate bullet-proofing. It can be used to create a conventional blog, yes, but more importantly it tracks different versions of documents, so that people working on a project can see each other’s changes and go back to earlier versions. It also has administrative tools that allow wiki entries to be viewed and sorted in different ways.

Socialtext launched its product at the end of last year, and already has dozens of customers. One example is Soar Technology, a Michigan-based software firm. Jacob Crossman, an engineer at Soar, has been using the Socialtext software for a six-person project. Though there is still room for improvement, he says the software will probably become the collaborative tool of choice at his company.

One of the objectives for this emerging software category is to get people to work better in groups.

City Dimensions

I like travelling, especially to new cities. My visits are typically not very long. In the past two years, I have been to Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Tokyo. But each city brings forth a different charm. Seeing them I realise how long the Indian cities have before any of them can be called as a world city.

One of the things Indian cities lack is Dimension. Look at New York, London or Tokyo. They have as much of an existence below the ground (subway) and above the ground (multi-level roads and freeways) as on the ground. Indian cities, by contrast, are in Flatland. Delhi and Calcutta are making efforts with the metros. But there is still a lot more work to do.

IT for the Next Markets

From the Economist:

Companies around the world are now busy developing low-cost devices and innovative business models to reach the world’s poor. Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker, is pushing cheap wireless-data systems as the best way to extend connectivity to rural areas. Vodacom, South Africa’s largest mobile operator, has set up phone shops where rural entrepreneurs can buy and resell airtime. And the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai recently unveiled a stripped-down cash-dispenser that it plans to take to the masses in partnership with private-sector banks.

the challenge lies in the implementation. Mike Best of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has worked in rural markets in Africa and Asia, points out that many developing countries (he cites Ghana as an example) lack the requisite connectivity. In addition, aggregated demand in, say, Madagascar, with a population of 17m, is unlikely to yield the same economies of scale as in India. And with its multitude of languages and cultures, even India poses difficulties.

Some of the difficulties may have technical solutions. To deal with the problem of multiple languages, HP is devising character-recognition systems capable of recognising a variety of scripts. The engineers at IIT-Chennai are implementing a fingerprint-recognition system in their cash dispensersthat would save the (often illiterate) villagers from having to remember a personal identification number.

But perhaps the best reason to be optimistic is that the companies in question are driven by a powerful motivator that is lacking in donor-led rural programmes: profit. Mr Tawker, for example, happily characterises HP’s efforts as a long-term strategic response to saturation and slower growth in the company’s traditional markets. Now, the technologists just have to devise the technological equivalent of shampoo sachets.

This is an area close to what we are doing – creating solutions for the next billion people in the emerging markets of the world.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Microfinance (Part 2)

Let us take a look at three microfinance institutions to get a sense of the space two from an India, and one from Bangladesh.

SHARE Microfin Limited (SML), set up by Udaia Kumar, was in the news recently because of the securitisation deal it struck with ICICI Bank. Here is more info on SML:

SML targets its programs at the poorest rural women in Andhra Pradesh. Services are available to the bottom 50% of women living below the poverty line. A housing index and asset holding criteria are used to select clients. In order to be eligible, a woman must have total asset holdings of less than US$500 and per capita family income of less than US$7.50 a month. A study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that 85% of SMLs clients are in the bottom 20% below the poverty line, reaffirming that the institution effectively targets the poorest of the poor.

SML has an authorized capital of US$3.3 million, of which US$1.2 million was contributed by 26,034 poor women clients. SMLs clients have also contributed 99% of total equity; only 1% is owned by outside sources. Two representatives of the shareholders, or the clients of SML, sit on the Board of Directors. This creates a unique situation: a microfinance institution which is truly owned and managed by poor women.

As of February 2002, SML had 57 branches operating in 13 districts. 105,696 members, all poor rural women formed 21,152 borrower groups. In total, over US$22.5 million has been disbursed since 1993 by SHARE and SML, with a repayment rate of 100%. SMLs operational self-sufficiency stands at 104%, with a financial self-sufficiency of 96%. By March of 2006, SML plans to have served 300,377 women at 150 branches with total loan disbursements of US$64,919,564. The non-quantitative results are impressive as well a recent UNDP study on the empowerment of women found that SML clients have become much more active in making family decisions, sending their children to school, and practicing proper hygiene.

SMLs loan methodology includes an initial village survey and public orientation meeting, followed by the formation of borrower groups of 5 women. A center consists of 35-40 members, while a branch works with 2,500 women in a 25-kilometer radius. Loans are disbursed on a 2:2:1 staggered schedule to maintain incentives for repayment. Loan products include general, seasonal, sanitary, family, and leasing loans with repayments made over one year. Consumption loans last for three months, while supplementary loans have a duration of six months. Small enterprise loans last two years, while housing loans can extend up to four years.

BASIX, set up by Vijay Mahajan, also operates mainly in southern India.

BASIX is working in 9533 villages spread over 46 districts in 10 states. As on September 30, 2003 BASIX group as a whole was working with 1.36 lakh borrowers and cumulative disbursed Rs 1917 million . The outstandings stood at Rs 603 million with above 90 percent on time repayment rate. Nearly 40 percent of the loans were to women.

A vast majority of the borrowers of BASIX are the rural poor, particularly the landless and women. BASIX lends to them to promote self-employment. However, all the poor do not want to be self-employed. Thus BASIX also lends to rural commercial farmers and non-farm enterprises, which generate much-needed wage employment for the rural poor.

BASIX has adopted an approach to micro finance that serves the needs of different segments of customers through different channels. Its varied lending methodologies are aimed at reaching the poor at reasonable transaction costs. BASIX loans can be classified into (i) direct loans and (ii) indirect loans. Direct loans are extended to rural producers through a network of village/mandal based Customer Service Agents (CSAs), mandal/district based Field Executives and district-town based Unit Offices. Indirect loans are extended through intermediaries such as seed production organisers, who in turn on-lend to rural producers in their network. BASIX also lends to self-help groups (SHGs) of women set up by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Next Week: As India Develops (continued)

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