Conference – Really being there

I am glad that I decided to actually go for the Gov 2.0 conference. I could have sat a few weeks later and watched the videos, but it wouldn’t have been the same thing.

Being at the conference is an Immersion Experience – which videos on the Net cannot replicate. For the two days and 50-odd sessions, my attention was focused on the event. And as I listened to speaker and speaker, ideas started forming. Which doesn’t necessarily happen in short bursts of time. It is the same point about the need for chunky time to think deeply about a topic.

Sitting in the conference room at the Hyatt in Washington, I was far away from home and work, emails and SMSes. The only thing that mattered was what was being said and the thoughts that were being created in my mind with the inputs. That experience doesn’t happen by just watching videos.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 12

Gov 2.0 to India 2.0: The Greatest Challenge for our Generation

India’s governments have through the years have failed in providing the most basic services to the population at large. A radical rethink is needed on the role of government and the government-citizen interface. The time has come for us, the citizens of India, to help in fixing government and governance in India.

The challenge is to rethink and re-architect India. The first version created in 1947 was doomed to fail because of its origins in continuing the institutional legacy of the British Raj, combined with flawed economic policies by a political leadership that should have known better. Those fundamental mistakes have hurt us badly and continue to do so. Without a recognition that we are on the wrong path, we cannot hope to make any changes.

India needs Gov 2.0 to create India 2.0 – because the first experiment has failed. We need to come together to define the country we want for our children – much like the Founding Fathers of the US did during the American Revolution. It is time we had an Indian Revolution.

That then is the great challenge to each of us – the generation born in independent India. We need to put nation before self, and change the construct of the government, and its relationship with the citizens. And in doing so, we need to create an environment and mindset of continuous thinking and improvement. This can be the greatest gift we can give to the next generation.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 11

10.     India needs a deep rethink on the role of government in our lives.

I wrote much of this series on an Air-India flight back from New York to Mumbai. What business does the government of India have running an airline? What business does it have taking taxpayers money time and again and putting it into white elephants? Questions like these cut to the heart of the debate around the role of government.

It is time for us Indians to realize that the government has failed us over the last six decades. If the government had done its job competently, India would have been a better country. We would have had 100% literacy two generations ago. We would have growth rates to match China’s – not for 5 years, but for 30 years. We would not have 500 million poor (more than three times the absolute number from 1947). We would not have pathetic urban infrastructure. We would not have 70% of the country’s population still engaged in agriculture. We would not have power cuts.

Some of us may delight in the near 9% growth that we now see. But we have to also understand that this growth is on a very low base.

The US is going through a difficult period right now on the economic front, with very low growth. But before we gloat about our growth rate, let us step back and see what the US has achieved through its relatively short history. For example, can the Indian transportation system compare to the American?  Are we anywhere close to the American education system? Clearly not since most of our best and brightest make their way to the US for higher education – and often stay there after their education. (Not just the best and the brightest, the children of Indian leaders get their education abroad.)

Sitting through the conference and listening to speakers from within and outside government, I could not but help think that once again the US is showing its ability to question, rethink and come up with better solutions. There is a recognition that the government systems they have had need change, and there is a healthy debate on how that needs to be done.

Obama may have failed on some fronts, but his Open Government initiative is helping bring about perhaps the greatest transformation in how government works. Even though these Gov 2.0 changes will not be immediately visible to all and will have some hiccups on the way, they will have far-reaching positive consequences for the US in the coming years. That is in keeping with the US spirit of resilience and reinvention.

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 10

9.       The Indian government needs to think itself as an agent and servant of its citizens.

This point goes beyond technology and cuts to the heart of Gov 2.0 initiatives – and to the core of India’s problems of governance. When the British left India, we changed the skin colour of our rulers and we changed our flag. And then we stopped. Those who took over realised that the same institutions that the British had created to loot India and subjugate Indians could be used by them for maxmising power – and of course the loot. As a result, nothing really changed for most Indians.

Out of that flawed beginning in 1947, we have a government that believes in maximising power and profit for itself. This is the big difference in the way the US was conceived and how India was born. In the US (and there are exceptions), the government works as an agent of its citizens – working to execute the policies and initiatives they want. In India, it is the exact opposite. And out of such core differences is born a mindset in Indian government of superiority, command-and-control, a byzantine maze of rules and regulations, and corruption.

India needs political leadership that is willing to reverse this. Only then will our dreams of a truly democratic and participative government be realised. We in India got Gov 1.0 badly wrong. More than anyone else, we need Gov 2.0 to set things right.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Public Speaking

From a post I wrote a couple years ago:

Jezra Kaye (who once helped me prepare for a presentation at PC Forum) quoted Churchill: “I’m trying to confrim that the following quote truely is attributed to Winston Churchill – If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

What were they thinking when they banned all non-P2P-SMS?

On Wednesday (Sep 22), ahead of the Ayodhya verdict, the Government of India through the Department of Telecommunications banned all bulk SMS and MMS in India for 3 days. The Supreme Court then pushed the Ayodhya verdict out, and the DoT responded by extending the ban for an additional 5 days till Sep 30! The purpose of the ban was, ostensibly, to prevent mass mobilisation of people via SMS before and after the verdict.

What the DoT does not realise or understand is how mission-critical SMS has become in the past few years. Banks send passwords by SMS for Internet banking, credit card transactions and ticketing confirmations come by SMS, taxi bookings send details of the vehicle and the mobile number of the driver by SMS, people get their news and other updates on SMS, and so on. SMS has become part of an infinite number of business processes. A single unforeseen and senseless act of banning every kind of non-person-to-person SMS disrupts the flow of commerce in India. In 21st century India, why do we think like we are caught in a time warp? Why don’t we think through the implications of our actions?

As a company engaged in the business of SMS (both for enterprises and consumers), actions like these play havoc for us. There is no person to talk to, there is no alternative that is considered – a blanket diktat is issued, and that’s it. This is simply not done. But I forgot. We are a country with 21st century aspirations in people but a government that is still an extension of the British Raj.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Friedman on China: in the New York Times. ““How can you compete with a country that is run like a company?” an Indian entrepreneur at the forum asked me of China.”
  • Debacle in New Delhi: by Sadanand Dhume in Foreign Policy on the Commowealth Games mess. The point to note: “The Indian middle class — at best, 300 million people out of a population of 1.1 billion — may not have the numbers to decide elections, but it needs to demand a greater say in the country’s governance. This means finding ways to translate its economic muscle into political clout.”
  • TIME magazine cover on the Tea Party: An interesting point that we could perhaps use in India – “Off-year primary elections tend to turn out just a fraction of the electorate, making establishment candidates vulnerable to even small popular movements.”
  • The Pen that never Forgets: from the New York Times. On the Livescribe. “One of the most complete ways to document what is said in class is to make an audio record: all 150-plus words a minute can be captured with no mental effort on the part of the student.”
  • Mobile in Retail: by Tomi Ahonen. ” Lets look at the real bricks-and-mortar retail establishments. What is the role of mobile to them?”

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 9

8.       India needs to focus on civic education to create engaged citizens.

As one of the speakers said, quoting Jefferson, “Democracy is not instinctive; it has to be taught.” That is a lesson we in India need to take to heart. During the election campaigning last year, I could not but help feel that Middle India has shut itself off from India’s political process. Or as Swapan Dasgupta put it, there has been a “secession of the successful.” We have lost a couple of generations since Independence because we didn’t teach them about the responsibilities of being a citizen of a democracy. (Of course, we even failed in delivering basic services like primary education and healthcare to all – so this is no surprise.)

But we need to make a start. Instead of making civics in schools as boring as it is now, we could start by inculcating a sense of societal service in students through national institutions. (Think of the Boy Scouts in the US.) If we can start this at an early age, the mindset of social service and civic engagement will stay through the years.

Continued on Monday.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 8

7.       Indian governments need a CTO and CIO.

To make all this happen at the central and state levels in India, qualified professionals must be involved to execute various IT projects across departments.

One Nandan Nilekani can only do so much – especially when he has his hands full implementing the UID project. What the central government needs to do (and the states need to follow) is to get full-time people from the private sector who can competently implement projects and oversee the entire IT spend of the government, ensuring that the right technologies are used and implemented on time.

Without this coordination in thinking and decision-making, each department will end up making their own sub-optimal decisions based on yesterday’s technologies. Of course, just deploying IT without appropriately training people and changing processes will not get us anywhere – as evidenced by my recent experience at the Passport Office.

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 7

6.       India needs to invest in creating a broadband infrastructure to facilitate movement of data.

While we marvel at the telecom revolution in India, we should not forget that it has been restricted only to voice services. The real data revolution has been still-born because of lack of proper broadband infrastructure in India. Gov 2.0 is all about opening up data and getting participation from outside the government. For this, we need a broadband (wireline and wireless) envelope across the country.

To make this happen, we need to do a serious rethink on two key policies. The first involves the virtual monopoly BSNL has on the last-mile to our homes. This needs to be opened up to allow last-mile access to private players. Today, the cost of creating an alternate landline infrastructure for private players is too high. While wireless is one solution, it cannot match the bandwidth that wireline access provides.

The second policy involves wireless spectrum. To make short-term money and create funds for social sector spending, the government has created an artificial spectrum scarcity. We need much more intelligent thinking around spectrum – involving the use of cognitive radio and white spaces. And needless to say, the policy making process needs to be future-looking and transparent.

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 6

5.       India needs to create a Challenge Portal.

Check the US portal. It involves putting out some of the challenges that government departments face, with an offer of reward and recognition. It gets people involved in thinking about the problems the nation faces and gets them to work to solve them.

India needs to do something similar. Every government department has some key challenges. They should put them out on a common portal. This will help capture the imagination of Indians. For the first time, we will have a government actually doing something more than random “open houses” to get citizens and experts involved in thinking together about the problems we face, and then coming up with innovative solutions.

This requires government officials and ministers to have a mindset that they are not the experts in every area, and are not blessed with the wisdom to solve every problem – and there are people out there who are smarter than them. If we can get the Challenge contests going, it will be a great step forward. (For starters, Technology Review India listed out a set of Grand Challenges – these could be good starting points.)

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 5

4.       All financial spending data should be released in XBRL by Indian government departments.

XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) is the lingua franca of accounting data. It is XML-based and is being increasingly adopted by companies worldwide (and in India). What it does is to allow data to be interpreted and processed in a standardised manner. XBRL is one of the magic keys to open up faster and more detailed scrutiny of government financial data.

The government is the biggest spender of money by orders of magnitude in India. To get more eyes looking at these numbers, it is important to make this data crunched by machines (computers) so that discrepancies can be easily identified, and comparisons across departments and states performed.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: 12-Year Tech Cycles

From a post I wrote 2 years ago:

Technology disruptions seem to move in 12-year cycles. Early 70s had the microprocessor revolution, 1984 saw the emergence of the personal computer, 1996 the adoption of the Internet, and now in 2008, we are seeing the rise of mobile data. (Coincidentally, cellphones first made their appearance around 1984 also I think — I remember seeing signs mentioning 25 years of cellphones at CTIA.) One could probably go back beyond the 70s, and find similar cycles.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Vanishing Line between Books and Internet:  by Hugh McGuire. “What is a book, but a website that happens to be written on paper and not connected to the Web?”
  • How the Tea Party organises without leaders: from the National Journal. “ In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on so large a scale.”
  • The Day After Tomorrow: by David Brooks. “I hope that as Arthur Brooks and Paul Ryan lead a resurgent conservatism, they’ll think about the limited-but-energetic government tradition, which stands between Barry Goldwater and François Mitterrand, but at the heart of the American experience.” India too needs a limited-but-energetic government.
  • What holds India back: by Atanu Dey. “Hubris and ignorance among the powerful is a potently destructive mix and a sure recipe for disaster. The outcome is the disaster we see today. They set up the command-control-license-permit-quota raj. It is the best way known to humanity to retard economic development.”
  • India: Fast Growth Does Not Mean a Strong Economy: by Derek Scissors (Heritage Foundation). “It turns out India’s recovery from the crisis is partly illusory—its growth is not sustainable and is not creating broad prosperity.” (via Rajeev)

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 4

3.       India needs to make map and other geographical data freely available for mashups.

Location is one of the most important elements of data analytics. Given India’s size and diversity, what is needed is the ability to layer information on maps and then do comparisons. Mapping technologies have advanced a lot through the years, and we need to make this central to everything we do. GIS (geographical information systems) needs to be used at every level of decision-making.

One of the most interesting presentations was by esri about the use of maps and how multi-layered geographical data can be used for historical comparisons and decision-making. We need to start thinking of GIS as core to all data.

All data needs to be geo-tagged, so it can be set in context. Given India’s hierarchical organisation (for example, villages, blocks, districts), putting all data in a geospatial context will become critical for early detection of patterns.

Continued on Monday.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 3

2.       India needs to leverage the new, emerging technologies of cloud, social and mobile across government.

A combination of cloud computing, social media and mobile technologies promises to make technology implementations faster, better and cheaper, and at the same time more participative and real-time. Many implementations of this are now visible across the US. Some of the early adopters have been various transportation departments across the US. Given the key role of public transport, they are making available real-time data (that was deemed “proprietary” until just a few years ago) accessible via API to developers who are creating an exciting set of applications that provide extremely useful information to the travelling public.

Government in India needs to look at cloud computing quickly and seriously. This will help reduce implementation cost and also provide basic services to all government officials faster.

Something as basic as email must be made available to all government employees – on their own government domain ending in Governments officials using gmail or yahoo for emails is not just embarrassing for a country that prides itself on its IT successes, it is also a matter of security. It is ironic that out of security concerns, they are trying to force Blackberry to install servers in India, but at the same time our government officials are publicly interacting on email platforms outside their control!

Social media will help increase interaction with citizens, while mobile technologies (SMS, mobile Internet, apps) will help drive more real-time data on-demand to people.

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 2

1.       India needs to embrace the open government and open data movement.

When President Obama took over in January 2009, he issued the Open Government and Open Data directive. The focus was on making government more transparent, accountable, collaborative and participative. One outcome is that government departments are making available their raw datasets on a common portal to be accessible by citizens and developers.  The result is the portal.

What this does is to get more people involved in looking at the data and creating apps and websites that present the data in a more analysable format – rather than relying on government bureaucrats to determine what is important. Mashups across departments create for deeper insights into the workings of the government, leading to faster and smarter decisions.

What is really needed in India is to make all government data (except that which involves the privacy of an individual or national security) open and accessible to all.  This approach is the opposite of the thinking behind RTI (Right to Information). In India, the government jealously guards data and treats it as its private property. RTI is a lever to pry some of the data out of the hands of the government but the maintained assumption is that the data is unavailable to citizens in general.

Continued tomorrow.

Gov 2.0: 10 Learnings for India – Part 1

I attended the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington DC last week. It was a fascinating experience – both in terms of learning, and in how to conduct a conference rich with content and filled with diversity of ideas without the boring presentations typical of most Indian conferences.

The Gov 2.0 Summit theme was “Government as Platform.” As the introduction put it: “Gov 2.0 Summit brings together innovators from government and the private sector to highlight technology and ideas that can be applied to the nation’s great challenges. In areas as diverse as education, health care, energy, jobs, and financial reform, there are unique opportunities to rethink how government agencies perform their mission and serve our citizens. Social media, cloud computing, web, and mobile technologies-all provide new capabilities that government agencies are beginning to harness to achieve demonstrably better results at lower cost.”

The dominant idea permeating the event was about government as a platform to build services and solutions on, rather than the government itself as a solutions provider. As one of the speakers put it, “Government does not have a monopoly on wisdom.” With the tools of technology now easily available to citizens and developers, there is a growing movement to opening up the government. This intersection of government and technology has a fascinating interplay as we in India seek to tackle the big challenges we face – similar to the US. The US is responding by opening up government and getting people involved – that is something we in India need to start doing quickly.

Continued tomorrow.

Ericsson invests in Novatium

Novatium, a company I helped co-found about 5 years ago, has received a strategic investment from Ericsson. From one of the media notes:

Novatium Solutions Private Limited, a Chennai-based technology service company, has received a strategic minority investment from Ericsson India.

With this investment Novatium, a provider of managed utility computing, which has partners with telecom operators like Bharti, BSNL, MTNL and Tata, hopes to expand its market reach globally and gain expertise in deep rooted telecom infrastructure and operator relationships.

The company’s expertise lies in core computing environments like Linux development, hardware platform, media processing, product testing, research in networking and audio / video technology, network administration, Linux / Windows system administration, Linux internals, programming and X windows.

Novatium has two platforms of services in India, Nova Navigator and Nova netPC.

Ericsson envisions that in an all-communicating world, everyone can use voice, data, images and video to share ideas and information wherever and whenever they want.

This strategic investment in Novatium’s further strengthens Ericsson’s leadership position and commitment in India and beyond. It also brings Ericsson a step closer to its vision to be the prime driver in an all-communicating world and its mission to empower people, business and societies, said the Stockholm, Sweden-based mobile technology company.

Congratulations to Alok Singh and his team!

Blog Past: Venture Investing

From a couple posts (1 2) written a year ago:

What we need in India to get more start-ups created and more importantly, create the environment for them to succeed is a combination of an Incubator and Venture Capital Fund. This is something on the lines of what Kai-Fu Lee is doing in China or perhaps Y Combinator.

There needs to be a core team at the Incubator that can explore new ideas, and see their potential in them becoming companies. In India, one thing I have seen is that start-ups require a lot more hand holding. That is where an experience team at the Incubator can help nurture companies (teams) through the difficult early days. Venture capital funds typically don’t have the bandwidth to spend more time at many early stage companies.