Thank you Bansky


As the 'next billion' struggle to emerge from India, the lack of tech laws and growth of band-aid technology, have created a unique Chiba. Sentience of the emerging silicon, is tested here

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Satellite Imaging and the India Government

Once it was an excuse used by nations to display their technological prowess. There were benign weather reports and malignant military ‘information’ that had to be collected. Satellites could do both. Under firm government control these ‘electric eyes’ were focussed to ‘serve’ the nation. But the internet changed that.

The release of google earth, two years ago altered the government’s hold on satellite imaging. Google earth took satellite photographs of the earth and stitched them to create a virtual globe on the internet. Today satellite imagery has moved away from the hands of governments into the hands of anybody who can access the internet. Now you can zoom into details on the ground with a resolution that goes up to 15m or 1m.

While users have been busy trying to find out what their houses and offices look from the sky, the government has been sweating. Abdul Kalam, the president, has repeatedly expressed his concern of how high resolution pictures can be a useful to terrorists and other miscreants. The Indian government has also approached google to blur satellite images of important buildings and installation, such as the Rashtrapati Bhavan and air force bases.

Yet the Indian government is not the only one that has reacted with panic. The American government has already blurred photographs of its installations and blanked out the top of the White House from google earth. France and Germany have made it illegal to profit from such satellite imagery. Images which make such details easily visible and distributable pose a security threat that needs to be addressed as per the country’s requirement. As of now India has no law binding satellite images.

Google has already said that it is willing to cooperate with the government. In all probability, the ‘sensitive’ pictures will be removed or blurred from the public domain. Even though doing this can be justifiable, there needs to be a limit to which the government is allowed to go ahead with its blurring campaign. Otherwise, total control of satellite imagery will just become an instance of ‘big brother is watching’.

Already the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has released plans of using satellite images to trace and remove illegal hoarding, especially during elections. It is possible that these images will be used for surveying cities. These surveys may be used for enforcing basic laws, such as traffic rules, but they may also be used to track people driving those vehicles. ‘1984’ may have temporally passed us, but even now, the satellites will not be able to track us in the similar way. Though we may not traced and tracked by satellites, giving the government total control over the imagery is not desirable.

Satellite imagery has been adopted by people to their advantage. In October, last year, a group of farmers from Maharshtra were able to prove that the compensation the government was paying them for acquiring land to create an SEZ was inadequate. The official documents had listed the land as being infertile and the government had fixed the compensation accordingly. Yet by using Google earth, the farmers were able to display the crop areas and thus prove that the land in question was fertile and thus was eligible for higher compensation.

Thus satellite imaging is like any other technology, people can choose to use it or abuse it. Even though the government must be allowed to blur the photographs that are available online, it must do so in a manner that is transparent and accountable. This way we can protect our installations but also ensure that the government does not block the technology in a way can be used to curb the citizen’s rights and control them.

(Graphic (c) Shrivathsa Sridhar)

Wikicamp '07: Organisation through chaos

What happens when 350 passionate people congregate without a plan, under one roof? Expected answers would range from pandemonium, break down or any sort of organisation and possibly stampedes. Yet at the Wikicamp, the crowd quickly organized itself and ‘sculpted’ the day’s proceeding as it went. This simultaneous stirring to organisation was not new to the crowd. They had come to the camp precisely because of it.

Wikis work on this formula of collaboration towards organisation. By definition, Wikis are websites which can be altered by anyone who views it. Thus users change the content of the website as they browse through it. The Wiki carries material that has been contributed and edited by a plethora of users. Overtime the Wiki’s material represents the aggregate of all the views on a particular topic, thus giving the user holistic information on the topic in the wiki.

Wikicamp reflected these values of Wikis. People from across the world came to interact and debate on how the wikis work and what their possible future could be. Like a wiki, the camp had no organised structure; every member could start a talk, question or contribute to the existing topics. This lack of structure, created a mood for the ‘law of two feet’, as explained by blogger Kiruba Shankar “in English, law of two feet means that if you feel bored, feel free to move your two feet. Don’t sulk, move out do what interests you”.

Although there were no ‘speakers’, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, the online user contributed encyclopaedia, became the fire starter, fuelling and igniting the discussion. “Wikipedia is like Rock’n’roll, some people will always tell you not to listen to it. But just because they say so, doesn’t mean that people will stop listening to it” said Wales. He started the camp by discussing his experiences with wikis, research on programs to be used with Wikis and possible revenue generation models.

The camp transformed into a user guided forum, where various wikipedia content generators and other discussed possibilities of using wikis. The presence of G Badani (one of the most prolific Indian Wikipedians) and Sundar( a writer for Tamil Wikipedia) also added flavour to the camp.

Link: Rajan.wordpress
Link: MoMo India Chapter

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cheap computers and eLearning: Towards higher literacy and corporate revenue?

maybe moving towards IT superpowerdom, yet for most of the Indian population computers remain prohibitively priced. This base concern of price has worried the industry for some time now. Educationists feel that the pricing denies access to people who could benefit from the information that can be accessed and shared through computers and the internet. For this camp, the price acts as a major constraint on elearning. Dr. V Nagarajan, ex-professor of Madras University says “The deciding factor is the cost of computers. Primarily computer-based education must be available at the school level and community level as networked and distributed resources.”

Less is more
But educationists are not the only ones lobbying for reduced computer prices. Software and hardware industries also have a lot to gain if prices fall. Currently both these industries are facing markets that are saturating at tremendous speeds. Hardware manufacturers have been trying to bring down prices in an effort to tap into markets that have been outside the purview of computers. The software firms, also, feel that lower computer costs will make piracy economically unviable and thus increase revenue collection.

Even though falling prices will increase the size of the pie, all current efforts to bring down prices have met with disaster. The ‘One laptop per child’ initiative started by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte and supported by Rupert Murdoch, is one such approach. This initiative envisaged a computer that would cost $100, and would be distributed (and paid for by NGOs) in rural areas. Yet a decade and a millions of dollars later, the initiative still has not been able to reach its $100 goal. The computer called XO relies on heavily subsidised prices from chip and computer screen manufacturers.

‘The street finds its own use for things’
Novatium, an Indian company has come up with a novel solution to this problem. They have put together a computer that doesn’t have expensive moving parts that usually push up the price of computers. The netPC, as it is called, is a little box that when connected to a monitor, keyboard and a ‘network’ line, functions just like an ordinary computer. The company decided to use mobile phone chips as processors that are a fraction of the cost of usual computer processors. They also decided to do away with the hard disk or the operating system that usually resides on the computer.

Instead of an operating system Novatium has opted for a model called ‘thin client’. In this model the computer is connected to server on which the operating system and the storage space reside. The computer just requires enough memory and processing power to connect to the server. Once this is done, the server acts as a doorway for the computer. The person using the computer can access the internet, send and receive email, download applications and read documents.

Dr Nagaraj says, “The computer must be sturdy to withstand rough and tough handling. Need for an AC and dust free environment will defeat the purpose of making computers available to the hard-to-reach rural population.” The netPC easily meets this requirement. The lack of moving parts, such as hard disks and CD Roms make the system very sturdy.

The netPC requires an initial investment of $70. The screen, keyboard and mouse need to be bought separately. After this, the user needs to pay a monthly amount of $10 per month as a subscription cost for using Novatium’s services. This does reduce the cost of using a computer. This reduction in cost has already caught the attention of Microsoft, which has signed up to work with Novatium.

No Panacea
Yet the netPC is not a panacea to the developing world’s computing needs. The netPC requires a network line that enables the computer to connect to the server. Thus for the model to work these lines represent an infrastructural constraint. Nisheeth Mishra, business head of Novatium, disagrees “ all it [netPC] requires is a physical network reach in the homes, i.e. a phoneline or a wireless last mile. These are pretty widely available.”

Even if these lines are available, two basic problems remain. Firstly to target rural areas, assured electricity is required. Secondly, spreading elearning requires that the users know how to read and write the local language or English. In a country like ours, both these cannot be worked with as a given.

“Without electricity it [netPC] will not work. However, our device is the lowest power consumption CPU ever made. It consumes only 5W of power, and therefore can run on inverters for hours or on battery also. Still the only concern is that we do not have a similar power consumption monitor” says Mishra. Yet even if batteries for the monitor are developed, the problem of teaching an unlettered population through a medium that primarily relies on text remains.

Dr. Nagarajan agrees “information, knowledge and wisdom are unconnected with the technology of literacy. Unfortunately computers are developed to suit those who can use the sight and alphabet. Increased use of voice and multimedia will make computers a technology for illiteracy.” As of now the netPC has not solved this.

The PC also has other complications. The netPC depends on the server to do all its processing, thus if the server develops a problem and stops functioning, the computer will also stop working. Mishra clarifies, “The server, the network, the client all are single point of failures as far as components are concerned. However, by design the client is supposed to be robust and never fail. We have for the last 1.5 years not reported a single failure. On the server, adequate redundancy planning is done so that the uptimes are guaranteed.”

Community wealth or revenue generation
Once the system is made available to the masses, content that is created and shared will also have to be looked into. “Community knowledge network is the basic theme” says Mishra. He also adds “There are opportunities of consumer research, advertising and value added services that can earn more than basic revenue. We shall definitely offer the advert services to the community that opts for it. [For example] Premium users may choose a no advert service whereas some may choose to view specific categories of direct advertising. Our platform is capable of being exploited in either way.”

Dr Nagarajan disagrees “Internet must be used with caution. Like TV, computer cannot be used for cultural invasion and moral corruption. Learning with innovative use of existing technologies in convergence with edusat will link the entire nation into a net work where the best practices will be absorbed and adopted for local use by teachers and students”.

Even though the netPC may look like a viable alternative that can reduce the digital divide, it still needs to face the market to come up with workable solutions to the problems it now faces. Dr Nagaraj remarks “India is not interested in Microsoft windows but using the computer as a window to the world.”

Link: the learned man
Link: Rajesh Jain's blog

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cheap computing: Hundred Dollars?

The $100 PC: the elusive dream that big wigs have been chasing for quite a while now. It’s a device that has been hypothesized to change the way technology can help development of people in backward countries. The vision is amazing, a child sitting in the back of beyond, can access the internet, learn how to use PCs, and ultimately receive education that has failed to reach his area. The digital divide gets breached and ultimately sublimates into nothingness.

But is this possible? Although the global philanthropies seem to shedding tears and emptying their pockets, an all affordable PC is still far from production stage. Newer technology (core duo processors and windows Vesta) is busy cranking up prices of the PC. As older hardware and software gets regularly erased from the legit and black markets, the cheap PC will continue to be a delusion.

However the Indian market seems to have created a cheaper alternative. Novatium’s Rajesh Jain (with help of IIT Chennai professor Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala and his team) has created an ingenious device that can increase the penetration of PC in the Indian market. The concept is not new; in fact it’s a model that has been actively practiced in all big corporates: Thin client model.

The thin client model has no central processor of its own or even a storage device. In this model, a screen and a keyboard, is connected to a server through a ‘client’ box. All the processing, from booting to surfing, is carried out by the server. The client contains just enough hardware to be able to connect to the server, launch a browser and connect to the input/output devices. Since the client needs bare minimum hardware, it doesn’t need expensive processors and circuitry. The server houses all the expensive materials, from large storage hard disks to expensive operating systems.

This model has evolved as a standard practise in large offices. The data remains secure at the servers, while cost of each work station falls.

But Jain has tweaked the model. He has proposed a model in which a thin client is sold for as low as $70. The screen(A TV can also be used) and keyboard have to be purchased separately. Once the hardware is in place, a cable connects the ‘PC’ to the Novatium server. The server provides the thin client with everything from surfing, checking email and even creating documents which can be saved on the server. Novatium plans to charge $10 per month for providing this service.

This model has caught the fancy of major software producers. In India, software companies have been maligned by the easy availability of pirated software. As a result the companies have not been able to cash in on people using their software. Jain’s model, works for them too. The companies will be able to charge Novatium for using its software; also the software companies may be able to bill the users directly.

The hardware manufacturers are also pleased. Global sales of PCs have been falling for a while. The only method to increase revenue is to tap into markets where computer systems are not wide spread. Jain’s model will open the market for another device that they can mass produce and market for higher profitability. It also opens up another platform for advertisers to sell their products. For all the associated computer usage and companies, Jain’s model could herald a new boom.

But in the fan fare, there is certain things that stand out. Jain’s thin film model has few problems that still need to be answered. Jain’s Pc needs a fast internet line that can enable easy data transfer between the input/output devices (with the user) and the processor in the server. These lines are still a rarity. For the model to work, the availability of these connections has to be increased.

The second issue is that of security. Since the data and the programs are saved in the server, it represents a single point of failure. If the server fails, all the clients connected to it may become useless. The redundancy model needed to counter this has not been talked about.

Thirdly, the company has not released the constraints that users will be under. Its still not clear whether the users will be allowed to program. The mode of advertising, weather pay per click or other models has not been discussed.

But the major fact is that this new ‘PC’ requires an internet line and electricity for the computer screen. The availability of these two factors in India will ensure that the PC will largely remain an urban centric device. This sort of infrastructure is virtually non existent in rural India. Thus the device is clearly not guided to increase internet and PC penetration in those regions.

Although the system has potential to increase penetration of both, the internet and PC use, in virtually virgin markets, unless the infrastructure needed to make it viable is made readily available, the cheap PC will remain a concept.

Link: Rajesh Jain's blog

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Shell Shocked : Olive Ridley Turtles

Late nights on the Neelangarai beach are frustrating. There are no lights, you can’t see anything. The sand invades every pore of your body, like the hand held metal detectors airport security tortures you with. The moon mocks you, its feeble light reflecting off the aluminium foil ocean surface. The torch light reveals hordes of crabs that scuttle from the ocean and back. For the Olive Ridley turtle these are perfect conditions to nest.

Each foot step takes enormous energy. The sand sucks at my feet, it takes twice the energy just to pull my feet out of it. The sound of the high tide had been pleasing at first, now it just grates on my nerves. The leader of the ‘turtle walk’, Dr. Supraja Dharini, ignores people who lag behind and marches on. Now and then, she explains the oddities that litter the beach, “That is a barnacle, it’s a life form that grows on wood” or “Oh, that? That’s a just a dead fish”.

Two village fishermen keep pace with the doctor, lighting the path ahead with torches. The group staggers behind the fishermen, their hope of seeing a turtle diminishing with each step. Some of us ‘walkers’ can’t carry on, “lets just get back home, it’s getting late and I’m tired” cries one. I look at my watch, it was almost eleven thirty. I want to leave as well. Maybe I could stop for a coffee on my way back, ‘at least that would liven up the night’.

One of the cones of light from the torches reveals a green dome. Four flippers brake from the surface. Blood runs from the head of the creature, forming pools of crimson in the sand. The dome is a shell. The creature, an Olive Ridley Turtle. To top it all, it is dead. A neat slit glistens from the throat of the turtle. The group stops, the sea of eyes registers shock. Chatter dies a silent death. The mood of the walkers collectively becomes grave.

Disappointment flickers on the fishermen’s faces. They had been trying to stop turtle deaths for over a year. Yet the fruit of their labour has washed up on the shore lifeless and empty. Masking their grief Mahesh and Jnanasekaran, the fishermen, take out a tape and start measuring the turtle’s body. “38 inches long, 26 inches wide, female” dictates Jnanasekaran, as Mahesh scribbles the figures on the log book they had carry. “We’ve already seen three dead turtles, in the last 10 days” exclaims Jnanasekaran.

Dr. Supraja Dharini, looks at the walkers, “The turtle must be around 17 to 25 years old. It must have got entangled in a trawler’s net that cut into its flipper and neck”. “It must have died about three days ago” she adds.

Olive Ridley turtles travel hundreds of kilometres to lay eggs in the place where they were born. The females come to the beaches in droves, to dig small pot shaped holes, where they lay their eggs. Soon after, they cover the hole with sand, flatten it out with their bodies and swim back to the ocean. Generations of these turtles return each year to nest in the beach of their birth.

The long journey of the turtle is more than just a fascinating story. It’s a living indicator of the health of the ocean. More returning turtles points to the availability of food to sustain them through their arduous travel. The availability of their food, shrimp, crabs and molluscs directly affects us. This is because these foods sustain fish as well as humans. Not only that, but entire villages depend on fish, crabs and shrimp for their lively hood. The death of turtles indicates falling catch, an economic and environmental pointer of how human growth is poisoning the seas.

The falling numbers of Olive Ridley turtles also signs to shift in ecological balance. The extinction of this species would automatically cause the death of creatures that feed on them. Also the population of shrimp, crab and molluscs would explode, causing immense damage to the delicate number game nature plays to ensure continuing life on earth as a whole.

I trudge through the sand, as these thoughts crashed on the shore of my mind. The group has grown quiet, every member still coming to terms with the turtle’s death. Mahesh signals us to stop. He slowly raised his torch, and points it towards a dark area of the sand.

A turtle had just dug up a hole. As we watched, she started laying eggs. Smiles return on the faces of the walkers. The light illuminates each egg, as it falls into the hole. The silence has ceased to be oppressive; wonder had taken its place. As we watch the number of eggs increase.

The eggs will be taken to a hatchery, where care will be taken to ensure that they are unharmed by predators or humans. After 58 days, they will hatch; the little turtles will crawl to the sea. The balance will be maintained. One day as adults they will return to give new life.

I feel as though my presence is invading the lady’s privacy. As I walk towards the car, Jane Goodall’s words come back to me, ‘each and every individual can make a difference’.


These Walks are Organised by The Tree Foundation, Information on the 'turtle walks' and the foundation is available here.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Online community:

The internet started out as an effort to communicate and share data. When people realised that they could reach out and touch more people through wires, communities proliferated. From the early message boards, forum and discussion groups, online spaces have changed to offer more media to the user. The text based online words evolved into sound based then graphical universes. Though points of interaction increased, one defining factor of online communities changed. Corporate control mutated amateur discussion groups, to profit based websites that tried every method available to target the user and the casual viewer with advertisements. (For more on this check out the work of Lawrence Lessig)

When Google bought, the market buzzed with people getting into ‘videoblogging’. Suddenly videoblogging became the ‘in’ thing. The Indian entrepreneur also entered into the fray with out realising the constraints faced by India’s outdated networks. The Indian sites boasted of original content and unreal download times. The content was new, the download time a fantasy.

But what connects the change in internet communities to the sale of In India, the answer would be The force behind the site, Rohan Pinto says “konkan tv is not gonna be owned by me. konkan tv is going to be owned by community itself. Every cent from the profit that comes from this venture would go back to the community. The reasoning behind it is strongly rooted in my beliefs that it's the community itself that makes a service succeed. Who made youtube succeed: The VC's [Venture Capitalist] or the Community? Well, if it's the community, the general population that’s the reason behind youtubes success, what did the community get when youtube got bought out for a couple of billion. nothing... nada... zilch.. zero” plans to offer a compromise between user based sites and purely commercial sites. ‘Social Income’ as the model is referred to, envisages a system where a venture capitalist (VC) control part of the site, while the users control the rest. The VC pours in the money. The users spend time and effort in making the site more popular, increasing traffic and revenue, and of course generating more content. The revenue generated is then split between the VC and the users, thus not only justifying the investment but actually helping the community grow.

At first this idea seems unreal, too ideal to work. But consider this: the site had one thousand user uploaded videos before completing 60 days online! Also as Rohan points out, “I have relied on only the bloggers from the industry to write about what they have seen and what they think the site would be headed towards. 100% of my sites traffic, content and visibility to date has been through word of mouth.”

As of now the site is threatened by copywritten material as well as large download times. Although filtering out of copywritten material needs a little more work, the site is planning to offer a player that will play downloaded video instead of streaming them. This feature makes the site attractive to dial-up connection users who currently have to wait for hours to watch streaming video. The content creator also stays secure. The content is purged from the computer a week after it is downloaded. If the user want to keep the video, then the user will eventually be able to: either buy it from a syndicated site , download it onto their phones for a fee and possibly, even watch on the television.

As communities change on the internet and as services proliferate, will be a space to watch out for.