July 19, 2010

Print-On-Demand in India

Print on demand is a publishing process that allows an author to publish a book in paperback and then have a very small number of copies -- even a single copy, if necessary -- printed whenever required at a price point that is comparable to traditional offset printing.

I had first come across this technology when I had published, The Road to pSingularity, and had explained this new publishing paradigm in a post in 2007. The trouble then was that these print-on-demand publishers were based in the US and the price of the book was comparable to a US retail price which is quite high for us in India. Moreover the shipping cost was very often more than the cost of the book. Thus the whole process was not quite economically viable.

However the arrival of of print-on-demand vendors in India have altered the economics dramatically. Recently, I had the pleasure of publishing the first volume of the VGSOM Management Monograph Series through Pothi and the results were very satisfying.

A perfectly bound paperback copy of my 154 page book Information Systems for Crime Management is now available at Rs 235 only from Pothi and since the books is being shipped from Bangalore, the cost is quite affordable -- and comparable to any other online bookstore in India.

Authors writing on niche topics may use this technology to publish their works.

July 04, 2010

Google DoPe and the Doors of Perception

The Doors of Perception is an iconic book by Aldous Huxley where, while exploring  the hallucinogenic properties of certain shrubs and herbs, he came to the unusual conclusion that any cognitive sentient has instant and automatic access to all possible knowledge in the universe. However the neural faculties that are expected to process this information and render them useful in a socio-cognitive context are in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of data -- as occassionally evident in what we refer to as 'madness' -- and so are protected and isolated from the same by the mind that works as a gate or valve that reduces the quantum of information that the brain is eventually exposed to. This mind or gate or valve is what Huxley refers to as the Doors of Perception : that can be opened wider by the use of mental techniques ( Yoga ?) or the use of hallucinogenic drugs -- to reveal a greater amount of "significance" or meaning to the sterile reams of data that is otherwise available. While the jury may still be out on the veracity of this hypothesis, the emergence of the World Wide Web has created for us an intriguing analogy that is well worth exploring.

There is no doubt that the Web represents a very large amount of information -- whether it is in the form of specialised packets as in Wikipedia, in the form of semi-structured information at social networking sites or finally in rather unstructured format of thousands of web pages scattered all across the internet. There is no doubt that almost any kind of information is certainly available out there and it is also true that barring some secret documents anyone, in principle, can access most of it. As a thought experiment (like the one performed by Einstein in riding a beam of light !), one could -- again in principle and of course in a moment of madness -- take a print out all that information but then what ? Can any human being, a cognitive sentient, ever hope to make any sense from that mountain of paper on his desk ? Obviously not.

So what do we do ? We use a search engine to act as a filter that reduces the amount of information that is dumped on our digital desktop and then we navigate through this using our own intelligence to reach our goal. This combination of search engine and our own intelligent data interpretation is in my opinion analogous to what Huxley could refer to as the Doors of Perception.Can we improve on this man-machine hybrid and create a better search-interpret product ? Can we bring improve upon it until it starts to resemble the mind more closely. To do so we need to understand that the interpretation part consists of two components : a semantic module that helps us distinguish between similar sounding but contextually different words, eg bus as in vehicle and bus as in a communication channel, and natural language processor that can do a bi-directional context sensitive translation between human phrases and a computer query and reporting language.

So if I were to say "What trees grow in the Amazon ?", the natural language processor (NLP) should be able to convert it into a search command, pass it to the search engine (SE). The SE should retrieve information and pass it to the semantic interpreter (SI) that would eliminate information about both Amazon, the retailer and amazon, the female warriors, leaving only information about the Amazon rain-forest. Finally, the NLP would should be able to repackage this information into a neat list of trees that grow in the Amazon and show it on the screen with URLs pointing to more information in Wikipedia !

Is this Utopian ? Not really.

Google has a powerful search engine and Wikipedia provides a great information base to start with -- so the SE is certainly in place. Natural language processing is well established branch of study and if combined with the advances made in language translation there is a good probability that a near human like dialogue can be achieved without too much effort. What is clearly missing is the ability to introduce semantic interpretation and this is where we enter the realms of artificial intelligence -- a cliched phrase that I have been trying to avoid for quite some time.

How does the system distinguish between Amazon the retailer and Amazon the jungle ? and between Bengal, the state and Bengal, the iconic tiger of a football team ? Of course one way would be to learn by observation. If I were to search for Bengal and then follow the links toward Bengal the state, then in my case, and only in my case, Bengal means the state. But if someone in Cincinnati were to search for Bengal and then follows the links for the football team then in his case, and only in his case, Bengal maps to the iconic tiger. How on earth would the the semantic interpreter distinguish between the two of us ?

An obvious answer would be to first identify us, say through our Google loginid, but that would compromise privacy. Instead, can we use a clever combination of a history of past searches on the word Bengal ( or Amazon for that matter ) and establish some probability figures for Bengal => State vs Bengal => Tiger which can then be refined and or otherwise tested through a dialogue established by the natural language processor ( for example, Did you mean tiger or the state ? ). Difficult but certainly not impossible considering the number of AI style chatbots that are available. In fact techniques like market basket analysis from the world of data mining can be tailored to identify concepts that are more closely related.

Basically what we are looking for is a bolt-on product that will sit on top of Google search engine and act as an interface between the human world and the world of digital information. Its main job would be reduce the information that is available on the web, identify and isolate the relevant portions and pass it on to the curious human who triggered the search ( or "thought" ? )

Would that be a new product from Google ?  Google DoPe ? Google Doors of Perception ?

July 02, 2010

Shikshajaal:21 - the education network for the 21st century

Affordability and Quality

Students located in remote and economically backward regions of the world are in critical need of good education and yet they are precisely the ones who cannot afford it. Since direct aid is both inefficient and inadequate, Shikshajaal:21 blends cutting edge technology and modern management techniques to  address this challenging goal.

Shikshajaal:21 believes that educational services at the K12 level cannot be delivered through fully automated channels because kids would not have the interest or the ability to learn on their own. Human teachers, empowered with tools and technology, are essential. However, competent and motivated teachers are rare in the regions of the world that we wish to target. So the model  uses technology as a “force multiplier” that enables a large number of ordinary people – teaching assistants –  to deliver high quality education to a dispersed student population.

The components of the Shikshajaal:21 architecture  are now described in terms of the physical infrastructure, human resources, software environment, management structure and financial model.

Physical Infrastructure

Since the school is the primary touch point between a K12 student and the world of knowledge, we need to have as many of these as possible built and rolled out quickly. To ensure speed, we need a standard, minimalist design whose major components can be pre-fabricated on an assembly line – like Liberty Ships of WWII – located centrally in each country or region and then shipped to its destination for final assembly.

Such a school would contain 10 classrooms to accommodate 12 classes  of 50 students each in two shifts,  have high bandwidth wireless internet connectivity with local WiFi, be powered by solar energy with battery and grid backup, have a rugged net-book for each student and a large display, either projection or LCD, in every classroom. In addition there should be a kitchen + cafeteria to lure poor students with mid-day meals – that have proved to be highly successful in reducing the drop out rates in India. Schools in affluent areas of the world may have more facilities than the minimalist set defined here.

The planning for the fabrication and logistics should be such that it should be possible to  commission two schools every week , on average, after the initial gestation period, so as to have, in a country like India, a new school in every parliamentary constituency  within a span of 5 years. This roll-out will be planned and managed by the Country Shikshajaal  organisation described later.

Human Resources

Each school should have a manager, a supervisor for all non-academic activities including physical maintenance and kitchen, and eight teaching assistants – three for science, three for humanities and two for languages – who should be able to facilitate learning based on the teaching software – which could be on-line, electronic or even physical – that will be created and distributed.

A central facility would have a pool of quality teachers who will work with experts to design and create teaching material in the appropriate  language and customised to local requirements.  This material will be designed as per global standards and on the technology platforms described in the next section. This central facility would also serve as a train-the-trainer hub for the teaching assistants to ensure quality and consistency across all schools across the country or the region. The recruitment and training of this cadre of  teaching assistants will be executed centrally by the Country Shikshajaal organisation described later.

Software Environment

Key to the success of the scheme is the premise that a cadre of teaching assistants armed and assisted with high quality, multi-media teaching aids will be able to deliver an educational experience of very high quality.

Teaching material could be developed in two possible formats : print-on-demand textbooks printed on inexpensive, recycled paper and on-line multimedia – slide shows, movies, interactive animations. The on-line content would be hosted on central web servers that would be accessible  with web browsers.  Some of the course ware would be tailored for  individual student browsers while others could be used on the teaching assistant's machine and shown on the blackboard style  large display available in each classroom.

While the exact software platform to be used can be decided later, and it would change and evolve with time in any case, the general construct would be based on the principle of Web 2.0 and its focus on user generated multi-media content, somewhat similar to an Orkut style social network. Specific applications can then be bolted on using the Open Social ( or similar open ) APIs to deliver virtually any kind of educational or collaborative functionality.

Simulation software will  be a key component of the repertoire.  Beginning with traditional models of science laboratories and experiments , newer platforms based on maps, games and 3D Virtual worlds would be introduced so that students can explore remote regions with reality based applications like Google Earth, participate immersively,  in Second Life type simulations of  ancient Egypt or Mughal India or attend readings and enactments of great literature. Students would also be encouraged to escape from their physical classroom, as avatars, and participate along with avatars of students from other schools across the world in virtual events of their specific choice – for example a lecture on Vikings that is otherwise not on the curriculum for students in India. Social networking with MMORPG and 3D Virtual Worlds will lead to a new level of globalisation of young and inquisitive minds – the kind that happens with physical country visits.

All courseware should be developed on the lines of free and open source software and be available under Creative Commons for modification, localisation and language translation.   
Students from Class VI – XII can be formally evaluated with on-line examinations that would their test skills of analysis – through on-line games and puzzles, and of synthesis – through project reports, term papers and  time bound essay style answers to questions that can be automatically scanned for plagiarism and then reviewed by a pool of distributed examiners.

Management Structure

Technology changes but institutions survive on the strength of management structure that governs them. Shikshajaal:21 would have a three-tier management structure that would be layered as follows
  • A private global organisation,  Shikshajaal Global, structured as widely-held public limited company,  with no individual,  organisation or government holding more than 1% of the equity. It should be incorporated in one of the global financial centres.
  • This organisation would be responsible for defining and ensuring global standards in technology, governance, course material, pedagogy and financial audit.
  • A national level organisation, Country Shikshajaal, structured as a public limited company with 26% equity held by Shikshajaal Global,  24% held by the national government in lieu of the free-hold land donated to build the schools and the other 50% held by the national public.
  • This organisation would be responsible for the management of the central facilities,  building the schools, development of the course ware, training of the teachers and would ensure quality and consistency of teaching and evaluation at the local school level.
  • Each school will be operated as a franchisee of  the Country Shikshajaal by a local entrepreneur who will lease the physical facility of the school from Country Shikshajaal, hire staff  and operate it on a management contract at a specified return on investment. After a specified period of time, the local entrepreneur, if found adequate would be allowed to buy out the facility at a mutually  negotiated price and operate the school on his own, for profit.

Financial Model

Initial capital for this enterprise will be raised at both global and national levels through a variety of channels. Shikshajaal Global will negotiate with both national and multilateral aid agencies to secure low cost finance and after appropriate due diligence deploy the same as either equity or  debt in the various Country Shikshajaal organisations.

Country Shikshajaal  organisations will, in addition to the equity and debt injected by Shikshajaal Global, raise additional funds locally through a variety of low cost instruments like Government backed sovereign bonds and other special instruments  – like the popular tax-free Infrastructure Bonds in India. This debt and equity will be serviced by the levy of a franchisee fee payable,  by each operational school, for each student.

Each school in turn will meet its operational cost and pay its franchisee fee by money raised as tuition fee from the students. No school will be free but a part of the tuition fee – ranging from 0% to 95%, depending on the socio-economic indicators of the locality and the economic status of the student – will be subsidised through a cess levied on municipal, state or central government taxes or even by international aid agencies, if necessary. This subsidy would be transferred to Country Shikshajaal on a per student basis. Hence society will pay for the education of its children both individually and collectively through the route of taxation.

Operational costs will be also be met by donations, of  cash or equipment,  or  labour donated in the creation of  open source learning material. The schools themselves can generate revenue by renting out their premises, on holidays and after school hours, for community and social events.
But the biggest contribution to operational cost will come through advertisements placed inside educational content – both on-line as well as printed textbooks. If the entire free-to-air television industry can be profitably supported by advertisements placed by producers of FMCG and lifestyle products, then there is no reason why a part of this huge ad-spend, cannot be redirected – in a controlled and responsible manner – towards defraying the costs of education. The on-line advertisement model pioneered by Hotmail, Google and others can be used to generate significant revenue.

The ascent of man

A key indicator of social progress is the increase in the operational efficiency  of civic mechanisms  as  evident in advances of technology – from wheel and fire to cars and electricity – and a parallel evolution of institutions – from tribes and guilds to democracy  and multinational corporates.

Shikshajaal:21 is a unique public private partnership education model that simultaneously addresses both these issues.  It uses modern management techniques and funding models to build a platform on which  a whole range of  educational technology can be deployed to create a flexible and efficient delivery mechanism. This will ensure that the money that society in general, and governments in particular, invest in education is spent in a manner that squeezes out inefficiency,  reduces the possibility of  corruption and delivers a service that meets or exceeds expectations.

[ written for the The Economist-Innocentive Ideation Challenge ]

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