December 01, 2010

How to Increase Speed of Trains in India

The Basic Philosophy

The solution to any real life problem consists of two components -- a hard technology component and a soft human component. While speeds of trains can of course be increased with more powerful engines, lighter materials, better aerodynamics and intelligent signalling, what we also need is a way to ensure that everyone in the railway system has a vested interest in ensuring that speeds and schedules are maintained,  is motivated enough to go the extra mile to make that happen and has the information at his or her finger tips to act on the motivation. This is the goal of TERM -- the Technology Enabled Real-time Motivation initiative.

The Core  Idea

Who is responsible for delays ? At the highest level, the Railway Board ! But we need to establish a more granular level of responsibility. Is it the signal operator ? the station master ? the staff of a particular station ? the staff of a particular group of stations ? of a specific division ? of a zone ? Or is it some other specific collective of individuals ?

SIMRAN is GPS based system that the railways plan to use to track the position of all trains at all times. [ see 1, 2, and presentation by Dhande of IIT Kanpur ] TERM will use the data available from SIMRAN to create a “delay model” within the Indian Railway system. When water flows through a network of pipes, any blockage anywhere causes a  buildup of pressure in certain segments of the network. Similarly, the delay model will create real-time image of the delay hot-spots, the “pressure” points, within the system by adding up the instantaneous individual delay of all trains in a defined area.  By integrating  this instantaneous total delay data of all trains in the area over a period of time we will arrive at a cumulative delay-index for a “collective” ( which could be station, region, zone or some other defined collective ) and this will be used to determine a financial incentive for everyone in that collective. This recognises that individuals cannot be held individually responsible for delays but collectively are  indeed responsible and so everyone in the collective should be incentivised to minimise the delay-index. Individuals could belong to overlapping collectives and  individual incentives could be also calculated depending on the sophistication of the model.

If a collection of individuals are to be held accountable for delays, then it is only fair that they be individually informed of delays as they get accumulated in real-time and this is the second component of TERM.  SIMRAN will be generating megabytes of position/delay data every minute and we need a system that will rapidly and in real-time scan the data -- using a Map-Reduce algorithm on a Hadoop platform that will constantly monitor this data flood -- to isolate and prioritise the most important hot-spots. This is roughly analogous to the Google Page-Rank mechanism that dynamically identifies top pages or trending topics of the the moment.

Individuals in each collective  would have a graded hierarchy of responsibility and depending on the quantum of delay at any given time, SMS messages will be sent to specific individuals alerting them to the delay that is building up in the area of his collective. For example a 1 minute will alert the signalman, a 5 minute delay will alert the station master, a 10 minute delay will alert the Divisional Manager and so on upto the General Manager, who will also be a  part of the collective incentive scheme. The actual escalation matrix will have to be determined based specific authorities and responsibilities and would change dynamically based on actual duty hours. Net-net no one will be able to absolve themselves from the responsibility for the delay-index accumulated in his collective.

The Tentative Architecture

The Bottom Line

TERM will use existing GPS data from SIMRAN to create unique mechanism where everyone in the system is encouraged to minimise delay and earn financial incentives for the same.

November 21, 2010

Four Movies from VGSoM, IIT Kharagpur

Traditional MIS courses in Business Schools very often tend to focus on programming and systems analysis but the needs of the corporate world seem to be moving away from such "hard" technology. Today, it is all about the rich interactivity of Web 2.0 and the ability to "mashup" a whole slew of occassionally half baked ( or still baking ) technological ideas and deliver value to the business.

In an earlier post, I had highlighted some of the "hard" technology of Cloud Computing that our students have learnt to package together to deliver a useful product. But there is more to the usage of technology than crafting smart applications. Today's managers are very often faced with the task of communicating complex ideas to an impatient audience and the only arrow in the quiver could be technology. Hence students were given the opportunity to explore the use of movie making as a technical tool to further their business goals.

Students were asked to choose a complex business topic and create a 5 minute movie to explain the same. Creating a movie is rare combination of both left and right brain skills : One has to plan, organise locations & actors, shoot, edit and upload -- and this calls for a mix of technical and managerial skills that are essential in any business.

We were fortunate, the Mr K V Sridhar the Creative Head of Leo Burnett helped us evaluate the final products and the four best movies are featured here.

Mary Kom : A World Champion from India

When will people realise that there is a world beyond the corrupt antics that goes by the name of Cricket
Image scanned from EyE / Indian Express

November 19, 2010

Cloud Computing at VGSoM, IIT Kharagpur

As a concept, Cloud Computing is neither new nor anything unique -- in fact the business proposition  around this model of system architecture is so compelling, that one wonders -- as I have explained in the Economic Times --  why people do not see it as an inevitability !

Of late the idea seems to have exploded into the public psyche with the unstoppable force of an idea whose time has come and we in the Vinod Gupta School of Management at IIT Kharagpur have included this into our curriculum.

I have been exploring Cloud Computing on the Zoho platform for the past couple of years and this year our students have built some very smart applications -- in fact a nano ERP if I may say so -- that were evaluated by two executives from Zoho itself. I am grateful to Mr Aravind Natarajan for helping me with this evaluation.

You can see the three top applications here on this page, or you can follow the links to the actual application

Go to application : Zoho-Order2Cash

Go to application : Hindustan MultiLever Ltd

Go to application : The Permanent Parivartan

November 11, 2010

Shankarpur : From Sunset to Sunrise

The Sandy Bay Hotel : Excellent place to stay when you are here. We booked our rooms here through Unicorn Travels in Calcutta.

Morning 5th November 2010

October 26, 2010

The Snake in the Shadows

This snake decided to pay us a visit, much to the annoyance if not terror of the inhabitants.
If anyone can identify the species please add a comment.

October 24, 2010

Creativity Unlimited

Ten years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on the impact of technology on creativity and innovation at one of the Seagull book stores in Bhawanipur. This had been organised by one of the Bengali "little magazines" that Calcutta is famous for and on arriving at the venue my initial thought was that my invitation had been a mistake -- because almost everybody else was either a poet or a writer or an artist (though none were well known, then or even now ) and I was the sole C-programmer in a T-shirt in a sea of dhoti, pajama, kurta and tea cups.

To cut a long story short, the discussion focused on how cheap technology -- mostly TV and cinema -- was destroying the great cultural canvas of books, painting, theatre and jatra and reducing us to mechanical robots and why -- horror of horrors -- pristine Shantiniketan and not the crass commercialism of Bombay or Bangalore should be the benchmark against which Calcutta should measure itself.

I tolerated all this with a modicum of grace till someone mentioned that the latest devil was computers and how that evil abomination would drive one more nail into Calcutta's cultural coffin. As an example, one wise man pointed out that a computer where you mindlessly entered data and pressed a button to get a result was a prime example of this absolute lack of creativity.At this point I could not but rise to the defence of my profession and pointed out that perhaps my co-panellists were not aware of the ingenuity and skill that goes into building the program that allows such effortless  use. Realising that it was impossible for me to convince them of the beauty of systems architecture or the algorithms that power them, I tried to talk about the emergence of websites -- my Yantrajaal was just about a year old by then -- but soon realised that I was in the company of those who know not and know not that they know not. For them, the only thing nice about my website was the clever name Yantrajaal -- a new sanskritised compound word that referred to a network of devices. The text and images on the site were too trivial for any genuine artist to even look at. Perhaps I could have tried harder but then it was getting late and I with my patience being rapidly replaced with irritation I decided against prolonging the agony. I picked up the box of food that was my due and left the venue at the earliest available opportunity.

That was then. Why do I rake up this issue today ? Because I came across this presentation from Google that shows some of the highly creative things that innovative people are doing with technology. You may see the presentation here itself in this post or go the site itself -- and believe me it will open up your mind on what all can be done.

This presentation showcases 100+ projects where people have built or "mashed-up" applications in extremely innovative ways to create what I believe are examples of digital art. Not every project will appeal to all but given the diversity of ideas presented, I am sure everyone will find at least one that will thrill him or her.

As a self-proclaimed word-artist, I was really impressed with Text 2.0 and in my wanderlust, this brilliant virtual journey on the Trans Siberian railway took my breath away. Please go through this presentation and see what fires your imagination -- or better still come out with one such project of your own.

August 26, 2010

Campus Recruitment as a B2B Exchange

Every year, corporates have to spend a significant amount of money and management time to visit engineering and business schools and select candidates for recruitment. Competition for talent is intense at the few, well-known and popular schools and corporates are not sure of being able to attract the good students. On the other hand, good candidates are available at a large number of lesser-known schools but the cost of reaching, evaluating and selecting them is very high. The Campus Recruitment Exchange (CRX) could be to a way to avoid the these horns of a dilemma.

The 12 Step Process

Conceptually, the CRX is nothing but a labour market, where students will sell themselves to the companies that bid the highest, or offer the best opportunities in terms of pay and job profiles. However restrictions are necessary so that the normal rules of campus recruitment, like single offers to each candidate and the sequence in which students are allowed to interact with a company ( “day 1” etc ) are followed. Without these restrictions the market will degenerate into a common job portal like or  To avoid this, the following sequence of activities should be followed

  1. A company will register on the CRX through an authorised principal HR representative (HR manager) who in turn will introduce other authorised representatives (HR executives) into the CRX.
  2. Company HR reps will be responsible for creating various job profiles to be offered by the company -- each with its own job description and corresponding CTC. However these profiles will not be  visible until step 6.
  3. A college will register on the CRX through an authorised and duly validated faculty member who in turn will introduce the student members of the school placement team into the CRX.
  4. Students of the college will register and upload their CVs into the CRX. These CVs will be validated by the placement team of the college but will not be visible to companies until step 9.
  5. College placement team members will interact with company HR representatives until specific company ( say Company A ) agrees to consider specific school  ( say School T )
  6. Job profiles created by Company A will now be made available to placement team of School T.
  7. School T placement team will now make Company A profiles available to general students of School T.
    1. A Pre-Placement talk can be delivered on Skype and shown on a projected screen at School T
    2. HR reps of Company A can be available on chat  or on forums to answer FAQs about the company.
  8. Students of School T will decide whether they wish to apply for Company A or not -- this can be done through the CRX itself or even offline on school premises.
  9. Placement team of School T will select students from School T and make specific profiles visible to Company A. The date on which Company A gets access to the student profiles will depend on the discretion of the placement team of School T.
    1. It could so happen that Company X could access to shortlisted profiles of School T before Company A -- if School T believes that Company X is a better option than Company A. [ Company X gets a better “slot” than Company A]
    2. It could also happen that not all student profiles from School T may be made available to Company A. The decision will be based on match of profiles or on whether specific student has got one or more jobs as defined by placement rules of School T.
  10. Company A will create its own shortlist from the list of students provided by the campus team from School T. This could be based on a simple study of the data provided or could be through an online test. [ Identity of individual students participating in the online test will be validated by placement team of School T. If necessary a trusted third party could be used as well at additional cost]
    1. If necessary Company A can conduct Group Discussion on a standard teleconference bridge. [ Identity of individuals participating in the GD will be confirmed as in the previous step ] -- this is perhaps the weakest link in the process  because Company HR reps may not be able to identify individual speakers by voice but with some effort, for example two webcams placed in the GD room, this can be overcome as well to an extent.
  11. Final shortlisted candidates will be interviewed on Skype video. Multiple video interviews can be scheduled for the same candidate to address technical and HR concerns.
  12. Company A will inform School T of final selections and issue appointment letters through the CRX. School T placement team will remove selected candidates  from shortlists of any company that comes after Company A unless
    1. School T rules allow a student to get multiple offers
    2. There are special cases like “dream company”
This is a first cut outline that provides a high level view of the process. Details can be filled in if necessary.

The trust factor

Developing the software to create the CRX engine would not be difficult -- far more complex exchanges, typically B2B exchanges,  have been created in the past but to make it work one would need :
  1. Market players who will have to inject the appropriate amount of liquidity into the exchange. This means that
    1. There should be a minimum number of recruiting companies (“buyers”)  who together will offer a certain number of job vacancies, and in parallel
    2. There should be minimum number of schools (“sellers”) who will put up a significant number of students who are available for recruitment
  2. A trusted, neutral market operator -- like a Stock Exchange or Commodity Exchange -- who will ensure that market rules are followed.
It is possible there could be some behind-the-back or below-the-table activities. Some students may directly approach companies of their choice bypassing the CRX

However if most companies and schools participate honestly -- as in the case of the regular campus recruitment -- then that should not be viewed as a major problem. The benefits accrued in terms of time and cost savings would more than compensate for the cost of aberrant behaviour exhibited by a small number of players.

While getting a neutral market operator may not be too difficult to get -- in fact, some of the existing job portals may be more than willing to play the role, earning the trust of a certain number of market players who will be willing to adapt to this new way of doing things may be more difficult. The real challenge would be to sell this idea to some big, anchor companies who would be willing to try out this new way of reaching an otherwise difficult market.

August 10, 2010

Delinking Placements from Education

People should go to college for education, to learn,  but the unfortunate fact is that they do so for getting jobs. The net result of this situation is that colleges and universities in general and b-schools in particular continue to be obsessed with placements. Potential students, and those who 'honestly' advise them, and this includes the media, both print and digital, have a religious faith in the holiness of the placement data -- percentage placed and the quantum of solace offered -- and this data has a very high weightage in the rankings that are published every now and then.

Curiously enough, the companies that hire graduates are less enthused with with placement data -- in fact they view this data with wariness and weariness because the better these are, the more they must pay and less sure they are of being ensured of a recruit. Nevertheless they do look at these rankings for the simple reason that the 'best' students would, probabilistically speaking, go to the 'top ranking' colleges, and so the probability of the recruitment team picking up a dud lemon is relatively less. As they used to say in the past, "No one was ever fired for buying from IBM" so is the case now that "No one can be faulted for recruiting from IIM".

Totally lost in all this complication is the fact that most colleges hardly teach anything of value nor are the students terribly interested in learning anything. They have come for a job and if they must tolerate two to four years of misery they would rather grin and bear it if there is a job at the end.

Which is a truly sorry state of affairs and this why despite having the "third largest scientific and technical manpower pool in the world" there is nothing substantial that comes out of our scientists and engineers and despite having a huge pool, or ocean, of computer programmers we cannot come out with any significant software product that is a best-seller even in our own country. All we have is ill trained 'engineers' desperate to cut code in software companies that pretend to be consultancy organisations and smart-ass MBAs who believe that presentations and spreadsheets are all that is required to run a business.

Can this change ? It could if we would muster the courage to shut down all placement cells in all colleges and remove all placement data from college rankings.

But would that not be insane ? It might seem so but it need not be. Robert Pirsig in his quasi-autobiographical book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about which I have written in my earlier post has explored a very similar idea as a part of his inquiry into the metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig, or rather his alter ego Phaedrus was a teacher of English composition and in his quest to improve the quality of work that his students produced came to the conclusion that grades or marks should be removed and then, and only then, will true quality emerge !

Obviously this was challenged by everyone. "Of course, you cannot eliminate the degree and the grade. After all that is what we are here for" said a student, who represented the general body. She spoke the complete truth  because the idea that a the majority of students attend the university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy that no one wants to expose. [ ZAMM, Part 3, Chapter 16 ]

In the section quoted above, if we were to replace degree and grade with placement, the statement would very accurately reflect the situation that we are referring to in this post !

It would be futile for me to go through the entire logic that Phaedrus, nee Pirsig, used to justify his stance on the irrelevence of grades to education -- the reader may just as well read the chapter in its original but there are two things that we should remember here : (a) Phaedrus was fired from his job, declared insane, was given electro-shock therapy to make him forget his ideas ... BUT recovered enough to write the book which went on to become one of the greatest best sellers of the last century and earned him an iconic cult status all across the world ! and (b) Phaedrus conducted an experiment with one class where he withheld grades from the students for one whole semester and observed their behaviour, that is described in detail in the book. What is interesting is that when he polled his students BEFORE  eventually revealing the grades,  about the value or utility of this approach -- the majority of the top students, who eventually got A, favoured the system. The middle guys, B and C grades, were equally split and the worst students, those who got D and F, were vehemently opposed to the system. Which is paradoxical and contra-intuitive ! You would think that if the grade was all that really mattered then those who got A will value the grade more than those who got an F !

Phaedrus' hypothesis was that grades are inconsistent with, or at least not correlated to the quality of a students work. My hypothesis here is that placements are inconsistent with, or at least not corelated to the quality of education offered in a school or college.

In fact my personal and professional experience with CAT and JEE scores is that under the malignant influence of coaching classes these scores have lost all relevence as indicators of academic merit. In fact, some of the high scorers in the JEE can barely pass their semester exams while some of the students with high CAT scores are generally the bottom of the class. In  another post,  I have suggested an alternative approach but that is a different matter altogether. What this lack of correlation -- between CAT scores and actual ability  -- means is that the vicious nexus between "best students" going to the "best ranked" schools that ensure "best placements" can be broken once and for all.

If the really good students do not care about placements ( just as the Pirsig's good students did not care for their grades) then they will not be motivated to follow the placement-based rankings. Colleges will be under no pressure to hard-sell their students, improve their placement data and use the same to get the so called best students. Recruiting companies will feel no competitive compulsion to select students from this so called best-ranked schools. The entire artificial edifice of a placement driven education will, or should, crumble.

In a sense, the artificial and unnecessary "stress" induced in the system will, to borrow a phrase from a long forgotten subject called metallurgy, will be get relieved by a natural process of annealing and colleges will go back to doing what they were initially expected to do : provide good education through a model that encourages creativity and research.

August 08, 2010

ZAMM and the Spirit of Vedanta

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert M Pirsig is an iconic book on philosophy that has developed a cult following since its publication in the late 1970s. It talks about a man who travels across North America with his son ( see picture above ) on a motorcyle and the description of his journey is interspersed with his discourse on philosophy. I was in high school at that time and did try to read it but failed to get past the first 30 pages. Today, nearly 30 years later, I finally managed to finish it and believe me ( unless you have read it already ) it is well worth the two weeks that I spent with it.

ZAMM is an exploration of that elusive 'thing' or 'animal' called Quality whose presence, or lack of, is easily evident but a definition of which is nearly impossible. In his metaphysical inquiry into Quality, ZAMM shows that it lies not in Art nor in Science but somewhere in between, neither in matter, nor in the mind but again somewhere in between and finally, not in the subject nor in the object but again somewhere in between. ZAMM misses the horns of the dilemma and drives  into the bulls eye when he identifies Quality as the third entity in the holy trinity of  Subjectivity ( as in art and intuition ) and Objectivity ( as in science and analysis ).

Having been brought up in the tradition of the perennial philosophy of Vedanta, it is easy for me to relate to the philosophy of ZAMM. After all in the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the word Shiva or Shivam can be directly translated as Good or by extension Quality. This is all the more evident in the title of the Raj Kapoor film Satyam Shivam Sundaram -- which can be translated as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful ( and not as erroneously translated in the wikipedia articleon the same ).

But ZAMM comes closer to the Vedantic worldview when it claims that Quality is the primordial entity from which emerges the other two -- the subject and the object. In this observation, ZAMM states that Quality is shapeless, formless and indescribable and this is but an echo of the Vedanta's description of the Brahman -- that which is without form, without shape and that which cannot be described except in terms of negations. And from Brahman emerges, as its first differential, the Purusha and the Prakriti -- the subject and the object, the seer and the seen ! The coincidence is not unlikely because the author did spend time at the Benaras Hindu University learning Vedanta but somehow could not reconcile himself totally with the idea of the world being an illusion or error, that is Maya.

ZAMM has been criticised for purveying pop philosophy and for being anti-science but I like it because it agrees with my own, personal view of a world whose laws cannot be arrived, not by analytical logic, but by mystical intuition. The only personality, and idea, whose absence in this book is really surprising is Godel and his Theorem of Incompleteness.

Net-net, a book worth buying, keeping and referring to every now and then.

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 ]