March 12, 2012

Using Google Maps and Android Phones to track trains on IRCTC portal

I have been a laggard with smartphones but last month I finally bought an Android phone and within days I got a tidy return on my small investment -- two extra hours on the upper berth of an overnight train ! How ?

If you are travelling alone at night, in an AC compartment then you have no way to knowing where you are at any point in time and the need to climb down every now and then to check the station that you are passing through is painful. Instead what I did was to lie on the bunk and switch on Google Maps on my GPS enabled Android phone and watched the blue arrow that showed me (and the train) as it snaked across the countryside. Only after passing the last station before my destination, did I finally get down from bunk feeling rather smug about this new technology.

This simple technology can be used to track the movement of all trains across the entire country. How ?

Every Android phone is associated with a specific Gmail ID and using this Gmail ID one can “check-in” into “places” defined in Google Latitude. Usually these “places” are hotels, restaurants and other businesses defined by their respective owners and once someone “checks-in” into a place, this information is available to  “friends” on the Google network.

We first create a special Gmail ID to represent a specific train -- say for the Howrah Delhi Rajdhani  -- and use this ID to register an Android phone. Next we define each of the 219 stations on the Howrah-Delhi route as a “place” in Google Latitude. For this specific gmail ID,, we define these 219 stations as places where check-in is automatic. Finally, we give this phone to the guard of the the Howrah Delhi Rajdhani or tether it securely in the guard’s cabin.

Now as the train travels across the country, the Android phone will automatically check into every station that the train is passing through and anybody who defines this specific Gmail ID as a friend will know the last station where this train has checked-in and when.

The immediate benefit is that once the stations are defined as places -- and a place once defined can be used for all trains passing through -- and the Gmail ID for each train is set up, then the train running information becomes automatically available in the public domain with no further effort. Not only is the entire process automatic but it is totally free of cost except for the initial investment on the Android phones.

This automatically updated train running information will not only be a boon for passengers but also for the Indian Railways themselves as they would be able to track the position of all trains with a good deal of precision from anywhere in the country. Moreover, if this facility is extended to goods trains, then corporate shippers will be able to track their consignments if they know which train their goods are booked on.

However, there are few loose end that need to be tied up. First, one can only track a friend and to be friend, as in any social media, one’s friend request must be accepted by the target. This means that for each train id, e.g., someone must accept friend requests from anyone who wants to know where the train is -- but this can be automated as well. Second, Google Maps already identifies railway stations but does not allows people to “check-in” into them. If this is allowed then the task of defining all train stations again as business places can be done away with.

Finally and perhaps the most important is how to handle the return trip. The down train would have a different train number but since the Gmail ID with which an Android device is registered cannot be changed easily we need to have two Android phones per rake and only one, corresponding to the train number that is actually running, must be active while the other should be switched off. So a pair of rakes that support an UP and DOWN train service would need four Android phones two of which, located in different rakes, will have the same GMail ID.

The SIMRAN project of the Indian Railways has a similar goal but it needs its own dedicated hardware and software. Reportedly, the pilot project needs an investment of Rs 100 crore plus annual maintenance costs. In contrast, at Rs 7,500 per phone and four phones per pair of trains, this approach can use the free Google Maps service to track the top 100 trains in the country for an investment of Rs 30 lakhs or at 0.3% of the cost ! However if we consider a very stripped down Android phone -- no touch screen, no colour, no audio, no 4GB Micro SD memory -- the cost can go down to as little as Rs 1,000 if we consider the Akash tablet as a benchmark.

But the best solution would be adopt the philosophy of Web 2.0 and tap into user generated data -- that is use the data from the passenger’s smartphones so that the Railways have to invest nothing at all !

If a passenger has booked his ticket through the IRCTC website, then his cellphone number and his PNR number are both available with IRCTC. With the PNR number the name and scheduled destination of the train is known and if the passenger can be incentivised  -- with lotteries, loyalty points or otheriwse -- to keep his Android phone switched on during the journey then again the IRCTC would be in a position to locate the position of the train on Google Maps.

Of course this assumes that there will be at least one passenger on the train who has (a) purchased a ticket through IRCTC and (b) has a smartphone. Given that smartphones are proliferating throughout the country and that the IRCTC website is the most popular eCommerce site in the country it will not be too difficult to meet these two conditions. Having more than one known passenger equipped with an Android -- or any other smartphone with GPS features -- will allow aggregation of data and hence greater reliability. In fact, this means that we are tracking train positions using data that is crowd-sourced from train passengers.

Tracking trains using the GPS features of the Android device may not be precise enough to actuate train signals. The gap between two parallel tracks is possibly lower than the resolution used of the GPS device. However Google Maps based portal that aggregates and broadcasts passenger data will be useful not just for passengers but also for the railways themselves -- and the best part is that other than building and managing the portal there is no cost to the railways.

Google Russia has collaborated with the Russian Railways to create an unique application that allows anyone to take a virtual ride from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans Siberian Railway. I am sure that if the Indian Railways were to embark on this project, Google India would be glad to help in this regard.

Many years ago, before the era of the ubiquitous cellphone, I had come across an FMCG company that tried to track the position of its trucks by giving food coupons to the drivers that could be redeemed at selected dhabas across the country. The idea was that as a driver “checks-in” into a dhaba and uses the free coupon to pay for food, the dhaba owner would not only get the money from the company but in return would report the position of the consignment -- as evident from a code number on the coupon that was being redeemed -- back to the company.

That elegant idea was perhaps ahead of its time. But today, with  Android phones and Google Maps, this idea can be easily implemented not only in the Railways but for any other transporter as well.
an earlier version of this article appeared in

March 11, 2012

Nanoor - The Birthplace of Chandidas

Chandidas was one of the most well known poets of medieval Bengal and his SriKrishna Kirtan -- a lyrical account of the story of Radha and Krishna -- is an iconic milestone in the growth of development of the Bengali language.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of visiting Nanoor, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, where Chandidas was born.

Here are some pictures.

The road leading to the ancestral house of the poet. The modern gate carries one of the poet's ringing assertion of humanism -- above all, it is in humanity that one can find the essence of all truth.

The Archaeological Survey of India assert the authenticity of the relics that are now associated with the poet.

A terrocotta Shiva Temple

The small, non-descript temple of Bishalkshi or Basuli Devi whom the poet adored in the form of Saraswati, the Patron Goddess of Literature and the Fine Arts

 Two pictures (above and below ) of the mound that covers the actual ancestral home of the Poet Chandidas and his private, domestic shrine


A view from the mound -- similar to what Chandidas might have seen -- of the temple complex


Ramee, the washer woman, was Chandidas's lover and muse and the two were married in the face of intense social objection because of the disparity between their castes. The pond below, is where Ramee used wash clothes. 

Local legend says that the actual plank ( or "pata") where Ramee used to wash clothes is the one that is preserved in this tiny Kali temple next to the pond.

We rounded off the day with  tea at the lovely FICUS hotel -- located on my new Android phone as Prithwis Mukerjee's location@5:19pm,10/3 Nanoor-Chandidas where I took this last picture of a heron enjoying its own snacks just as much as we enjoyed our tea.

March 04, 2012

[In]Efficiency in Public Sector Educational Institutes

Government funded institutes and colleges in India are certainly far from being in the pink of health. Even the premier institutes of technology and management fall far short of international standards but if one were to say so in public, as only well known people like Narayan Murthy and Jairam Ramesh can afford to do, he or she will be mocked, humiliated and shouted down.

But why do we say this ?

The fame of the IITs and IIMs rests neither on the faculty nor on their research output but on the students and alumni.  In fact the only real value that these institutes bring to the table is the rigour of their admission process, namely the JEE (now discredited because of coaching classes and being discontinued ) and the CAT. Not much value is added after that. In terms of research, the less said the better.

Even a cursory investigation into this unfortunate state of affairs will reveal that the real problem is the poor state of the underlying management and administrative mechanism that governs these Public Sector Educational Institutions (PSEI). Given the rigid, anachronistic and inefficient processes under which they operate,  it is no wonder that these PSEIs have no chance of competing with world class institutions in other countries.

There are five major areas of immediate concern.

  1. Human resources : We take it for granted that competent people will leave lucrative corporate careers and join PSEIs at Government salaries but in reality this never happens. As a result we have a majority of employees -- both faculty and staff -- who are there as a necessity and not out of choice ! This is tragic because we would want the best people to be here. Obviously salaries cannot be hiked across the board. Instead we must have a well designed HR mechanism that seeks out competent people, induces them to join PSEIs, help them manage both their careers and their personal life and ensure that they are well looked after in terms of accommodation and other perks. In parallel there must be an annual performance appraisal that rewards good work and punishes the laggards. In short we need an active HR function and a corporate style Compensation and Benefits policy that is significantly different from the take-it-or-leave-it, one-size-fits-all salary structure that is doled out by the 6th Pay Commission.
  2. Financial Accounting : Most PSEIs have very weak financial management systems and there is no clarity on where the money is being spent. There is clearly no shortage of money and neither is there any allegation of blatant theft but because of the large granularity at which expenses are tracked there is significant scope of inefficiency in the usage of funds. A simple enforcement of the generally accepted accounting principles that mandate a highly granular set of cost codes and charge accounts followed by a thorough statutory audit would easily unearth vast amounts of ill-spent money that can be diverted for useful activities.
  3. Procurement : While tracking money is difficult, spending money is even more so. Being government organisations, these PSEIs have to follow the rigid L1 tender process and there is the perpetual fear of investigations by the CAG, the CBI and the Vigilance Commission. This does not deter unscrupulous deals -- any vendor is more than happy to provide the three mandatory quotations -- but it introduces an intolerable delay and difficulty in any genuine procurement process. For example, attempts to buy low value products and services over the web using credit cards and then seeking reimbursements are simply not possible. A simplified procure-to-pay cycle that will reduce costs and yet ensure compliance with appropriate approval procedures will introduce a great deal of flexibility and efficiency in the system.
  4. Asset Management : PSEIs sit on vast assets but most of these are ill managed. Civil and electrical infrastructure is maintained poorly as there is no clear cut demarcation of authority or accountability. Equipment is bought and not used because of lack of training or compatibility. Non functioning equipment is not repaired or cannot be repaired because of procedural issues. Junk piles up in dusty store rooms but cannot be disposed easily because of outdated audit mechanisms. A smart and modern asset management policy will ensure that the public funds are used much more effectively.
  5. Enterprise Information Architecture & Culture : It is indeed a paradox that even though these PSEIs are supposed to be thought leaders in technology and management their own usage of the same is woefully low. Other than archaic and chronically unreliable email systems, none of the modern tools and practices that are taken for granted in corporates are available here. Email is for broadcast of information, not for interactive discussion. Peons still carry paper documents, through proper channel, to people across the floor and get acknowledgements of receipt in “peon books”. Tele  and video conferences are unthinkable, social media is something that we read about it in newspapers and mail based approvals -- for even mundane matters -- are not acceptable. So if anybody is not physically available, all decisions are held up indefinitely.
Technology, or its cost, is not a bottleneck here. People are simply not willing to experiment with new technology or new ways to manage accounts, handle procurement, manage assets or adopt any widely used business process from the corporate world. In fact this leads us back to the first point, the HR issue,  because there is no incentive to improve anything nor is there any disincentive for staying with the status quo.

If we wish to improve the internal efficiency of our public sector educational institutions we should first be show our eagerness for Process Enhancements in Non Teaching Activities (PENTAgraha ?) in these five areas. This will automatically lead to the induction of better faculty who would be able to teach better and to do better research, leading to a better return on the investment made by the tax payer.

originally published in