December 25, 2012

Save Your Sister : Mobile app to prevent rape

While hanging the rapist or castrating him may cause smug justification to society at large, it is of little value to the victim and the immense anguish that she has to suffer. Here is an idea that uses the technology that almost every woman has in her hands to help prevent rapes in the first place. It is based on a mobile app that can be used with a phone equipped with GPS, a data connection and camera -- things that are not too difficult to find on modern smart phones.

The app -- Save Your Sister (SYS) -- has three major functions, namely (a) to identify the users current position, (b) to alert others  of where she if she is in danger and (c) to take and transmit photographs of the attacker should an assault actually happen -- and it could work like this.

In the "dormant" state when the woman is under no apparent threat, the SYSapp simply keeps a record of the current position of the phone ( and the woman carrying it) and makes sure that both GPS and data transfer is operational.

If the woman moves into an area where is she is alone and is otherwise feeling threatened and scared, she "arms" the app. Immediately SYSapp starts transmitting the GPS determined position of the woman to a central server. Now two things happen.
  • A message goes to the nearest police station or outpost that is registered with the central server so that police know that there is a woman who is feeling scared. 
  • Other peer-users of SYSapp, volunteer "good samaritans", who are in the physical vicinity of the woman get a message on their SYSapp/phone and are alerted to the fact that there is a woman nearby who needs help. The position of the woman also shows up as on a Google Map inside SYSapp.

These peer user, good samaritans, if they are in a position to help, can now activate their SYSapps and start converging on the woman. Observers at the central location can watch the movement of the active "good samaritans" on Google Maps. By observing the respective positions of the woman and the "good samaritans" central observers can co-ordinate their movements as well. The woman can be informed via SYSapp that help is on the way.

In the eventuality of an actual assault, the woman will simply "activate" the SYSapp. Now two things will  happen.
  • The good samaritans who are converging towards the woman will now get a red alert on their SYSapp and they should start running towards the woman in distress and 
  • SYSapp will now start taking pictures of the crime scene using the camera phone and start transmitting them automatically. If the woman can just point the camera towards the criminal, his face will be photographed and stored on the central system.

With luck, the "good samaritans" would arrive at the scene in time and prevent the crime but even otherwise the police will have enough pictures of the assailant to nail him down later.

Obviously SYSapp will not be useful in remote, rural areas where woman may not carry smartphones capable of running apps. But in urban and semi rural areas, even if there one or two "good-samaritans" around who are willing to help a woman in distress, quite a few rapes can be prevented. 

icon image taken from

December 19, 2012

Technology for Kaliyuga !

The current national outrage about the absolutely heinous and brutal rape in a Delhi bus is understandable but in our anger and frustration we are missing the wood for the trees. Well meaning ( and good looking ) participants in TV channels are asking for anything ranging from castration to capital punishment and criticising everyone from the police to the judiciary  ... but hardly anyone is interested in identifying that elusive "deeper" cause !

Because if one were to pause and think, it will become clear that this rape is a symptom and not the disease. When you get a high fever, the fever is not the disease -- it is merely a symptom of malaria or dengue or something worse. Trying to cure the fever by throwing ice water would not work -- you need to drugs to kill the bacteria. And for that you need to find the cause.

In fact, that cause is quite well known. From the personal rape to the nationwide CWG / 2G / Coalgate scam to localised aberrations like the Ponty Chaddha empire, what we see in India is a complete collapse of governance. Every institution, and I repeat each and every one, bar none, have been compromised and are unable to function. Law enforcement -- police, CBI, ED, Income Tax -- does not enforce the law and the judiciary has slowed itself down to the point of utter irrelevance.

Why ? Because no one in any position of authority has either the will or the authority or even the ability to do anything.

Why is this ? Because no one in any position of authority, either elected or appointed, has reached that position by dint of merit. He or she is there because of money power. This is obvious for elected positions but is equally true for appointed positions. Given the circumstances, it is impossible for anyone to reach these positions without significant investment.

Why would anyone make such an investment ? Because the returns are stupendous. Any position of power or authority, whether elected or appointed, is an ATM -- any time money !

So the collapse of governance is directly linked to the depth of financial corruption in a society. Is military rule the solution ? Sorry, look at Pakistan and you will recoil from that option. Can a nation or society extricate itself from this quagmire of corruption ? Or is it an inevitable consequence of the turning of KaalChakra, the Wheel of Time, that has brought us into KaliYuga ?

Well, we could leave it at that and wait for the KaalChakra to move on to the next SatyaYuga but in the meanwhile let us try out some KaliYuga technology !

Since the root of the entire problem is money, specifically, public money spen though Government hands, let us mandate that all transactions of public money, irrespective of the quantum and the location must be accounted for in a national level, computerised financial accounting system.

On the face of it, this looks like a stupendous task ! But is it ? If Aadhar can be envisioned to track down every individual person in this country this could be much easier because
  • Unlike Aadhar, there is no need for new technology. Computerised financial accounting systems have been around since the dawn of computers in India and all that we need to do is to standardise on any one commercially viable system.
  • The concept of cloud computing allows us to do away with installation and maintenance of hardware and software servers in any Government department. 
  • Cheap, handheld tablets like Akash2 are available for distribution throughout the entire spectrum of entities handling public funds -- from Panchayats to Parliament itself.
  • Existing cell phone coverage across the nation ensures that connectivity between the handhelds and the central servers necessary for the cloud computing model is no more a problem.
Once this nationwide accounting system is in place, its data at the highest levels of granularity should be placed in the public domain through the web as a default execution of the Right to Information. Sensitive data from the Armed Forces can be excluded for security purposes.

When all institutions of governance stand compromised, transparency is perhaps the only way that the people of India can take a stand to guide their destiny and an automatic, nationwide financial accounting system is perhaps the best way ensure this transparency. RTI as a principle exists but is too slow and unwieldy to address the huge problem that we face.

When India was faced with famine in the 1950s and 1960s the only way out was a huge technology push in the form of the Green Revolution. Despite criticism, that technology push helped us survive to fight another day. Today it is not famine but it is corruption that threatens to swallow us. Once again we need a massive technology booster to push us through.

There could be two challenges that could threaten this approach. First, lack of skills. Can our government processes and employees be re-oriented in a manner that makes this transition possible. The answer is yes. It is a matter of training and change management. It will take time but is certainly well within the domain of feasibility.

The second and more bigger challenge is the acceptability of this idea to people in power and authority. They are smart enough to know that this will totally upset the power structure on which they rest and will do everything possible to derail this new threat. But even if a couple of key individuals can take this idea through the benefits will enormous.

Can we do it ? Yes, we can. Will we do it ? I can only hope.

December 14, 2012

Distance Learning : From Correspondence Courses to MOOC

Distance learning is a very seductive idea.

If we go back to the era of the Mahabharata, we learn about Ekalavya, the tribal boy, who on being denied access to Dronacharya's classes on warfare on account of his caste, taught himself archery simply by observing the teacher from a distance ! The tragic consequences of his effort are well known and should perhaps serve as a warning to societies in general and teachers in particular.

In a more realistic timeframe, approximately a hundred  years ago, correspondence courses appeared and over a period of time these courses became an integral part of various Open Universities. Unfortunately degree granting programs based on correspondence courses never acquired the popularity or employer acceptability of their classroom counterparts for a variety of reasons.

With the advent of computing technology, computer based training (CBT) programs appeared and while these never quite made it to the level of university courses, a lot of vocational training programs were developed on this model. This was particularly so in the case of training for computer oriented skills where both students and the course creators were generally comfortable with the usage of computer software.

Then came the internet and the "killer application" that it helped spawn -- the browser based world wide web. With rapid expansion of both bandwidth and computing power the teacher -- or at least his video, his words, his presentations -- could really overcome the inconvenience of distance and slide into the student's room, or at least his computer.

So is distance learning finally ready for prime time ?

Though a lot of us believe so there are quite a few sceptics who point out that like correspondence courses that were never quite able to replace the university, distance learning is destined to follow a similar trajectory. At best it might end up as a supplement to existing university programs and remain as that stepson who is allowed to stay along in the family along with the new children !

This is wrong and let me explain why it will not be so. It is not enough to have a good idea  -- there must be a field for the idea to germinate and grow into a big tree.

In 1987, when "IBM" personal computers were just about beginning to enter the corporate landscape ( in the Western world, not India ) Apple released a product called Newton -- a handheld computer called the PDA or personal digital assistant that was actually quite smart. Not only was it portable and could do many of the things that a regular computer could, it had some truly futuristic features like handwriting recognition. Unfortunately the product never quite caught on with people and was finally abandoned in 1998.

But only 12 years later, when the same company released a similar device, the famous iPad it got a rousing welcome and it has gone on to become one of the most successful products in the history of computing devices.

What had changed ? First there was the internet, the web and email but perhaps what was most important was mobile telephony. Thanks to the "field" prepared by these technologies, the idea behind the Newton PDA blossomed either as smartphones or tablet computers and has now become the most ubiquitous device that the world has ever seen. Now it is very difficult to question the relevance of any application that is based on these products.

How is this analogy relevant to distance learning ?

Let us assume that correspondence courses and computer based training programs are like the Newton PDA, an idea whose time had not yet come. What has changed since then ?

Before we answer this question, let us step back and examine the "competition". What is it that a traditional university has that distance learning must meet, match and exceed to be taken seriously. To understand that let us ask ..

What is a University ? At its most fundamental level a university has three critical characteristics, namely
  1. People : Lots of people, both students and teachers
  2. Space : A shared space that all these people can access simultaenously
  3. Interaction : An environment that encourages vigorous and rich interaction amongst all these people
Now let us look around us and see if these three conditions are being met anywhere in the digital world and the first place that we look at is

Social Media : Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Google+, Instagram ... what is common to all these platforms ?

  1. People : Again we have lots of people, though not necessarily teachers and students, though they are not excluded.
  2. Space : Obviously these platforms are accessible to, and are indeed accessed by, all the people who participate
  3. Interaction : There is no dearth of interaction and in fact interactions are the lifeblood of any social media platform.
 What is even nicer is that these interactions can be very, very "rich" interactions, not just in terms of media -- that is images, audio, video -- but in terms of questions, answers, clarifications, comments, appreciation, criticism and even evaluation in terms of likes, shares and votes on each and every interaction. In fact I believe that social media interaction is far more richer in terms of diversity and depth than what could ever be possible in the physical world.

So the success of a distance learning program in emulating and surpassing a traditional university lies in its ability to map the university model on the social media model that has become so wildly popular.

In an earlier post I had explored how we could deliver Distance Learning on a Social Network Platform but if we look around we would see that the movement towards Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC) is a step in this direction.In fact big name universities on either side of the Atlantic have come together to create two major consortia -- Edx created by MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley in the US and FutureLearn consisting of 12 British Universities namely  Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds,  Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick, along with UK distance-learning organization The Open University (OU)  -- have been formed to develop the concept. And then of course there is Coursera a commercial entity  and Udacity created by Google employees who have all stepped into the game,

Distance learning is no more a technology of the future. It is here and now as the technology is widely and inexpensively available. In fact, the way I would put it is that the bus is here but whether you board it or not is something that you have to decide and decide fast !

What would you need to get going ? That will be my next post.

December 04, 2012