Friday, December 11, 2009

101st Post

Blogger says I've already made 100 posts. Here's a post which sounds like a tweet ;)


Most of us would have heard of the term microfinance (oft misused for micro-credit). Here is an interesting company called VNL (Vihaan Networks Limited. 'Vihaan' apparently means new dawn) which promotes the concept of 'microtelecom' through its innovative, open-source, low-power, low-overhead, easily-installable, non-airconditioned, (even solar powered!) rural telecom infrastructure system called WorldGSM

I believe, along with its other counter-part - solar/ low-powered mobile handsets (powering the next billion cell-phones), this forms a really viable ecosystem.

The future of micro-finance itself depends on the way in which mobile telephony is (and will continue to be) able to permeate to everyone in the pyramid. We already know that the catchphrase 'roti, kapda aur makaan' ('food, clothing and shelter') has already been hacked in India as 'roti, kapda and mobile' ;). Already, call rates in India are the lowest in the world (1/2 paise, per second is the latest mobile ad-lingo). Such low-cost access to communication requires a new outlook and thus the jargon 'microtelecom' fits right in. Once microtelecom is in, can microfinance be far behind (Its actually doing pretty fine with even plain-old telephony :))?

Vihaan offers low cost network for rural areas
VNL Blog

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sense Substitution

Two interesting products from the field of neural interfaces.

Both of them leverage the fact that our sensory organs are just transducers which give inputs to a really flexible and remarkable signal processing system called the brain. This makes it possible to use one sensory organ to achieve a similar result to that of another. Sensory substitution.

In a very indirect way, sign-language or braille could be considered as external sense substitutions. But these two instances that I came across thanks to Engadget and Google, a few months ago, are much more direct. Interestingly, this article from HowStuffWorks seems to suggest that folks have been trying this since the 1900s!

The first is called BrainPort (their corporate site talks about a more clinical use of their product).
Essentially, here vision is being substituted by taste!
Do watch the following video:

And heres the second one.
Check out this browser screenshot to know how I came across this ;-)

I think this (seeingwithsound) is a way cooler solution. The interface is much more natural and amenable to daily use. Well, here, vision is being substituted by stereo sound - almost sonar.

In case you want to try what this feels like, just download their free windows software winvoice, plug in your web cam and put on a stereo headset. Definitely has room for improvement, but I like the ease and simplicity it offers (they even have j2me, winmo and android mobile phone app versions!).

The best part - both of them are non-invasive, non-risky and do not cost a lot. I hope this helps a lot of people who really need it now. Certainly good news.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Eko rebranded

If you'd noticed, Eko has changed its colors and its logo over the past few days. Instead of orange, it now sports an earthy green and has a tail-piece (lets call it 'slash dash') added which makes it identify itself with the way most Indians sign off a cash amount while writing it on paper.

So adieu ol' logo

And a warm welcome to the new one

How do you find our new logo?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

William Kamkwamba: Building a windmill

The following is the 2009 TED talk by William Kamkwamba who simply set up a windmill in his backyard. Inspired by two library books (more by the cover on one), from a really constrained background, with a scrapyard for raw materials and despite the local skepticism and superstition, William did what he set out to do.

His simple message - to never give up. Do also scroll down to view his 2007 TED appearance.

And heres his TED appearance in 2007:

TED is simply amazing!

I think it would be great to have a TED equivalent on prime time media in India instead of some of those really crappy shows and weepy soaps. Imagine how many little sparks this could ignite across a country like ours (and indeed in many other countries as well). This enthusiasm needs to be made infectious.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Patient Capital - Sunflowers in the desert

The poor need tools more than charity.
People providing these tools need more support and capital than mere aid.
And most importantly, the folks supporting these people need
a deep understanding of social capital and delayed monetization.
Jacqueline appropriately calls this - Patient Capital.

Another great TED Talk by Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO Acumen Fund:
(Courtesy: Guy Kawasaki)

Related: "Poor Aren't Lifeless Bricks"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Aggregation of Senses

I like Nostradamizing the future of telecommunications. So, if you're in the mood for some etherspeak; read on...

One major hypothesis I have is that user interfaces will be neural in nature.

Here's another one: Services in the future will be about aggregation of senses.

Just look around- Blogs are an aggregation of personal journals. Social Networking is about aggregation of weak-relationships. Advertisement is about aggregation of perceived demand. Cloud Computing aggregates processing power. Malls and Shopping Centers aggregate sales. Indices aggregate performance. Cities aggregate people. Banks aggregate liabilities and assets, Cosmopolitanism aggregates outlooks. The list is varied and colorful. (Btw, a list aggregates items ;))

I think we intuitively like to see things bundled together.

So, what does aggregation do?
-Hides complexities
-Introduces redundancy
-Eliminates single points of failures
-Massively empowers
-Still maintains individual identity
-Assumes positive outcomes for decisions made on/by scale ('all' cannot be wrong)

Heres what I mean by aggregation of senses.
In the far future, thanks to neural inter-networks, decisions, opinions and actions could be based on collective sensory experiences.

  • It will no longer matter if a friend is visually impaired, because vision would already have been aggregated, he could easily see through the eyes of his willing friends or even his cellphone camera. Maybe, even the cellphone would no longer need a camera!
  • When you drive (your futurecar), if you've subscribed to drive aggregation on the road, you'll be able to easily speak on the cell phone while you drive at 300 mph, because when you do, the necessary inputs and processing for avoiding mishaps will come from various people in your proximity and even electronic sensors within the vehicle and on the road
  • Virtual people will have 'real' implications. Virtual worlds will exist seamlessly with the real world.

By the time these things come to pass, the human brain would also have evolved sufficiently to handle such large volumes of data. Information density per person in 2009 is definitely magnitudes larger than what it was in 1909 and the only way it is heading is north, unless the human race decides one fine morning to completely shun technology.

This is the kind of stuff, that I think the Googles of the future will be busy provisioning, the people of the future subscribing to and the payment companies of the future banking on.

Snap, snap... back to reality.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cast your vote at Project 10^100

[Its been a case of blogger's block. The good news is, I seem to be on my way out of it.]

Last September, I had written about Google's 10 to the power 100 initiative.

Well, it seems the good folks inside googleplexes have had their super-fill of ideas which they've whittled down to 16 and now they want your vote on it. Do click the link below to cast your vote.

Interesting to note: "Build better banking tools for everyone" figures in as one among the top 16 needs. Folks have suggested using the reach of mobile telephony to do this. Hmm... sounds familiar! we've been trying to do that all along- glad to hear the world echo the thought :).

[Now you know why we're called EKO]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bokode arrives! Move aside RFID, Goodbye BarCodes

This is super-duper cool! Every once in a while comes along an invention so simple yet so elegant that it literally melts the innovator in you :)

Bokode = some id printed on paper + a small plastic lens blob.

The word Bokode was derived from 'bokeh' (jap.),".. which refers to the round blob produced in an out-of-focus image of a light source"

I guess it would look like a drop of transparent wax fallen on a paper with micro-printing.
Amazing. Awesome.

For more dope head to:

Hats off to these dudes at MIT. The website says: Ramesh Raska, Ankit Mohan (lead), Grace Woo, Shinsaku Hiura, Quinn Smithwick. And guess what? the work was supported by grants from Nokia, Samsung, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. So, you see where this is heading :)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

"Poor aren’t lifeless bricks"

I am borrowing this caption straight off this article on LiveMint "Poor aren’t lifeless bricks".

For a good part of our history, folks seem to have focussed on exclusively on charity as a means to uplift people out of poverty. While in some cases, this benevolence might be essential, in most cases it is counter productive. I still remember one of dad's church sermons based on the proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.".

Poverty, in each of its grim shades, is undoubtedly a crippling condition. While it gags and bogs down, it finds itself fighting hard against the basic human instinct for survival, upliftment and reaching a state of equilibrium with his context. A lifeless brick definitely cannot do that. The fact is that inherently anyone who has fallen wants to rise and the risen want to fly. The key is to simply enable them. All that they need is inclusion - social and financial; to an infrastructure that could help them help themselves.
(pic: A Sattu "powdered baked gram, a high energy giving food usually mixed with water or with milk" vendor in Bihar.)

There are many whose knowledge about poverty starts and ends with reading about it on the Wikipedia, or watching 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Communicating with them is disheartening at times because they tend to stereotype the poor as somehow second rate. It is at times difficult to convey Poor NOT EQUAL TO Stupid. While it is a fact that the poor have lesser opportunities; that is simply the side-effect of a 'state' they were/are in and can be enabled to get out of.

Another misconception is equating 'Rural' with 'Poor'. Both are entirely different realms in themselves. There are the urban poor too and their problems are just as daunting! This is more a difference in contexts.

There are a few who have got this understanding right - and they will no doubt be able to reap its benefits. The telecom companies for instance, have done a great job so far! Instead of just pitying the poor, they have gone ahead and launched (potentially profit making) services that addresses the communication inclusion part. This is definitely not charity! By ensuring that their services were tailored (packaged) for the 'poor' (Rs. 50 lifetime connection packs for instance), but not compromising on the service quality itself, they have at least started with the right step. The same networks host the communications of the richest as well as the poorest :). It is high time that all product and service designers are sensitized on these issues.

Also, do check out Universal Financial Access - India. It is a social network initiative which aims at financial inclusion started by Sanjay Bhargava who is also the Chief Mentor at Eko.

Welcome to the age of 'micro' revolutions that have macro implications!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Powering the next billion cell phones

Despite the state of affairs with the world economy, there seems to be a sense of a treasure hunt as far as mobile companies' approach to the developing world is concerned.

Considering all the 'little' insights seriously could go a long way in ensuring the viability of a product or service in such a challenging environment. In other words; I think that the best way to approach this market is with a clear sense of the opportunity it presents and a much clearer sense of its constrains.

From a recent trip to rural India undertaken as a part of a usability research team, I realized that the biggest constraint to the uptake of mobile phone there was not money. From our conversations with existing users, we found that almost all of them used really basic handsets, some even bought as second/ third hand refurbished devices where the cost was just a couple of hundred rupees ($4 or 5!).

Connectivity was also fast becoming a non-issue with major operators trying to set up really extensive rural networks and even competing with each other to offer 'lifetime' pre-paid connections for less than half a dollar! We even saw how local village stores (each, just about the size of a small car) had morphed into outlets there selling small value airtime recharges.

The major concern there was finding a means to recharge ones phone! and to find a phone that required shorter recharges and lasted longer. I'd like to share two interesting developments (thanks again to in the past week give some hope here.

Solar powered phone.
Heres a launch news from Samsung and LG - earlier this year. I think these should become as ubiquitous as solar powered calculators. Rural India is blessed with enough sunshine to at least supplement the need for (non-existent) power sockets!

Ambient radio powered phone.
This is more interesting, though it sounds slightly more ambitious. I have always wondered why this could not be done! There is enough 'free' radio noise around to feed some power circuits. I remember having experimented with Crystal Radios (basically AM receivers that do not need power source) when I was into hobby electronics (the most difficult part I remember was getting the ear-piece right). All one needs to do is have a gazillion tuned circuits to harness the spectrum. Anyways, the good news is that Nokia allegedly has done just that!. This makes for an exciting powering solution for the mobile phone, especially in the Urban context.

I don't know if the news links are really trustworthy news sources, but I do know that these are relevant pointers in the right direction and at scale their cost should be really low.

On a side note, I think it is constraints that push the human ability to innovate and every era and region has its fair share of the same. If all was well with the stone age, I would have been engraving this blog post on a stone tablet now :) - Flintstones anyone ;)?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lessons on 'context'. Kiva - Cats that donate

I've been reading about Kiva. Its an amazing project that can turn anyone online with a credit card into a micro lender. If you always wanted to be a part of an MFI but couldn't get yourself to move beyond the edge of your office cubicle, Kiva puts you thousands of miles away, just a credit card and CVV number away from the wallet of a micro-entrepreneur.

I admire the way Kiva has touched the lives of thousands of people. But heres a candid confession made on his blog that takes my respect for its founder Matt Flannery a notch higher. It is a lesson on the importance of 'context' and communication. Every product, solution or communication is usually made on the basis of its 'context'. Take things out of their intended context and plop 'em in another - suddenly a perfectly sane piece begins to sound bizzare.

Catfood and Commoditization. In this blog Matt observes how the simple (and innocent) act of a lender in America setting his pet cat as his online avatar on Kiva leads to (an equally innocent) confusion for its recipient in Africa.
I heard a story recently from a Kiva Fellow stationed in Africa who, when showing the entrepreneur his lenders, was asked the cat question. How does that work? Why has a cat lent to me? How can a cat lend to me? Does that cat really want his money back? (he looks pretty fat).

Funny but true. Even at Eko, our User Interface was made keeping in mind a context. The context is an unbanked majority in India who however have access to mobile phones. Dig a few layers deeper - a majority of these handsets are Ultra Low Cost Handsets. - almost all the users are just number literate - most of them are pre-paid mobile users.

Eko's interface that uses just number dialing fits this context really well. But the trouble starts when analyzed by and within the frameworks of smart-phone toting, iPod sporting executives like you and me, the interface appears hopelessly outdated, outmoded, complex and what not. I've just been back from a field visit to rural Bihar and I couldn't help but imagine how useless it might be to give an illiterate villager a special 'hard-bound' edition of 'The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid' - being hard-bound he can't even feed it to his goats!

Project Architect

Its been less than three active months and Eko's pilot with the State Bank of India in West Delhi is now almost a thousand customers strong! Very soon we will be hitting the 10K mark. Internally we have begun the work required to prepared with technology to serve 100mn+ customers and many times as many transactions. This is where we have begun exploring for someone who could help us evolve the project architecture for what we call SimpliBank 2.0 - the next step in the evolution of our platform (or maybe an entirely separate/ off-shelf platform(s)). Someone experienced with having architected something of this scale and who fits into our current startup context well. Scale: in terms of the massive number of transactions, customers, flexibility and robustness. Context: One of the most promising startups in India with all its inherent caveats. If you find this really exciting and think you fit the bill, please send me an email and I could send you more details.

Do check out Amy the Architect. Its an interesting view on what an architect's role might be. Just to borrow their gist:
Suddenly, it struck Amy: she wanted to be the meaningful link between project decision makers and the technical people on the project. She wanted technical people to feel that project decision makers understood them and that the decisions made reflected that understanding. Conversely, she wanted the decision makers to feel confident that they had access to all the information they needed in a form they understood and believed to be what their technical staff really wanted to say.

Monday, June 01, 2009


For a commercial establishment, these are the first attention grabbers. Most customers would consider them informative rather than as advertisements. Imagine a marketplace with no signboards where folks have to 'guess' what shops they are entering! Signages are not restricted to shops alone, most organizations and most places of public utility need to sport clear monikers to efficiently guide people to their intended destinations.

Well, the other extreme is signboard cluttering where there are so many 'boards' clamoring for attention that the customer feels lost. Also, ad-hoc signages do end up making the view ugly. Sample the one alongside(this is not 'that' bad, it usually gets worse). Are there any standards governing the aesthetics? I am no expert on this subject but I guess some guidelines (or mandates) which state the size, orientation, stability, placement, margins, white-space and suggested font types and dimensions could help. Indeed, implementation of such guidelines could be really difficult considering the huge number of shops and boards we have and the fact that commercial urge takes precedence over aesthetic sense; but one has to start somewhere :). Also, I don't know if this is already there in India, but a paper on aesthetics and typography for public signboards would be a great addition to all professional courses.

Games on mind, MCD wants uniform signboards for a beautiful Delhi

Delhi Urban Art Commission. Outdoor Publicity: Sign Board - Bill Board - Hoarding

Saturday, April 04, 2009

TED, Bill Gates, TED India

I hadn't heard much about TED until a colleague forwarded me the TED talk by Bill Gates

What struck me is the fact that today, someone like him actually has the power to change (or atleast influence a change) in public policies the world over on topics that do not have a direct correlation (or maybe, in the grander scheme of things - they do!) to the company or the products which gave him the power in the first place!

Awesome! I don't know if one could call that a success.

Anyways, TED is coming closer home, TED India is slated November 4-7th at Infosys Mysore. An interesting tidbit- registration costs $2400 which as Manish at put it - is as costly as buying a brand new Tata Nano car:).

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Perpetual Printer

The past few weeks have been the most hectic days of my life. Today was a breather and I got a few moments to look through my backlog of pictures from my old mobile phone. Just thought it would be great to share the following two snapshots, more than a year old now, of what I'd call a perpetual printer. Location: a road transport warehouse/ booking center in Trivandrum, Kerala.

To provoke a few thought muscles:

What could have been the inspiration for setting this up?

a. An accidental giant roll of paper.
b. Cost-saving exercise.
c. Logistical ease of buying a giant roll which could last beyond the time the printer itself depreciated below its junk value.
c. Usability. The operator is perhaps not tech savvy enough to keep loading new paper.
d. All of the above.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yahoo Blueprint

Mobile games and applications development has come a real long way since the early days.

At some point in time, developers realized that in making mobile applications, they were repeating mundane 'base codes' for every project. After a few projects, each developer had his own set of 'engines' and a library of code snippets which could be assembled and themed ('re-skinned' as the industry jargon goes) to get a range of applications out in shorter time frames.

Another important factor which influenced the growth of development tools was the fact that despite its premise of 'write once run anywhere' that Java (the most popular development flavor) proposed, the sheer variety and subtle differences in the JVM implementations and feature-set of handsets made it nearly impossible to have one set of code that could work on all handsets. Netbeans was one of the first IDEs to introduce the concept of 'profiles' that tried to standardize the process of creating multiple builds with pre-compile like instructions. Another significant development was toolkits such as J2ME Polish

All these led to the process of mobile applications development slowly becoming 'design' processes rather than 'development' processes. Put in a different way, it became possible to 'script' a complete application and use a standard script interpreter/ compiler to translate this into a working application on the phone. The net result - one could now develop pretty professional looking applications in a matter of hours rather than weeks! We too, like most development companies had one such framework. These frameworks took a cue from the desktop phenomenon of widgets. Widsets (now acquired by Nokia) was one such initiative. Widsets allowed one to script applications that could be downloaded into the Widsets main application that resided on the phone in a simple point and click operation.

The latest entrant in this category is Yahoo Blueprint. I like what I see here!
From its website:

Blueprint is Yahoo!’s platform for building mobile sites, widgets and applications. Using a simple yet powerful language based on W3C XForms developers can design and host their Blueprint markup which Yahoo! will deliver to 1000s of different mobile devices.

The process is analogous to building a mobile website - you can use any server technology you like such as Apache, IIS, Java or PHP. Just return Blueprint XML and we do the rest. Remember: your Blueprint services run on the same platform that powers our own mobile services, including oneSearch, oneConnect and even our mobile homepage. Not only is it responsive and powerful, but we supply you with analytics to help you find out what makes your customers tick.

I must admit that Yahoo! did a pretty good job with the Y!Go application for the mobile and I think that they have put in a good tool in the hands of the developers with Blueprint. You can now make real slick mobile apps pretty easy. And guess what, this could be your short-cut development tool for the iPhone too! The only negative I could find from a quick read on the docs was the lack of secure communications for a lil more serious apps - I could have missed it, and in any case this could be added easily. So if you're into mobile apps development, go ahead, download the SDK and if possible, do return here to post your feedback.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Now you can track your lost mobile phone! - Google Latitude

In May 2008, I had posted about how great it would be if Google Maps (Mobile) would add the capability for users to 'Sign In' to the service since that would automatically add the capability to track one's mobile phone, if lost; without even needing to have a GPS capable handset.

Well, finally - its here! As an update to existing Google Maps Mobile, it is not primarily intended to help you when you're 'lost' but to share your location with your family and friends, in real time!

Its called Google Latitude. Check it out! As usual, here's the YouTube video intro:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Break the code!

I used to think that the FBI challenge on cryptanalysis... was more fiction than fact until I came across this page:

This page shows this year's (?) cryptic message that the FBI challenges folks to break :). It seems this is the 'round two' :)

Do give it a shot, break the code - if you're into this kinda stuff. Click here for a primer.

(Makes me wonder if and when Indian agencies too would put up stuff like this)