Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rejection V/s Selection

This one's going to be my shortest Blog Post. If you have a mobile with T9 dictionary, turn it on and type r-e-j-e-c-t. What you get it "select".

Wondering what happened to "reject", such a common word in English? press * (for Nokia, for other press the key that takes you to the next word in sequence) to get it. Can't believe it, try again.

Also try for r-e-j-e-c-t-e-d, or r-e-j-e-c-t-i-o-n.

Guess they are both really two sides of the same coin! :)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Death of an IIT Kharagpur student: Issues with media

I just came across this news of the death of an IIT Kharagpur student, Rohit Kumar due to alleged 'negligence' by hospital authorities. A follow up post was written by Ashish Gourav, another resident Kharagpur campus. He mentions that Director has resigned from his post. He goes on to mention that the internet services were down and no media were allowed, alleging deliberate sabotage of external communication by IIT authorities.

Before I proceed, I must express condolences to the student's family and the entire student community of IIT Kharagput. It is an unfortunate incident and everything should be done to avoid it in future.

The truth is that there was no deliberate sabotage of external communication from the campus, as PTI did publish this news about 15 hours ago. Several other publication followed suit and this made to the front page of The Telegraph today. Other major publications of Kolkata like Indian Express, Times of India and others did publish it today.

This is an interesting case of improper use of media by enraged students, misquotes by media, and following rage by Students across the country. Also, about a typical passive follow up by media on the issue of construction of a hospital at IIT Kharagpur.

I also spoke to Arnav, VP of IIT Kharagpur's Technology Students' Gymkhana. Here is the official line:

  1. Internet services were not brought down as a reaction to this incident, but happened due to another failure in computer center.
  2. The doctors in their campus didn't have neurologist among them. That's why they didn't act further than stopping external injuries.
  3. Rohit did not have any history of epilepsy as suggested by news media.
Here is the official press release:
Rohit Kumar, a third year student of IIT Kharagpur, was regularly visiting the institute hospital since the last three days on account of chronic headaches. On his way back to the hostel on the third day he fainted and fell off a cycle rickshaw and sustained serious injuries.

He was again rushed to the hospital, upon which it was decided that he should be taken to Kolkata. However, on the way, his situation deteriorated and he was instead taken to Midnapore, where he was unfortunately declared brought dead.

This incident triggered off strong emotive response from the students as they felt that the medical facilities were inadequate. The students immediately met the authorities and lodged their strong protest. The institute has expressed its condolences to Rohit's family and friends. The administration took note of the issues and met the student general body and assured them and laid out a plan in which they would work together with the students towards improving on campus medical facilities.
Note these:
  1. No mention of Director's resignation on this issue
  2. Overturning a car at Director's residence and breaking window panes is just "Strong Emotive Response". Grow up, people!
As you can see, everyone's playing with media. Media itself is playing with itself. Kharagpur is no Mumbai to have three super-speciality hospitals within 2 kms of campus. But so has been the condition of most population of India. Do the 'elite' students of IIT might have a bigger need of medical facilities than an average Indian citizen?

I say, No. Everyone should have better facilities. What do you say?

Update: I had no idea that what I am getting into by expressing my opinion in public. A section of students from IIT Kharagpur has forgotten debate and started a scathing personal attack on me. For the moment, I have enabled comment moderation. I hope that can keep the discussion on this blog a little sane.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Power of Twitter

Twitter is unbelievably real-time voice-of-crowds. I'm thoroughly impressed and, now, hooked on to it!

Let me give you a recent instance. @dkris wrote that he was sitting next to the cutest girl of BCB8, in one of the sessions. Tweets like that would obviously incite my interest and I asked if someone has more details than that. Very soon, several more tweets followed describing where he was and if this should have been the focus in a Barcamp.

Moral issues aside, the whole community got into action and in less than 10 minutes @alagu and @amigos uploaded of two photos the girl concerned having a chat with @dkris on TwitPic.

Here I am, sitting in Mumbai (could have been anywhere else in the world too!) getting real-time updates (and photos) on what's interesting in a Barcamp in Bangalore, without any charge (on a device of my choice) and from at least 100 different sources.

Distances don't matter. And there is enough being said for all possible interests e.g., a girl in Barcamp Bangalore (how geeky!)

Twitter is Great! :D

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Why do we need an expert?

Some of my friends who attended BarCampMumbai4 are already aware of my fascination with Wisdom of Crowds. But few of them know that I have gone ahead and started a research project to explore what happens to the expert in the era where getting wisdom of crowds, at least on basic yes/no issues, is so easy?

Ankesh would point to fallacies to the power of the crowds and crowdsourcing. But, to me, something fundamentally shifted after reading this book, as a part of the Knowledge Economy course at SJMSOM in Aug-Sep 2008.

With the advent of email, I don't need to host a party or wait for people to come to a particular place to conduct an opinion poll. Right from the days of Yahoo Groups, the cost of seeking 'crowd' opinion has reduced to negligible. I can run a simple poll on an ad-supported free site to get opinions/surveys. If nothing work a Google or Wikipedia search will (I would like to believe that it is, in a broad way, wisdom of crowd).

Why, then, does society need an expert? Why is it that we still look forward, and often travel thousand miles, to hear an expert. If she is only a synthesizer and aggregator of information, once I have access to all resources that she has, or once there is a healthy community of my fellows, do I really need her?

Looking at a special case of media, where an editor very rarely adds any extra information and plays a role of only a filter, I may do without her. May be her - as a single person, if not her as a community. For example, Benkler describes how does the network of blogs act as a filter themselves. He describes a Strongly Connected Core which acts as the filter for blogosphere.

The question I am grappeling with is: If filterning is the only critical function performed by editor/expert, in the present day I may not always need an expert for all small issues. Why then is it so important for the society to venerate an expert?

Also, if I have become an 'expert' in my field through my education and experience. What is the implication of wisdom of crowds for my future?

No just me, all of us are under threat by wisdom of crowds! :)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Making IIT Bombay the next Stanford

IITs and IISc have been at the forefront of technological innovation in India. However, the kind of wealth they have created for India has been limited. The reason is not that there are not enough good people with them, but that the focus is not oriented towards creation of solid value for the society.

On the other hand, US universities like Stanford and MIT have created robust ecosystem of innovation around them. These ecosystems ensure conversion of research into products and thus contribute to growth of their country (US).

Over past 10 weeks, this has slowly become a passion I am strongly pursuing - how to make IIT Bombay's research more productive for a common man. The answer is Technology Transfer. Technology Transfer process in almost every Indian institute is weak. It is more a result of conditioning than conscious decisions that institutes or government made.

Good Indian institutes (like IITs and IISc) only focussed on doing research and their focus on taking the research further into creation of products, so that the entire society can benefit from it, was limited. It slowly changed in early 1990s with creation of a new patent regime. At the moment, the awareness about IP creation and protection is high in IIT Bombay. There are about 80 patents that institute faculty has filed so far.

There is a a problem with patents, however. Although they signify innovation, as many as 90% of them have no direct commercial value as they cannot directly result in innovative products. It take some finite time and effort to convert an innovative idea into a prototype and eventually test for performance improvements in real life usage. It is only at this stage that someone can pick this up and build a business around it - either by licensing it or by starting a new venture around this product.

Most Indian institutes have limited focus on technology transfer. There are multiple problems not just in transfering the technology but also in creation of ready prototypes that can be transfered off-the-shelf.

For one, the need to transfer technology is not well understood by many faculty members. They still live in the time-warp of being business-averse, treating academics as the only logical conclusion of research. This places strong handicaps in path of those even wish to work towards this cause. Then, there is limited support for prototyping and testing of an innovative idea. And what is even more surprising is that IIT Bombay does not even push transfer of technology aggressively. Most of the transfer happens is through faculty member's own contact and influence!

We have formed a team of enthusiastic students which is creating a technology transfer policy proposal for IIT Bombay. We intend to do at least one event next month showcasing institute's technological prowess to industry, seeking collaboration.

One of the aims we are pursuing is to create a more conducive policy atmosphere for faculty members to work for technology transfer. And also to create a Technology Licensing Office for IIT Bombay to aggressively sell IIT's technology, on lines of Stanford's OTL.

It is a lofty aim. But surely one to live for! :)

Ask more questions if something does not make sense. Support us by spreading the word around among IIT Bombay faculty, staff, students and alumni or media. And, wish us luck! :)