Category Archives: Technology

Using smart phones smartly

Just earlier today, my classmate Anoop Nautiyal, had tweeted about the need for the Uttarakhand government to not just build good roads, but also build long-lasting bridges, and possibly maintain those already built. This was in light of a recent bridge collapse … http://www.ndtv.com/photos/news/bridge-collapses-in-uttarakhand-six-dead-12614

I would not be surprised if the Uttarakhand government does not even have a readily accessible list of bridges on it’s highways and smaller roads, that is classified by say location, river, type of structure, year of construction, and a set of repeating data like when was it last inspected, by whom, what repairs, if any, were suggested, when, if at all, were the suggestions executed. This along with countless other technical and useful-to-the-public parameters that could assist the residents ensure that their local representatives and government officials are accountable. Even if a list exists, we can be sure that it will be treated as a top secret document, that the common man will never have access to. Transparency and accountability are not really what we get from the govt.

So, can we bypass them, and create our own database of bridges? While it may not provide for the level of detail that one would expect from the official records, this one could be created by the people for creating awareness, as well as putting effective pressure on elected representatives and government officials.

How would one go about building a public database in this age? By personally visiting all the places and recording the details? I hope not. Smart phones penetration is quite deep into all parts of India. Many of them have GPS built in too. I expect them to become even cheaper than they are now, and thereby expect a further increase in the penetration levels to the remotest corners of India. If we could create a simple application that could allow capturing GPS-based location or even basic GSM triangulation-based location, and photos, and some pre-defined and free form data, and sending this to a server, we would have solved the data collection aspect . Imagine a database that is represented on the Internet, with one page per bridge, and multiple posts that share the current condition – both through photos, and through data!  If it is a website that is administered and controlled by the local citizens, it would have good credibility too. Those who are not local, but interested, could help out in other support roles…bet it the creation/maintenance of such a database, it’s visual representation on the internet, or creating and simplifying the apps to use on a phone. The intended consequences of creating such a database is to ensure that the elected representatives and government officials are kept on their toes by the open display of the state of affairs. Newspapers and television channels could access this database too for their content. So could Gram Panchayats, or MLA’s, or MPs, if they are sincere about their constituencies. I am sure that there will be some unintended consequences that one would need to pay more attention to. Not of the security kind, but one of deliberate misinformation being fed into the system …that is exaggeration on either side of the correct picture.

Recently our PM mentioned that the problems of all our hill states are common, and that there is a need to create solutions that can be implemented across them in a uniform manner. This is a part of the good governance agenda that has been promised to the nation. I am skeptical about it’s success in the short term (next 5 years) because of the various vested interests involved – be it politicians or government officials – who do not like being held accountable. As always, will be happy, if I am proven wrong, as it is my fellow citizens who would benefit! 🙂

I hope that as a nation we can start involving more and more people in matters of governance. Empowering them to be able to give instant feedback would itself be a big step forward. Using smart phones smartly would be one of the steps in that direction.

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Count the poles

The summer heat beat down upon the train. We were traveling by the Grand Trunk Express. Day 2 of the journey. An afternoon in May. We were somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. Maybe in Maharashtra. I was seated by the open window. The breeze was hot. The rexine seat was hot. My dad sat on the other window seat.  Dozing actually. Head propped up against the top of the window and bobbing up and down in tune with the rhythmic movement of the train. I reached out and shook him by his knee. He opened one eye. His eyebrow went up asking me the question that he did not mouth “What now?”. Well, I did have a question for him. “Why are we going so slow? Why can’t this train go faster?”  Dad looked out. Saw his watch. Looked out again. Silence. I knew that I had to wait. I would get an answer. Eventually. When he was ready to give it. He looked at his watch again. Murmured something to himself. Closed his eyes and said “He is not slow. We are going at approximately 70 kmph now.”

There was that moment again. I watched open mouthed…while thinking “How does he know the speed?” Of course, as any 5 year for whom his dad was his hero (He played Cricket. Regular leather ball cricket. He hit sixes. He took wickets. He took awesome catches. Yes, hero he was), it never occurred to me that he might be fibbing about the speed. It took me another 7 years, and perhaps 3-4 more such travels, before I got to understand the science behind those seemingly magic numbers.

So, here is what was happening. It was all about counting the poles. No, not the polish poles. Count the good old telephone poles. telephone pole

Put up right next to the railway tracks, connecting cities, making trunk calls possible. Yes, trunk calls. Remember them? If not watch “Chupke Chupke” here – skip to 20.49 to see what would happen when there was a trunk call.

But, we digress. Like links on the world wide web. So, lets get back to the poles. Telphone poles. Someone, I don’t know who, but sure would like to know who, used to number them. On these silver coloured poles would a patch of black paint. On it, would be painted in silver or white numbers like 511/1 or 841/9. The slash would be horizontal. The top number indicated the distance in kilometers from some city to the pole. The smaller number was an indicator of the pole number within the next kilometer. In different parts of the country, the Department of Telecom would have differing standards for the number of poles that would make a kilometer. Some had 15. Others 16.

So the trick, or the science was to look at the seconds needle on your wristwatch exactly as the train passed a pole with a fresh kilometer marked on it. And then you waited. Till you passed the pole, 10, 12 or 15 ones later, that marked the next kilometer. You counted the seconds in between the two events. You now had the time taken in seconds to traverse 1 km. You just had to divide 3600 (seconds in one hour…you knew that right?) by the number you had to get the speed in kilometers per hour or kmph.

Later, on my frequent trips between Delhi and Banglore in the mid 80’s, I used to do this to keep myself occupied. Or, at times, to impress the girls traveling in the same 2nd class cubicle. No. Not one of them was impressed. Ever. Not that I learnt. 🙂

Recently one my journey to Delhi and back, traveling in AC comfort, and with broad wide clean windows, I took the next step in impressing a 7 year old with this image as soon as he woke up on day 2 of our journey. I had made a deal with him the previous night that we both would stay awake and watch the journey unfold. His parents were suitably unimpressed with this deal. So, sleep he did. And me…well.. at 4.26 am, this is what I was doing 🙂

GPS showing speed of train

GPS showing speed of train

While he was suitably impressed, his dad, did not like this uncalled for  intrusion into the father-son relationship, and promptly showed his son the application on his smart phone that could do the same thing. The next night, both of them stayed up late into the night watching stations as we flew past them…after all, we were in the Rajdhani.

Maybe by the time he grows up, google glasses like devices will be common enough, for him to coolly say to no one in particular (but the girl  in the cubicle that is)…”You know, we are going at 180 kmph right now”, for him to be suitably rewarded with a smile. Then he can continue “I counted the poles, you know? Learnt it from this great guy who I traveled with when I was a 7 year old”

So, the next time you travel by Indian Railways…go slow.. and count the poles. Who knows…you may impress someone too? 😀

(Inspired to write this after viewing this… post … shared by my friend Chandana)

Use technology to keep away piracy

Just heard a podcast that talks of multiple technical solutions to the piracy problem in Somalian wasters.  To share with the wider world …

1. Have electrified fences, that can be turned on when needed, so that pirates cannot board the ship.

2. Retro-fit high-pressure water jets on board the ships that can “blow” away the pirates

3. Install electronic devices that emit high-pitch sounds that will force the pirates to flee from the area

4. Deploy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to keep a check on the area through which the ship needs to pass.  Get the data transmitted through satellite, rather than a ground station.

I would expect that the Insurance companies in this business must be already looking at one or more of the above options, and maybe even more.