Category Archives: Technology & Society

Of Numbers, Business Journalism and the Emerging World of Data Journalism

Yesterday was my last day at CyberMedia India Ltd—an organization where I served in various capacities for the last 18 years. This also happened to be—going by my current plans for the future—my last day as a journalist; business journalist, as I never forget to emphasize.

I thought this is an apt time to share what I believe are the most essential requirments for a business journalist. It would not be new to people who have worked closely with me—my juniors for sure, but many of my peers and seniors too. I have often preached two simple mantras to freshers. Many may and do disagree with me on this—and that is fine with me—but I dare anyone to point out even one instance when I have been unfaithful to these mantras!

Those mantras would sound astoundingly simple to you. In fact, I believe they really are. And here they go…

  1. Never underestimate the value of numbers
  2. Never overestimate the value of numbers

That is common sense, na?

Yes, it is.

But unfortunately, I have encountered so many youngsters who believe they can “stay away” from numbers and still be succesful business journalists. They believe I am some sort of a fundamentalist to insist on something so mundane. I take the criticism with alll humility but would still stand by my assertion. And the fact that I chose to highlight this as the most important requirement as I say good bye to the field just shows how much importance I attach to these two mantras.

But before that, I must make a clarification. These are not sufficient conditions for becoming good business journalists. A person who is on top of numbers but is not good at finding stories is good to be a statistician, not a business journalist. A business journalist should be a journalist first. And a good business journalist should be a good journalist first. A good journalist, I am repeating for the sake of completeness, should have an eye for a story. A good business journalist, often, may find a story in a set of numbers itself, though that is just one aspect of it.

So, what do I mean? When I say never underestimate the value of numbers, it simply means you must be comfortable to deal with numbers if you want to be a business journalist. You do not need to be an economics or engineering or mathematics graduate, but you must not fear numbers. You need to learn how to read them and they must not repel you. I think there is no other way. In many ways, Mantra 1 is a necessary condition to be a business journalist. It is the beginning of the journey.

Mantra 2, on the other hand, is what would help you transform yourself to a good business journalist from an average one. At first, it sounds contradicting the first mantra, but in essence, it is not. The first mantra just emphasizes the importance of being comfortable with numbers. The second suggests you should not get obsessed by numbers. Practically, it could mean one of the two things: one, tell yourself that numbers could often give you a good story, or an idea to pursue, but there are other important sources too. Two—and this is more important—just because you have discovered something by doing some number crunching does not mean the reader is interested in all those numbers. The fact is that most readers do not like a copy that is full of numbers; it must tell a story. But very often, you have got to the story by doing some heavy number crunching in the background. Resist from throwing all those numbers in the story. Tell the reader the story, may be suported by a couple of big numbers. But don’t subject him to all that you have worked out. That is what I mean when I say never overestimate the value of numbers.

If mantra 1 is about starting the journey, mantra 2 is about reaching virtuosity; knowing when to exercise restraint. Sometimes, numbers are just for the input; not for the output.

The reason I chose this topic for highlighting is not just my love for numbers. It is about the increasing relevance of this skill on part of a journalist (and not just business journalists) in a world that is going through a data revoloution, driven primarily by a movement towards transparency. Releasing of data by governments, such as the US government’s data.gov and similar initiatives the world over, is becoming mainstream. Apart from governments, international organizations and business organizations too are releasing huge raw datasets to the public domain. These datasets are invaluable sources of treasure as far as spotting trends is comcerned. And that is what good journalists have done traditionally—to be out with a trend. These datasets provide a great opportunity to analyze and come out with interesting stories by the journalists. So much so that, a new term, data journalism, is now becoming vogue.

Wikipedia calls it data driven journalism and defines it thus

Data-driven journalism is a journalistic process based on analyzing and filtering large data sets for the purpose of creating a new story. Data-driven journalism deals with open data that is freely available online and analyzed with open source tools. Data-driven journalism strives to reach new levels of service for the public, helping consumers, managers, politicians to understand patterns and make decisions based on the findings. As such, data driven journalism might help to put journalists into a role relevant for society in a new way.

I, however, find the explanation of Guardian to be far more relevant and simple.

My major disagreement with the Wikipedia definition is this: while I do believe that open data will revoloutionize the way data journalism is handled, I will not like to include it in the definition of data journalism. Journalism should not concern itself with the nature of the source of that data. Even if it is not open data, it should still be called data journalism. Having said that, open data, because of its sheer volume and openness—the fact that is available to all—will make a huge impact on how data journalism evolves.

I will also recommend this piece  by Guardian, that is an extract from its Data Journalism handbook. While you go through that yourself, I will like to reproduce extracts from its first tip and last tip.

The best tip for handling data is to enjoy yourself. Data can appear forbidding. But allow it to intimidate you and you’ll get nowhere. Treat it as something to play with and explore and it will often yield secrets and stories with surprising ease. So handle it simply as you’d handle other evidence, without fear or favour.

…….

…….

The best questions are the old ones: is that really a big number? Where did it come from? Are you sure it counts what you think it counts? These are generally just prompts to think around the data, the stuff at the edges that got squeezed by looking at a single number, the real-life complications, the wide range of other potential comparisons over time, group or geography; in short, context.

As it is, data journalism is not a new concept. All business journalists (and other journalists) would have done it in some way or other—in the earning season, for example.

As far as I am concerned, I have done many big stories, purely basing them on analysis of data. That is why some of the international multilateral organizations as well as bodies like RBI are my regular stops. They often release data that reveal exciting stories if you look for them. In fact, I have even managed to earn a name for such stories from many who term them, armchair stories. Honestly, I did not know the term data journalism while doing those.

For those who call them armchair stories, I have just one more piece of news. I have gone a step ahead. In recent days, I have focused on what one could well term lazy man’s data journalism. Many of my tweets are actually based on those “hunted” data from various sources (minister’s answer to a question in parliament, RBI Governor’s speech or GITR report by WEF) often without any analysis on my part. But what makes me select a few from so much that is around is that I know what is a little surprising, counter intuitive, or plain interesting. That does not come from my comfort with numbers. That comes from my familiarity with the area of ICT/public services. I cannot do the same in say, biotechnology.

I have found those tweets to be the most retweeted. So, there must be something interesting in them.

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Crackdown on Illegal Music Sites: The Solution is Not So Simple

In a well-coordinated move, the Indian Music Industry (IMI), a consortium of more than 100 music companies, recently managed to get an order from Calcutta High court directing ISPs in India to block 104 music sites on charges of piracy. Some of these sites such as songs.pk, musicindiaonline.com, dishant.com, and smashits.com are extremely popular destinations for music lovers. Medianama.com, one of the top websites focusing on business related to digital media and entertainment, said that the IMI had made a case against each website, quoting Apurv Nagpal, CEO of Saregama, one of India’s largest and oldest music company. Medianama further said that the court orders were obtained on different dates and the first order was against songs.pk.

The order against songs.pk was widely reported in media and we had even discussed it in our editorial meeting in Dataquest. But I came to know about the blocking of the other sites when, while searching for the lyricist of a 60s Hindi film song, in the third week of March, I clicked on a Google link and found the message that the site has been blocked because of orders from DoT. It is only when I did a couple of more queries that I saw a few write-ups (none in the traditional media) about the sites being blocked because of the orders from Calcutta High Court. Medianama even gave a list of all the sites. I found that many of the sites that I often visited to find/confirm info about songs (esp the year of a film/lyricist etc) are in the list. Most of them are music streaming sites.

According to IMI, these are illegal sites while there are a few sites such as raaga.com, gaana.com, in.com, and dhingana.com that have legally obtained licence to stream music. The average user of the sites, however, have no way of knowing which one is legal and which one is not. Most of the people I know who use these sites are heavy purchasers of legal music. When I asked a few of them, most of them said they choose these sites because of ease of navigation/look and feel. I agree with that but have one more parameter: accuracy of information about songs. This, because, there is little to choose when it comes to the quality of sound or speed between one site and another. The Saregama site scores heavily on the accuracy-of-information front while it is poor when it comes to presentation and does not work quite often. Flipkart’s Flyte—though much better in terms of presentation and navigation—has quite a few mistakes when it comes to information on songs—one common and frequent error being combining films of the same name (one released in 40s and another in 90s, for example) to a single album.

So, while feeling good about the success of the anti-piracy moves, I was a little sad that these sites—to which I often trurned for a quick check-up of info—would not be accessible any more. But as feared by many analysts and legal experts, they resurfaced under different names. Songs.pk became songspk.pk; musicindiaonline.com became musicindiaonline.co; and dishant.com became dishant.co and so on. So, while the music industry may have won a battle—that too partially, what with all the resurfacing of some of the sites—the war is still far from being over.

But what is this war all about? On the face of it, it is piracy and loss of revenue to the music industry. From a moral and legal point of view, the IMI action looks plausible. But when you look at it practically, it is bound to fail because of two reasons. One, well discussed by many bloggers, is technical: it is virtually impossible to completely ban sites. In any case, restricting through ISPs would work only in India.

But the other reason—and I think it is far more important—is that the music industry is not yet prepared to embrace the change that would actually give them back the power. We have come to a situation like this because the music industry has been lax in moving with the times. People’s unwillingness to pay is only part of the reason for piracy. An equally strong reason is access to music. In my school/college days, for example, there was virtually no way to “get a song” without “recording it (read piracy)” till Gulshan Kumar exploited a loophole in the law to re-record many of the yesteryear’s hits in newer singers’ voice and offer an alternative. And even though these songs stood nowhere in comparison to the original, people lapped them up because they were affordable and more importantly, they were widely available. In fact, many people in my generation might have first listened to a song in Babla Mehta’s voice before listening to the the Mukesh original! Kumar created a few star singers such as Kumar Sanu and Sonu Nigam in the process! And brought about the first big change in the industry.

While Kumar’s method and today’s illegal websites’ methods vary in terms of their legal status, their basic raison d’ etre is the same. T Series under Gulshan Kumar and many sites of today were created to make music reach people in a music-hungry nation in an easier, friendlier and cheaper manner.

Today, the users of those sites, if asked to pay some money, could actually end up paying, provided pricing is right and paying is trouble-free. After all, they have been paying for things like caller tunes amounts which are often 20-30% of their montly spend on mobile!

My argument is not meant to justify illegal streaming, but to point out that the music industry is as much responsible for the problem as anyone else. And it cannot fight the disease by trying to cure the symptom.

A look at the table here would tell the story. The data is from Google AdPlanner and may not be 100% accurate. But even if you take 30% error margin, you get to see the point. Why should an obscure name like song.pk would get millions of pageviews while India’s best known music brand—which also has a vast collection available in its site for downlaod—can muster only a few thousands? Yes, the fact that they are free could be a big reason; but you will be fooling yourself to argue that it is the only reason.

And yes, these traffic figures are for Marh 2012, which for the blocked sites, are a mere fraction of what they used to get before the ban. As one can see, the loss of these sites has translated to gain for some legal streaming sites and not for Saregama.com.

Traffic: Music Sites in India

SITE TYPE UV (India) PV (India) COMMENT
Songs.pk Illegal/blocked 5.6M 23M Dropped by almost 2/3rd between Jan-Mar
Smashits.com Illegal/blocked 830K 8.3M Dropped significantly between Jan-Mar
Dishant.com Illegal/blocked 570K 2.2M Dropped significantly between Jan-Mar
Musicindiaonline.com Illegal/blocked 320K 3.8M Dropped by almost 3/4th between Jan-Mar
Hummaa.com Legal 680K 2.6M No major gain between Jan-Mar
Gaana.com Legal 2.9M 16M Significantly moved up between Jan-Mar
Raaga.com Legal 2.2M 9.8M No major gain between Jan-Mar
Saavn.com Legal 1.1M 70M Significantly moved up between Jan-Mar
Dhingana.com Legal 1.6M 7.5M Actually dropped between Jan-Mar
Saregama.com Music Label 130K 230K No major gain between Jan-Mar

Source: DoubleClick AdPlanner by Google. All figures for March 2012 and for India traffic. K stands for thousands and M for millions. UV: Unique visitors. PV: pageviews

Most music companies believe that they can continue to do what they have been doing so far—recording the music, owning the copyright, and revenue should come to them automatically, even from newer channels. Legally, it is a valid stance. Practically, it is not.

So, what is the solution? It surely is not rocket science. Most of them know the answer; it lies in mainstreaming these sites and not excluding them. Medianama has carried an interview with Saregama CEO, who admitted as much.

We don’t want these sites to be shut down, we want them to pay a license fee and flourish as a business. There are legitimate businesses in operation too. The scope is there, and we want these sites to be legal.

But they must act. It should be right approach; right and transparent pricing. In another story, Medianama said that IMI was unwilling to share pricing. While sharing any exact pricing may be tough, it should reach out with a rough idea, because many of these sites are run by young kids in their 20s. They will not come running to get into sophisticated discussions.

It is not really lack of intention that is the problem with the industry. It is the discomfort with the disruptive changes. Take Saregama for example. It takes one step at a time. As a buyer of legal music all through, I have tried everything and can say with some authority how it has evolved. First came hamaracd but not with mp3. So, you could get around 10-12 tracks for Rs 300 or so. It won’t work half the time. Then came their current website with provision to download mp3s for a price. Then came a set of MP3 CDs—really beautiful compilations of old Indian light music—film, bhajans, ghazals—priced for Rs 75 for 40 songs. Almost all of them are gems. But try to look for them in any big store—Landmark, MusicWorld, Planet M—you will never find too many of those titles. The company site is silent about this series. Then came Flipkart’s Flyte, which made the downloads far easier and friendlier. Yet, unlike books, music is a mass market product and e-commerce with credit card/online banking is still pretty unreachable for many. Not surprisingly, cash on delivery has been the preferred mode for most e-commerce buyers in India. That is not an option in downloads.

With always connected devices, the future is clearly streaming. My own experience says that 80% of the music that I buy, I do not listen for more than 2-3 times. So, I will not mind if I can pay a very small price per listening a song. That requires a completely different kind of pricing. So, any song that costs Rs 6 at Flipkart Flyte should probably cost no more than 30 paise for listening once. This is not a suggestion by me based on any calculations, but just an illustration. The actual calculations may show even more dramatic pricing. What I want to point out is that it requires disruptive thinking.

But I must reiterate the point I made earlier. The bigger issue is ease of paying and not pricing. Even if it is 30 paise, a user with no credit card or online banking can do precious little. If, on the othe hand, the payment is through, say, a mobile, it is absolutely possible to target a much biggger base of users. It can be really simple. An SMS goes out with a code. Once the user enters the code, he can stream/download the music and it gets debited from his mobile balance. Yes, it requires talking to a couple of players—an operator/an independent payment gateway etc—but it is not impossible. And I am not stupid enough to believe that these ideas are my original and have not occurred to the bright guys who run the music business. Or for that matter, this is the only way it can be done!

The problem is not lack of ideas; it is not even lack of intention. It is just lack of strong will to disrupt a model that has been in place for so long. If the music industry does not do it, someone else will do it. Apple has already done it to a great extent, creating value for itself but making the music companies a little richer, which they seem . But as Apple without Jobs is beginning to face the possibility of an anti-trust trial in case of e-books, the closed model is being threatened.

As of now, the illegal web sites may be getting a few ads, which makes them sustain the business. But if they have to be in this business, they will have to charge the consumers or get targeted ads. These sites have to be convinced that they have to walk half way. The music industry must walk the other half. But as big boys, the onus is on the music industry to drive the change. Else, change will just happen—to them.

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Open Government Platform: Beginning of A Great Journey

In the next few hours, the Union Minister for Communications & IT, Kapil Sibal, is expected to announce the launch of open government platform, in the presence of some representatives from the US government. This will be the first major announcement after the cabinet approved the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) 2012 last month.

The idea of open governance, spearheaded by the US, under then then Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, has been gaining popularity the world over. The Open Government Partnership  is a multilateral initiative that aims to “secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

The Open Government Partnership as a global partnership is not too old and started just about six months back. Formally launched on 20 September 2011, with an initial declarationby eight countries—Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States—the partnership now has 53 member countries, including the original eight.

With its time-honored policy of under-commitment, India is yet to formally join the partnership but is working with the US government to work on open access to data.  To become a member of OGP, participating countries must embrace a high-level Open Government Declaration; deliver a country action plan “developed with public consultation”; and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

It may be noted here that publishing data collected by government is just one—though, at present, arguably the most important—aspect of the move towards this openness.

The Platform

While the actual beginning of the move towards open government began with President Obama signing the Memorandum of Transparency and Open Government on Day One of assuming office, it was with the appointment of Vivek Kundra as the Federal CIO that the real momentum started. Barely two months after his appointment in March 2009, Kundra launched Data.g0v platform (in May), for providing public access to raw datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government in order to enable public participation and private sector innovation. It drew from the DC Data Catalog launched by Kundra when he was CTO of Washington, D.C., where he published vast amounts of datasets for public use.

Though open government is a broader objective and is not just about releasing raw government data, this was nevertheless considered a major step, as the public availability of these datasets would not only help in transparency and openness, it also would allow anyone who wishes to do so—companies, individuals, NGOs—to create innovative applications using these data. And it actually did.

But when Kundra announced his resignation in June last year, there was a lot of apprehension whether the open government movement will lose its momentum. Many believed Kundra’s resignation was because of a drastic cut in funding for the e-government initiatives that he had undertaken. In a column titled, The Death of Open Government,  in Washington Post, renowned technologist, academician and commentator was drastic in his observation.

But, with Kundra gone, I am not optimistic about the program. Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.

But nevertheless the progress continued.

And when there is something around IT, can India be kept out of it? When the US government started to look at open sourcing the data.gov platform, India—the land of techies—was of course, the first stop. And this began around August, even before the Open Government Partnership was announced. India was not to be a member of that; it still isn’t.  But when it comes to tech work, the world’s most business savvy nation, surely knew where to turn to.

In December, it was publicly announced that India and US were working together to create a platform, called data.gov- in-a-box, an open source platform that would help governments globally to produce their own version of data.gov. This is what the data.gov site said at that time.

Among the actions in the U.S. National Action Plan announced by President Obama is an effort under the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue to produce “Data.gov-in-a-Box,” an open source version of the United States’ Data.gov data portal and India’s India.gov.in document portal. The U.S. and India are working together to produce an open source version available for implementation by countries globally, encouraging governments around the world to stand up open data sites that promote transparency, improve citizen engagement, and engage application developers in continuously improving these efforts. Technical teams from the governments of the U.S. and India have been working together since August of this year, with a planned launch of a complete open source product (which is now called the Open Government Platform (OGPL) to reflect its broad scope) in early 2012.

Today is that day, when that formal announcement about that platform is likely to happen by the Indian IT minister.

All the best for the journey together of two great nations, which are not just the most influential democracies in the world but are also the most competent when it comes to IT. And nothing marries democracy and technology like this initiative does. It takes the tool to be transparent on a platter to the governments around the world.

Additional Note: This should also convince critics of outsourcing to India (many within the Obama administration itself) that companies that seek Indian help in IT  do not do that just because it is low cost.

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The Importance of Being Shri Nandan Nilekani

If there was one proper noun that stood out in the budget speech of the finance minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee this year, it was undoubtedly Aadhaar. The speech had as many as nine reference to Aadhaar. Whether it is for subsidy being credited directly to beneficiary’s bank account, creating a more efficient public distribution regime by creating a PDS network, or for disbursement of government payouts—such as MG-NREGA payments, pensions and scholarships—the finance minister seemed confident that Aadhaar could be leveraged as a platform to deliver.

And it was just a couple of months back that a section of the media was writing off the project when the National Identification Authority Bill met with some adverse comments from a parliamentary standing committee headed by BJP MP and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha! In a cover story in Dataquest, The Politics of Identity, I had unequivocally pointed out then that “the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s return of the National Identification Authority in its present form is not a mandate to scrap the project; though some vested interests portray it that way.”

And I was not exactly being prophetic. Anyone following the project would know that this has been the most important project for UPA II for driving its No 1 policy priority: inclusion. And the government would not easily allow it to fall by the wayside.

In fact, since 2009 (that is beginning of UPA-II), the finance minister has, in all his budget speeches referred to the project. Here is a compilation of what he said about the project, in each of his budget speeches.

The setting up of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is a major step in improving governance with regard to delivery of public services. This project is very close to my heart. I am happy to note that this project also marks the beginning of an era where the top private sector talent in India steps forward to take the responsibility for implementing projects of vital national importance. The UIDAI will set up an online data base with identity and biometric details of Indian residents and provide enrolment and verification services across the country. The first set of unique identity numbers will be rolled out in 12 to 18 months. I have proposed a provision of Rs.120 crore for this project – July 2009 Budget Speech

The 2010 budget speech referred to the progress and raised the allocation to Rs 1900 crore

In my last Budget Speech, I had announced the constitution of the Unique Identification Authority of India, its broad working principles and the timelines for delivery of the first UID numbers. I am happy to report that the Authority has been constituted and it will be able to meet its commitments of issuing the first set of UID numbers in the coming year. It would provide an effective platform for financial inclusion and targeted subsidy payments. Since the UIDAI will now get into the operational phase, I am allocating Rs.1,900 crore to the Authority for 2010-11 – Budget Speech 2010

 By 2011, Aadhaar project had established its potential, in the eyes of the FM, as one of the most important initiatives to improve governance

The UID Mission has taken off and Aadhaar numbers are being generated in large numbers. So far 20 lakh Aadhaar numbers have been given and from 1st October 2011, ten lakh numbers will be generated per day. The stage is now set for realising the potential of Aadhaar for improving service delivery, accountability and transparency in governance of various schemes – Budget Speech 2011

The 2012 speech, which was full with reference to the project, too saw it on top when it came to highlight plans for improving governance.

The enrolments into the Aadhaar system have crossed 20 crore and the Aadhaar numbers generated upto date have crossed 14 crore. I propose to allocate adequate funds to complete another 40 crore enrolments starting from April 1, 2012. The Aadhaar platform is now ready to support the payments of MG-NREGA; old age, widow and disability pensions; and scholarships directly to the beneficiary accounts in selected areas – Budget Speech 2012

This year, the FM allocated Rs 14,232 crore for the project.

It is now amply clear that as far as the finance minister is concerned, this is a project that is close to his heart, as he admitted in his July 2009 speech.

That is not too surprising, considering that the government has huge expectations from the project. What is, however, noteworthy, is the kind of importance the finance minister has given to the person driving the project: Nandan Nilekani.

In 2010, he was appointed as the chairman of a Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects (TAGUP) in the Finance Ministry. The group submitted its report in end January 2011. In his budget speech this year, the minister informed the parliament that two of the projects are being implemented, including the ambitious GST Network. Soon after the TAGUP submitted its report, Nilekani was appointed as the head of a task force to recommend mechanisms for  transferring the subsidies directly to the beneficiaries. The 2012 budget speech also informed the Parliament that the task force recommendation has been accepted.

“The recommendations of the task force headed by Shri Nandan Nilekani on IT strategy for direct transfer of subsidy have been accepted. Based on these recommendations, a mobile- based Fertiliser Management System (mFMS) has been designed to provide end-to-end information on the movement of fertilisers and subsidies, from the manufacturer to the retail level,” the FM said in his budget speech.

And with that, “Shri Nandan Nilkani” had the honour of featuring in three subsequent Union Budget speeches. I doubt if there is any other example of this in independent India. While in 2010, only two people featured in the budget speech, Nilekani and Kirit Parikh, 2011 too saw two names: Sam Pitroda and Nilekani. This year’s speech had only Nilekani’s name.

And who knows what new assignment is in store for him this year!

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Digital Divide is Now Political. And That Can Be Dangerous…

The power of Internet and social media in bringing about political change is now no more unrecognized. The role social media activism, led by the likes of Wael Ghonim, played in the uprising in Egypt that led to fall of the Mubarak regime, has convinced many of its potential.

But it could be a double edged sword. In many countries across the world the penetration of Internet is extremely low. Penetration of social media is even lower. Take India for example. The number of regulr Internet users is less than 8%. The number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) of Facebook in India as of December 2011 was 46 million. If one takes into account only the individual users, the number of Indian people on Facebook would be somewhere between 2-3%. In a country like India, that is not bad at all, measuring purely from the point of view of ICT penetration.

In fact, a consumer product company trying to market a lifestyle product, there is no other media that is as efficient as Facebook for reaching out to say, affluent youth aged 18-25.

But the danger lies in assuming that the opinion of this tiny section of Facebook users is the opinion of the citizens of India. While many ordinary people do that fairly innocently, there are pressure groups who know this and do all they can to manipulate the activities on social media—often camouflaging their message as popular opinion.

Sometimes, even if there is no concerted effort, there can be huge disconnects between the kind of people who arre today on social media and other sections in the society.

I myself learned it the hard way. During the Anna Hazare agitation, the road in front of my house was converted to a virtual Dharna ground for 3-4 days, when Anna was in Tihar Jail. My house is very close to the jail. Seeing so many autowallas, vegetable vendors, and rickshawwallas among the protesting crowd, I asked a few of them what they were agitating about.

And I was shocked by the commonality in their views—and how different was that from “our” common view. For the Bedis, Kejriwals, Bhushans and most of us—whether someone is a supporter or detractor of the Anna movement—there was no doubt that the whole movement was against corruption.

But to the people on the street, I was stunned to find out, corruption was, at best, one of the issues. And it was not even the top issue. Mehngai was the issue. Anna, to them, was a mascot of the common man, not a mascot of anti-corruption, as his team had projected and many of us had accepted.

Whoever I told this to in my “friends’ circle” thought I was making too much out of it—by speaking just to a handful of people. I do not blame them, as I myself was shocked when I first heard it from a couple of the rickshawallahs. But when one after another started getting into the pain of mehngai setting aside corruption, I was convinced about what was really hurting them.

But have you even seen one FB post on this, leaving aside, possibly, comments about the petrol price hike?

So, in hindsight, it does not look so surprsing to me that they saw as the villain, not just the ruling UPA government, nor the political class alone but what they termed as “jyada padhey likhey log”, “bade bade log” and so on—the elite class in general. The same elite class which was spearheading the Anna movement on Facebook.

Today, much is being made of “people’s opinion” in social media. But who are these people? They represent a tiny section of the population. There is a real danger of getting overinfluenced by their opinion, when it comes to deciding on crucial policy matters.

This is digital divide of the worst class. This political divide is far more dangerous than the economic divide that we keep talking about.

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The Naive and the Sentimental Journalist

For a long time, I have been thinking about writing this piece, for my other blog, Nothing to Declare, where I write mostly on music,. books, and culture. Though in terms of content, it belongs more to that blog, I did not put it there because of a promise that I had made to myself when I started that blog: that I would not write pure thoughts and reflections there but would highlight less discussed aspects in the above mentioned areas, with information and facts. Something that would help the readers to research further and add to our collective knowledge. This piece, as you will agree, does not exactly satisfy that requirement.

What do I mean by The Naïve and the Sentimental Journalist? Many of you would recognize that the beautiful headline is lifted and paraphrased slightly from the title of the Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. Pamuk himself borrows the words from a famous 18th century German essay by Fredrich Schiller, called Über naïve and sentimentalische Dichtung (On naïve and Sentimental Poetry). “The word Sentimentalisch in German used by Schiller to describe,” Pamuk explains, “the thoughtful, troubled modern poet who has lost his childlike character and naïveté, is somewhat different in meaning from the word sentimental, its counterpart in English.” Adds Pamuk, “Schiller uses the word Sentimentalisch to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature’s simplicity and power and has become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.” The sentimental poet, according to Schiller, is exceedingly aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses and the artifice involved in his endeavor.

The underlining is mine. Actually, it is this definition of the so-called sentimental—now that we have understood what it really means—poet that I apply to what I would like to call the sentimental journalist. If the English language meaning of that word bothers you too much, you can call him by any name, as long as you appreciate what I am saying: the journalist who is extremely concerned about how his work would be received and is exceedingly aware of the tools and techniques that he uses to influence that.

A journalist, of course, is no poet. And unlike the poet of the nature, he cannot be naïve and innocent. But here, I would urge the readers to equate, in their minds, the fundamental beliefs and values in journalism, to nature. And the journalists I refer to are the ones who are—or are expected to—stray away from these beliefs and values.

There are a very few universal beliefs in journalism, though how they are defined may vary. And they are complete loyalty to the reader, complete loyalty to the facts rather than a journalist’s own thoughts of what is right, and a simple and uncomplicated writing that would not conceal the facts. Every journalist knows these.

Over the years, there have been tools and techniques to beautify journalistic pieces to make them more appealing, to attract more readers and so on. But all along, the reader always remained supreme, even as what should be done with him—entertain, inform, educate, sensitize…—kept getting debated.

But of late, with some fundamental changes in the way information is reported and consumed, that basic belief is getting threatened. Even as the world, by and large, is celebrating the freedom for common people and the diminishing impact of the filters such as traditional media establishments because of the advent of Internet—and there are some very good reasons for that—this has led to dilution in certain basic assumptions about what to expect from media. Credibility is one example of that.

The raison d’être of this piece—however unfashionable, conservative it seems—is to sensitize about that credibility crisis and not at all to argue for the old order. The change Internet has brought about is, by and large, positive but it is not wise to overlook the issues that are/may be there.

The idea of this occurred to me when I heard a “new media” expert urging the young journalists in a training session to “forget the reader and write for the search engine”. Call me by any name, but I am unable to digest that, even after a few months of hearing it, and what with all the new developments happening in Internet and social media all around.

And his entire session was devoted how exactly to do that. To be fair to him, he just put it crudely enough to “shock” me. But increasingly, that is what many media organizations are trying to do, when they are trying to “reinvent themselves”–teaching young journalists to forget the concept of a reader. I remember one of the editors in my early days of journalism telling us to think about a real person while conceptualizing a feature and think how and why it would help that person.

We have drifted 180 degrees away when we say you do NOT need to worry about the reader. In fact, you need not bother who he is. What you should worry about is keywords, headlines, how many links you are putting, how you should have your headline—does not matter if it does not reflect what you are saying in the text below.

Pamuk’s (actually Schiller’s) Sentimentalisch novelist/poet is not doing it with an explicit objective that is anything other than appealing to his reader; but the new journalist is doing it to achieve some other objective—to compete, as many would proudly describe it.

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Flipkart’s Flyte: A Digital Aggregator Can Revolutionize Music

A couple of days back, one of the leading Indian e-commerce stores, Flipkart launched its digital music store, called Flyte. Flipkart has clearly stood out in the nascent e-commerce market in India, with its quality of services—be it in terms of online experience or more importantly, fulfilment.

The launch of the digital music store, that would enable buyers to download MP3s of albums or individual songs, has the potential to transform the music industry in India, if the company plays it well.

The fact that digital music is increasingly replacing physical media sales is no secret. According to the FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2011, in 2010, digital music sales in India, with an estimated value of Rs 4.2 billion overtook the physical sales, that recorded a total sales of Rs 3.2 billion. Larger companies like Saregama have also witnessed the trend. In FY 11, more than 60% of Saregama revenues came from digital music sales. In fact, two years back, Saregama revamped its e-commerce site and a lot of its tracks are now available for online purchase, with good searchability functions.

So, what does Flyte bring in to the table, when the music labels already make it available on their site? On the face of it, it is the same thing that Amazon brings to the table, even though many publishers sell their books online. It aggregates music from different labels; gives a much better experience to the customers and offers far more interesting pricing models—combining individual track sales, full album sales and some amount of bundling. The fact that many small music publishers as well as some big labels do not have e-coommerce sites of their own only adds to the need of an aggregator like this, Surprising it may sound, Sony Music India does not have a dedicated web site and Universal Music India’s site is not e-commerce enabled!

But that is not the point. When the FICCI-KPMG research points out that digital music will grow more than four fold between 2010 too 2015, clocking Rs 14.8 billion in 2015 or that it will account for 79 percent of total sales by 2015 as opposed to 14 percent in 2006, they have taken business as usual growth—maybe taking into account the growth in digital device usage.

But there is far more that a strong independent digital music aggregator can do. In fact, it can not just disrupt the way music is sold, it can change the way music is published and distributed. There is hardly a better market than music where the Long Tail effect can be more true. For the uninitiated, the Long Tail principle is where the businesses do not need to spend a lot of time and energy in choosing what would be a blockbuster. The cost of storing and delivering is low/almost nil. So, they can virtually sell list anything for selling even if it interests a handful of buyers. The idea was popularized by Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine in his 2006 classic book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. 

In some cases, people may actually end up choosing a blockbuster. Today, large music publishers do not touch new and upcoming artistes, unless someone somewhere is convinced about their ability to become big hits. So, many good artistes wait for ever for the “opportunity”. In some cases, their work is released by small/local labels, which do not have the muscle and wherewithal to market. Strong digital aggregators give both the enterprising artistes and the niche/small labels to publish their music. The only judge would  be the ultimate judge: the public. The role of filters is getting minimized in many areas and music is just fit for that.

In fact, there are some instances of such efforts already happening. Noted singer, Shubha Mudgal and her husband, popular Tablist Aneesh Pradhan, have established a label called Underscore Records and have released works of many upcoming artistes, a lot of which are sold in digital format in their website. It is an effort that is much admired within a small community, but how many of us know about some of the excellent music they have released? Similarly, in Odisha, noted administrator, educationist and popular lyricist Devdas Chhotray has started a new experimentation of setting some of the best poetry to music, with a young but talented composer and singer duo. The market for such work is worldwide where discerning Odias are, and not necessarily in a locality in Bhubaneswar, where you can find it. Digital music—more specifically, an independent digital music aggregator—can take it to Odias in Ohio or Oslo or Ooty, wherever they are. That is nothing short of a revolution.

A strong digital music aggregator like Flyte should be able to help a lot in making this possible. It has already impressed in the way it is designed, presented and the way it has priced. Though some of the problems—such as putting a picture of a Bengali movie poster in an Odia light songs album—that are imported from the original music label remain, those are small problems you can live with for some time.

In fact, one expects that in due time, it would add small films and documentaries too, some of which are never seen by anyone other than the jury of film festivals. The digital aggregator is the perfect medium to make them reach the public. But that is another task, maybe for another day.

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Technology & The Three Paths

In the midst of jargon, numbers, and tools, we often overlook a basic truth—that business is about people. It is for the people (customers), of the people (shareholders) and by the people (employees and partners). Not that we do not know it; not that the business schools don’t teach it. But when it comes to taking decisions, often this common sense takes a backseat.

That is where most of the problems of business start and/or become complicated. Technology, which is today an essential enabler of business, by extension, suffers from the same problem. It is important to get sensitized about this, if we have to get better value from technology—especially now as, for the first time, it looks like we can get far more than what we are getting from it.

The Bhagvadgita talks of three paths for human beings: that of bhakti, jnana, and karma. In the Western philosophy, that translates to emotion, knowledge, and action, which is well recognized now. Management thinkers have, of late, been recognizing this. While business at one time was associated primarily with action, the role of knowledge became evident with the advent of technology—to some extent during industrial revolution, and then most definitely during the information revolution of the later part of the 20th century. The evolution of management as a science, itself was a manifestation of this growing realization by businesses that some specific intellectual thinking and reflections could surely add value to business. But this knowledge was pursued outside the domain of action and was injected to the businesses. That, has been changing, of late.

In the mid-80s, the term emotional intelligence came into the lexicon to stress the role of emotion in decision making and soon started making impact on management thinking. Today, though it is still not widely practiced, there is recognition that emotion has a role to play in business.

But information technology, so far, has still focused on just one of the aspects: action. This is a hangover of the industrial revolution. The catch phrase in the industrial revolution was automation. Many human functions were automated resulting in much better efficiency. When computers came, they were expected to automate some of the back office work such as accounting, information storage and retrieval. And they did that very well. While theoretical computer science, which in a sense, was an outgrowth of mathematics, did ask if it could take cae of more of the intellectual/decision making work, some early adopters in business found that it was easy to apply computers to automate some of the processes in business and make those processes far more efficient, making the entire business far more efficient. In my previous post, Why Information Technology is A Misnomer, I wrote about that. This quick resulted made computers—by now called IT—to focus completely on this aspect of business. Efficiency became the buzzword. This was improvement but the path was still the traditional path of action.

Of late, there is a realization that applying technology to do analysis of information and simulate some intelligence is probably possible. And those are catchwords in IT today. That is appplying technology along the path of knowledge. I am sure in the next few years we will see a lot of progress along this line.

One area that still remains largely untouched is emotion, despite the fact that marketers and advertisers have long played on emotions to sell consumer goods and services. But technology has played little role there. With the rising popularity of social networks and their power, however, there is a hope that probably—and I emphasize on that word—it is time to explore if technology can do something there.

Can IT?

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Why Information Technology is a Misnomer

It may sound blasphemous to many. But the more I think about it, the more I get uncomfortable with the phrase information technology. The fact that it has taken me more than two decades (that is from my first year engineering to now) to muster up enough courage to put it straight should not be held against the argument that I am making. And that is: information technology—for all its seemingly magical prowess and overwhelming impact on our lives—is a misnomer. Technology, it is; information technology, it is not.

One can go back to the classical distinction between “information” and “data” to appreciate what I am saying. As any student is taught when he is introduced to computers, data (actually the plural of datum) is pieces of facts. When, it is processed, organized, structured and interpreted, so that it becomes meaningful, it is called information. Today’s technology does a great job of processing, organizing, and structuring data. But interpreting to make it meaningful? Despite all the craze about BI and analytics of late, technology still lacks the ability to add the value of context and hence interpret it meaningfully. So, while sometimes based on matching strings of alphabets and mapping that to a predefined “meaning”, it tries to present the result as meaningful interpretation, we all know that it is not. Much of the current buzzwords such as analytics and BI are examples of this kind of exprimentation. That is clearly not “understanding the context.”

However, very recently, context has generated a lot of interest among the businesses, thanks to the surging popularity of social media, that is generating huge amount of content, much of which is available publicly.

While scores of boutique social media tracking firms have mushroomed and have been helping consumer companies “understand” the customers thinking, they too are working with basic technology that relies on the above mentioned technique. But that itself is a great leap and marketers are lapping that up. Interestingly, in most businesses, they have been working with the marketing and customer service teams, with little or no interaction with the enterprise IT departments.

I am not sure if and when the twain will meet. That anyway is not of too much consequence to this discussion. I return to my basic point that information technology really is not.

But I must point out that it was not really this way always. One of the major areas of interest within theoretical computer science in the 70s and 80s—and to some extent in early 90s—was artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence actually wanted to cross this frontier by trying to make computer systems intelligent enough to “understand” natural language, learn by experience and so on. So hot was the area that between 1969 and 1994, it won four Turing awards, arguably the biggest recognition in computer science. In my college days (late 80s-early 90s), AI was the buzzword and we were completely enticed by it, so much so that I remember having fought with my professor for not allowing us to opt for AI as an elective in the final year—citing lack of teachers as the reason—and forcing on us “computer networks”!

While AI still continues in some high-end labs, it faded from mainstream focus of technology industry in the mid 90s, often facing criticism, among others, that it was too philosophical a concept. And this is also when, I would like to argue, information technology lost its way.

It fell to the temptation of impressing the businesses with immediate, tangible results by automating a lot of business processes. It was a Godsend for businesses—American primarily but Western European and Japanese to some extent—that were already witnessing sluggish growth and were badly in need for something that would boost bottomline by cutting cost. The technology—what we call IT today—could do that fairly well and businesses started seeing it as the next big value creator. Soon the entire focus of technology shifted to creating newer ways and means of enhancing business efficiency. ERP and outsourcing were two major milestones in that journey. All of it was internal focused.

These low hanging fruits made the technology industry almost abandon areas that requires longer term commitment (such as AI), and technology reached where it is today. Information technology was happy playing the role of automation technology and data technology. And that is what it absolutely became.

However, what makes me hopeful are two developments. One, the Internet has emerged as a big social platform and there is an opportunity to really understand the customer. Businesses would have to now differentiate themselves on this plane, as efficiency has been done to death. Two, and this is equally important, emerging economies are now becoming the focus of most large global corporations. In these new markets—often with very different social and economic structures than the West—reaching out and reaching out effectively through whatever means possible would become key. Topline will again drive businesses and that would require knowledge of customer as a differentiator. Some businesses have already seen the danger of trying to do business in the new markets with business models of the mature markets!

Whether that will result in a serious effort by technology fraternity to make the customer instead of internal processes their core focus is something that remains to be seen.

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