Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Keeping track of the Roads


The state of Bangalore’s roads has become pathetic. At least the roads on which I drive frequently. Old Airport Road has been dug every now and then which makes it difficult to ascertain whether the pot hole you encountered was caused by the digging or by the degradation of the road. The stretch from Garuda Mall to Hosmat Hospital had such deep potholes that when I accidently drove over one, the impact was so strong that the attachment holding the headlight broke on the left side. The potholes were filled recently.

But it begs the question why did we have potholes in the first place? When were the roads  last rebuilt? If my memory does not fail me, it was probably around a year and a half ago, somewhere between January and May 2009 (though I cannot be cent percent sure). The roads were built by the present state government, which came to power in May 2008 and it was done during late winter/spring well in advance of the monsoons, so my timing cannot be off by much (If you thought the monsoons only affected when the rice paddies are sown, well there you go.)

Is that the life of our roads? I searched on Google and after trying a few different keywords came across this site, where somebody has answered a similar question. So an asphalt road’s life may vary from 10-20 years depending on various factors. That is a far cry from a road life of 2 years over here. In fact, I am not even sure if all the roads in Bangalore have the same life.

One of the public figures that I follow on twitter, tweeted a few months back that he/she had spoken to someone who was into construction of roads. The roads they had developed in Orissa would last longer than the roads they had developed in Maharashtra even thought the Tender amount was the same. This was because in Maharashtra to win the contract they had to bribe, so accordingly the contractor used less quality materials for development of roads in Maharashtra, so that his business remains viable. ( I would link to the specific tweet if I could find it)

It is hard to believe that such cases do not happen throughout the country. Read this article in the Forbes for instance. Even if corruption cases are uncovered, they are silently shut down due to political pressure.

Is there anyway we can fight this? An idea occurred to me when I read this and this tweet by Indus Khaitan. Why not build an app which tracks all the data related to building of roads which is integrated with google maps and location enabled? Lets again take the case of the stretch of road from Garuda Mall to Hosmat Hospital and also assume that our app (lets call it betterroads) is available. I access the app from my smartphone which is GPS enabled.


It automatically maps my current location to the road and pops up a map with information about the road such as when was it last built/relaid, the expected life, cost of building the road, contractor who built etc. All this info can be available with the app through RTI. Now since I encountered a pot-hole, I can report a pothole and also rate the road.  I can also take a pic of the pothole and upload it on the app. So can anybody else. Now since the road is in a bad shape in 2010 whereas its expected life was till 2014, the following steps could be taken :

1) The road is relaid.

2) It is determined whether any digging etc from other government departments reduced the life of the road.

3) If not, the contractor is blacklisted from participating in any future government contracts.

Imagine if such a thing were possible for each and every road in this country. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Not only would one be able to report bad roads, but be able to pin point possible instances of corruption.

So why not build such an app? What are the challenges? Well I think an app to report potholes is pretty much possible because that is essentially a mashup of Google maps with Crowdsourced data, even though this shall have challenges such as ensuring the data remians relevant and provides true picture. No point in having a road reported a bad when it has been repaired recently.

The bigger challenge comes when you want to have the data about road construction from the government through RTI. Getting and organizing this data in the current scenario is a gargantuan task in itself and probably needs an NGO to focus on this. All the roads on  Google maps will have to be marked according to the way contracts are awarded for road construction. i.e in the db of the app, the stretch of Old Airport Road from Diamond District to Pizza Hut Signal could be one row (road id : 1) in the db whereas from Pizza Hut to Marthahalli would be a different row(road id: 2), even though the whole thing is Old Airport Road. This could be because contracts for repair of the first stretch could be given out at a different time and to a different contractor and if we are capturing this information then we have mark roads accordingly.

Also, ensuring that data is provided by the government, in the format that is required, consistently is going to be a challenge. I am not even sure what and how does the government track. The essential thing to ease the whole thing would be digitization of government records and provide the data to NGO’s and researchers through an RTI api. Even after the data is available, there are going to be many issues such as agreeing to a road life at given cost, ensuring government agencies act etc. All this just reinforces the adage that “Technology is just an enabler” and the app in itself is not going to solve problems overnight.

Then what is the point of discussing all this? Well for starters this can be tried at a small scale, say only Bangalore. That would be the MVP for this idea. No need to wait for government to digitize its records. File RTI’s and manually get the data for Bangalore or a smaller part of Bangalore and develop the app. See if people use it. After all, as someone once told me, when Naukri.com started, they were manually entering jobs into their website.

Perhaps a few techies along with an NGO such as Janagraha could take a shot at it. What do you think? Worth a try?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Do you really need a Web Designer?

This is a question that has been asked and discussed time and again. While it is awesome if you have a kick ass designer in your team, what does one do when no one in the startup team is has good design skills. I mean no one in the team can start from scratch and design a decent looking UI. What does one do then?  

The first thought that occurs is to outsource your design work. Seems like a good idea. But if the startup is bootstrapped and has not yet found a proven revenue model ( or in other words you have zero revenues) is it a good idea to spend on the design of the website? In India, good designers charge as much as their western counterparts and if someone is not charging enough and promising you awesome designs, he/she is probably giving false promises (at least that has been my experience). If outsourcing to a web designer is within your budget, then, by all means, hire a good designer. But what if the cash situation is a bit tight?

Learn to do stuff on your own? Well if you can then nothing like it. But if you do not have the bandwidth to learn, I would suggest learn just enough to modify somebody else's work. There are tonnes of awesome freely available CSS templates available on the web. Just pick the one which you feel shall suit your needs and learn to modify it according to your needs. It looks decent enough for you to focus on validating your idea. And when your app is growing and you feel a change is needed, hire a kick ass web designer to revamp your app. At this point of time, you shall have much more clarity about what you want from the designer. I recommend this approach to everyone. 

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Friday, November 12, 2010


"Why do people watch Big Boss? Completely fail to understand" This was a tweet on my timeline. 

What interested me in this tweet was the second part. Completely fail to understand. So do I. I have never watched Big Boss and I have no clue why people would like to watch it.

But this only means that I do not have insights which the producers of Big Boss have. The question then is, what are the insights that I have which other people don't have? What are the things that I am sure people would do, but others fail to understand why? And why/ how/since when do I have such insights? What is the basis for such an insight/gut feel?

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