Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Voices of millions...

Imagine you are a economist. When you are responsible for the use of scarce resources for the betterment of thousands and millions of people, can you really go by word of mouth, propaganda and marketing pitches that you are headed in the right direction? How do you listen to the voices of a million silent countrymen.

You would use Statistics!

But I'm not an economist and even an economist finds it difficult to wade through the huge amounts of data to reach sensible decisions.

That is why I like what Gapminder is doing with statistics. Visualizing it so that I can understand it better.

Take a look at the demos and videos at gapminder.org

Of course, I am sure with enough effort you can get statistics to mean whatever you want it to. ;)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Coding for India?

"What can I really do? I am just a programmer. I don't really have any contacts and infrastructure in India. I can contribute a little money. Is there nothing else that I can do? Especially since I am so far away from India."

That thought crosses my mind whenever I think of our hopes for Drid Sankalp. I remember during one of our meetings in 2006, we discussed how we as technical people in a land far away could use our skills.

Well, it looks like the One Laptop Per Child project is a very good example on how we can contribute right from where we are.

Of course, we can have long discussions about: Is it really a useful thing? Are they going about it the right way? What would a kid do with a laptop? Aren't there more important things that a kid could use? And maybe we should.

But the main point is: here is something that all of us can contribute to. Operating system, applications, and most of all local-language content.

It is people like us who have a better understanding of what would be useful content for India. I'm thinking Amar Chitra Katha. I'm thinking Akbar and Birbal. I'm thinking Tenali Raman. Each of our regional languages has folk stories that would be great reads for kids in India. I'm sure you have other things that interested you as a child in India.

Take a look at how you can get involved when you get the chance.

P.S. Speaking of our hopes - they are still alive, aren't they? :)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Healthcare in rural India

Outlook carries a series of articles about doctors working in rural areas of India. The header article provides an overview of the kinds of efforts that are underway and the unique challenges doctors face in rural areas. This particular para caught my attention as I was guilty of this kind of thinking as well.

"What also angers doctors working in rural areas are misconceptions that are rife about the healthcare needs of "simple and hardy" rural people. Rural poor, they point out, are prone, not just to the worst communicable diseases, but all the so-called "lifestyle diseases" lazily correlated only with urban excess, and never with rural poverty and stress. For instance, the rural poor show up, far from obese, with diabetes so advanced that diagnosis and amputation happens in a single session. Yet, affordable access to insulin is a dream when even getting a basic malaria test is hard."

There are several short profiles (Chattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal) of doctors who have given up lucrative careers in cities to go work in villages. Finally there is an opinion piece that makes the case that the rural medicine should be a separate medical specialization in itself as it requires some very specific and unique skills. The following quote from this article hints at just how imbalanced health infrastructure in India really is.

"Seventy per cent of our population lives outside the cities but eight out of ten doctors and a shocking 80 per cent of all hospital beds are urban. Every preventable malady, like tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, is many times more prevalent in rural India; so are infant and maternal mortality."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Uses of internet in villages

Washington Post carries a long article about how internet access through cellphone (connected to a computer) is making life easier for the people of a village in Bangladesh. Here are some of the uses listed in the article

1. Making sure that a doctor will be available before making a long and expensive trip to the city
2. Make up for the lack of access to books
3. Call relatives abroad using VoIP at dirt cheap rates (11 cents vs $2)
4. Getting married on webcam !!!

These cellphone powered internet centers are being set up by Grameen Phone which is partly owned by Grameen Bank of Muhammad Yunus fame. To the best of my knowledge 3G hasn't arrived in Bangladesh yet. So that means the cellphone based internet can provide dialup speeds at best. I didn't know you could do VoIP or video conferencing over dialup!

Right now a number of initiatives are going on to make computers available at extremely low cost. Assuming atleast one of these initiative will succeed, this story illustrates how a combination of dirt cheap cellular rates and availability of computers can improve the quality of life of people.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Global hunger index

Outlook carries an article about a Global Hunger Index developed by the International Food Policy Research institute. Some of the key findings from the index are here.

  • India ranks 23rd (1 being most afflicted by hunger).
  • Malnutrition in India is worse than that in Sub-Saharan Africa but child mortality rates are less.
  • The custom in many households for women to eat what's left after men have had a go is an important cause for child undernourishment.
  • Good news is that India's Global Hunger Index has fallen dramatically from 41.23 in 1981 to 25.73 in 2003.
  • Bad news is that the index was 25.73 in 1997. So in this one aspect nothing has improved during 6 years of torrid economic growth.

There is also a short and interesting comparison between the poverty alleviation efforts of India and China over the past 30 years.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Charity is selfish

There is a thought provoking article on Slate which claims that charity is selfish. Well, I guess intuitively that makes sense. After all we volunteer because it makes us feel good (or less bad).

"If people really were altruistic, there would be much less volunteering. ... It would almost always be more effective to volunteer less, work overtime, and give more. A Dutch banker can pay for a lot of soup-kitchen chefs and servers with a couple of hours' worth of his salary, but that wouldn't provide the same feel-good buzz as ladling out stew himself, would it?"

But then given the fact that all humans are selfish isnt it better to channel your selfishness towards volunteering than say designer shoes? Some U of Chicago economists (who else) have conducted an experiment which shows how little altruism has to do with many charitable donations. Some findings as presented by the Slate article

"Using controlled trials to compare different methods of door-to-door fund-raising, professor List's team discovered that it was much more effective to raise funds by selling lottery tickets than it was to raise funds by asking for money."
"More effective still was simply to make sure that the fund-raisers were attractive white girls rather than a dowdier assortment of males and females representing all shapes, races, and sizes."

Now I know why I am not so good at raising money :)

For me the most interesting part of the article is where it talks about how we allocate our charitable dollars.

"Someone with $100 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the check. We don't. Instead, we give $5 for a LiveStrong bracelet, pledge $25 to Save the Children, another $25 to AIDS research, and so on. But $25 is not going to find a cure for AIDS. Either it's the best cause and deserves the entire $100, or it's not and some other cause does. The scattershot approach simply proves that we're more interested in feeling good than doing good."

Friday, September 29, 2006

State of Indian work force

Rediff has an article about an employment report on the Indian labor force. This report is for the 2004-2005 year. Given that the topic is not related to movies or cricket or how people in Bangalore and Mumbai are buying a gazzillion BMWs, I was surprised to even find it on Rediff. This report was commissioned by the 'Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation' (just the name makes me want to work there). Don't let the name fool you. Their Press Release of this report is very succinct and informative. A must read in my opinion. Here are some interesting tidbits with emphasis added by me.

"About 11 per cent of households in both the rural and urban areas were headed by females. Compared to all households, they had, on an average, a relatively smaller household size and a much higher sex-ratio."

Confirms anecdotal evidence from Kerala.

"About 42 per cent of the population in the country were usually employed. The proportion was 44 per cent in the rural and 37 per cent in the urban."

58% of the country is not usually employed! Think about it. In the US when the unemployment rate reaches 10% there is a national crisis. Are they counting different things?

"The unemployment rate (number of person unemployed per 1000 persons in the labour force), according to usual status (ps+ss), was 17 in the rural areas and 45 in the urban areas. The unemployment rates for females are found to be higher than that for males, and highest among urban females."

Say what? There is more employment in rural than in urban India?

"In both the rural and urban areas, unemployment rate among the educated (secondary and above) was higher than that among those whose education level was lower than secondary."

Oh, now I get it. Our distaste for manual labor.

"In rural India, the proportion of ‘all’ male workers engaged in the agricultural activities declined gradually from 81 per cent in 1977-78 to 67 per cent in 2004-05. For ‘all’ female workers, the decline was less - from 88 per cent in 1977-78 to 83 per cent in 2004-05."

So women are taking up agriculture work as men move to cities?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Spend to Save?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The mantra of conservationists. In this world of limited resource, this is what every responsible person should do.

But are they really the right thing to do in the long run?

Consider the case of oil. a limited resource that is set to run out in the not-too-distant future.

Lets say a significant portion of us decide to cut down on our dependence of oil and its products. Of course, there will always be savers and spenders amongst us. What would happen?

Oil, like every other commodity, is priced by supply and demand and perceived future supply and demand. The supply would outstrip demand. Prices would drop. The spenders would find this ever more reason to be carefree in their spending habits. Perhaps enough (since there are likely to be more spenders) to undo all the savings.

Not exactly what the savers wanted!

Now, on the other hand, what if the savers did the exact opposite? Went on a spending spree. And drove prices up. Wouldn't that provide the economic incentive for some bright soul to come up with a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine? Or atleast force the spenders to rethink their spending?

P.S. Hopefully the bright soul will be successful before we are thrown into the chaos that is inevitable if a major oil shortage were in sight.

P.P.S. Doesn't this sound a bit lie the current energy price situation where developing countries are waking out of their slumber and starting to bid for an increasingly larger piece of the global resource pie?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ultra cheap pc from, where else China

Slashdot links to this techfreep article about a $125 PC planned by a company called 'ZhongKe Menglan Electronics Technology Co.' in China. At first look the specifications of this PC look pretty good for the money. Infact (and I am a bit embarassed here) it's almost as good as my old, still very much in use PC.
RAM - 256MB (same as mine)
Hard Drive - 40-60 GB (more than mine)
CPU - Godson-2 800Mhz-1Ghz (mine is a Pentium4 2Ghz)
The CPU ofcourse is the issue in ways more than one. There have been some concerns that it's a rip off of a MIPS chip from MIPS Technologies.
"However, the chip’s architecture has gotten attention around the industry for its similarities to the MIPS chip from MIPS Technologies Inc. According to market research group In-Stat, the Godson-2 is about 95-percent compatible with the MIPS R10000, which was introduced in 1995. BLX claims that similarities between the Godson and MIPS are strictly coincidental."

Well, we had heard similar accusations when Huawei and ZTE initially got into the Telecom infrastructure market. I don't see anyone talking about that anymore. So lets see how the CPU part of this saga plays out.

Anyway, back to the PC. Initially it will be priced at $160-$170 and used in schools and government offices in China. It will hit the $125 price tag if the initial rollout goes well and it goes into mass production. The PC will come preloaded with Linux and the free goodies that come with Linux. I wonder if a person who has never used a PC before will find Linux user friendly. My theory is that a lot of 'user-unfriendliness' of Linux can be attributed to our collective addiction to Windows, a problem which a completely new user wont have. But that's just idle speculation. I can't prove anything.

On similar lines I came across some old articles from DQIndia about the Rs10,000(~$220) PC that are being marketed by Xenitis India. The article in June 2005 makes it sound very promising.

"A quick comparison with some of the branded competitors brings out the magnitude of Xenitis' achievement. For an under 10K price tag, Xenitis provides a PC fuelled by a Cyrix 1 GHz chip, with 128 MB RAM; a 30 GB hard disk drive; a 52x CD drive, a floppy drive and a 15 inch color monitor. The software is Red Hat's Enterprise 3 professional version of Linux, which comes on 9 CDs that include the Open Office suite, database, e-mail tools and a browser."

But in another article a few months later it documents the practical problems involved in actually buying such a PC. A good read if you need convincing that just technically reducing the cost of something is not enough. The eco system (suppliers, distributors) to make it available also needs to be in place.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

I am in full 'Kiva'

This post started out in the comments section in response to Kuriakose's comment. But then it got too big :)

Jokes aside, the concept behind Kiva which Kuriakose correctly refers to as the '...attempts to opensource the supply side (where the cash comes from) of microfinance...' is so amazing that I felt it deserved its own post. They partner with microcredit institutions in developing countries, get profiles of credit vetted entrepreneurs from them and then enable the general public to give micro loans to them. Yes, loans not donations. By taking out commercial banks from the money raising part of the microfinance chain, (I hope) their partners can offer better interest rates to the end users. From a donor perspective, this enables people to actually see their money in action and a high probability that they will get their money back (and just lose out on the interest). I know from personal experience with Asha for Education that it's always easy to raise money through Support a Child programs as donors prefer to donate to a real person instead of to anonymous recipients. So I can imagine this program (if it can build trust) having the potential to raise lots of money. But how well it can scale will depend almost entirely on how many honest and able microcredit partners they can tie up with. Even though they are just 2 years old , they already have tie ups in about 12 countries. So that's a pretty impressive start.

The reason I am so excited about Kiva is that it's an example of how technology (in this case internet) can be used to have an real impact (making capital available) on people in the developing world. I plan to sign up as a small donor (or capital provider) just to see how it works. I will report back with details about my experience later.

PS: If you think the subject is cryptic, look up the meaning of Kiva