2.5 years.

I joined the Karnataka Learning Partnership in May 2012. We just launched version 11.0 of our web platform.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now. Recently, it marked 2.5 years of my association with the Karnataka Learning Partnership. This is not my going away post and I’m not going away. I want to talk about how amazing the environment is for someone entirely new to the public education space. I want to talk about how extraordinary the team is. I want to talk about how different our processes are. And I want to talk about how patience, understanding and teamwork will go a long way.

If you haven’t heard about the Akshara Foundation or the Karnataka Learning Partnership, KLP is incubated at Akshara Foundation and they both work closely to improve schooling in Karnataka. KLP does great amounts of work on streamlining data collection processes, building dashboards and acting as an interface between several organisations in the education space in Karnataka and India.

When I joined KLP, it was a team of three – me, Megha Vishwanath, and Shivangi Desai, headed by the inimitable Gautam John. My role was largely around organising the wealth of spatial data that we just collected and collated from various sources. Wrangling dirty data and organising things makes me happy. KLP has a pretty strong software infrastructure history. Even though Python and PostgreSQL made it to the mix, there were other unmaintained open source software and a lot of unseen complexity in the code base. To be true to my open map heart, I rewrote the maps infrastructure. It was mostly a matter of throwing in couple of new end-points to the API and writing the front-end in JavaScript. Pretty basic. I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the madness of our existing API, so I made sure I touched little of the legacy code base. Couple of months down the line, I built a dashboard for showing SSLC performance. We worked on an array of projects right after – DISE dashboard, reports, status and a lot more. We were quite sure about an overhaul of our infrastructure and soon started talking about it. I was fairly open to the idea, but concerned, considering that there are only 3 of us and a rewrite is a lot of work.

Today, we are seven people, people I must mention because I owe them so much for understanding how diverse a team could be and accepting the fact that everybody is trying – Gautam John, Bibhas Debnath, Sanjay Bhangar, Vinayak Hegde, Brijesh Poojary, Deviprasad Adiga. Megha and Shivangi did much of the tough work of getting all the things in place for us to start. Everything we have built is based on what we have had. If there is a new feature, we have made sure that all of us thoroughly understand that it is required and how it should work. Our team is geographically disconnected – between Bombay, Calcutta, Pune and Bangalore. This is not the only thing we are doing. Each of us are involved in several other exciting projects and have weird schedules that barely overlap. To me, it is amazing to see how we have pulled this new platform in under five months. We have met twice in the process and rest of it happened over video conferences and telephone calls. I personally have had a very rough time over the last two months, which was when we were gearing up towards the crunch period. I was moved by the way the team managed to make sure that I was involved in a very limited capacity, but made sure that what needs to be done was taken care of.

To be honest, rewrites are hard. I try to avoid them as much as possible but when software becomes a liability, you have to make sure it works and continues to do so. Rewrites are usually a fairly intense process, because you are never starting from a clean slate. For the most part, you have a team which doesn’t quite understand most of how the legacy system works. Disconnect within the team is not uncommon, but it’s difficult. I have seen how the seven of us accommodated each of the ideas on the table. It’s about listening and understanding each other. It’s about respecting and realising that the other person is also committed to building the best product. It’s about being polite and being patient. And finally it’s about embracing the fact that there are only three certainties – life, death and fucked up data.

Update: We also work with some of the best technologists on and off, most recently Vamsee Kanakala and Rahul Gonsalves along with his team at Uncommon.

OpenStreetMap as Infrastructure – The Fifth Elephant, Bangalore, 2014

I spoke at the premier data conference in the country yesterday, the Fifth Elephant run by HasGeek, about using OpenStreetMap as infrastructure for geographic datasets and applications featuring Moabi – a collaborative mapping platform for monitoring natural resources extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Find the summary of the narration here and a more detailed outline here. The slide deck is below.

Download (PDF, 6.12MB)

 

 

‘He who controls the map, controls the future’ – On Maps and Politics.

Last week, I spoke at the National Institute of Design, Bangalore about maps and how they involve in politics. This is a topic that I have been wanting to explore. Many thanks to Riju and Sanjay for all their inputs. Here’s the slide deck.

Bringing together map enthusiasts in Bangalore.

A few months back, Kaustubh and I started GeoBLR – Bangalore’s monthly spatial gathering. Few weeks back we did the fifth meetup. I have been wanting to write why I’m organising GeoBLR and more importantly, why I am taking it slow.

We started off GeoBLR to keep it quite different from other events in town. To begin with, we don’t necessarily have someone speaking at all the events. The GeoBLR events are more open in terms of what we want to do. GeoBLR runs closely with the DataMeet on issues centric to spatial data and maps. We had several discussions around the spatial data situation in India and how building proper relationships at the government and non-government level is important for the community to gain access to the datasets.

There has never been a space in Bangalore to talk about issues like this. When proprietary companies around the world are trying to be the single source of ground truth, opening map data is a critical task. Improving OpenStreetMap is at the core of our agenda. GeoBLR will be a space for people to come and talk about maps, discover new tools, identify missing datasets, find them, and solve spatial data related issues.

I have been getting fair amount of requests to turn GeoBLR into a series of workshop and I’m not keen on that idea. GeoBLR, in a way, is an experiment for me. From simple things like ‘which day of the week/month is best for people to attend the event’ to ‘what model the event should focus’, I’m learning a lot and subsequent events get more clarity.

If you want to learn more, join us!

Crowdsouricng Data: Strategies, Stories, Tools.

I was a facilitator at the Techcamp Bangalore where I introduced several strategies of crowdsourcing data to the broad group of non-profit organisations. My idea was to walk the participants through two stories that I’m personally part of – Akshara Foundation and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – by asking four key questions – What data to collect, from whom to collect, how to collect and, how to verify. We had some interesting conversations at the event but most of them were in to learn about more tools. I put together a small slide deck and a repository for collecting tools and reading material.

Data and Maps workshop for IT for Change, Bangalore.

Few weeks back, I ran a three day workshop for the developers at IT for Change in Bangalore. They have been quite involved in OpenStreetMap by mobilising graduate students in various towns of Karnataka to map public infrastructure. Apart from this spatial data, they have collected demographics about these towns on several aspects. The workshop was intended to give them a complete coverage about geospatial technology, data and representation. The outline and code are available on Github.

Conversations at the Mozilla Summit 2013.

I was privileged to attend the Mozilla Summit this year in Santa Clara. Over the period of three days, I had some interesting conversation with people from different technology backgrounds and this post is more of a self reference for me to come back to.

Robert Kaiser and I had an interesting conversation about his maps application for FirefoxOS. His app uses just HTML Canvas to visualise the tiles on the client side and also take care of all the interactions – no third party libraries.

I grabbed breakfast with Mark Giffin one morning and we started talking about rendering indic language and making them print ready. At Akshara, we use several techniques like Phantom.js to achieve this. Mark suggested that we should conside DITA. DITA provides comprehensive solutions for typesetting.

Amir Aharoni of the Wikimedia Foundation joined our discussion and introduced Firefox as part of the solution. Pointing out that Firefox works very well in rendering indic language from his experience working with the language team at Wikimedia. That’s most of what we are doing at Akshara right now, but there are local dialects which need more work.

I have known James Hughman for couple of years now, since his visit to India for the Droidcon. He joined Mozilla recently and I was excited by the fact that I would get to see him at the summit. We spoke about the books that we are reading, the new DRM policies and so much.

Toby Elliot introduced the new location services that Mozilla is building. I had  a chat with him about how we can use OpenStreetMap data and probably help improve the infrastructure. There’s a very exciting email thread going on between us right now to figure out how we can get this going.

Bill Walker was curious about the new maps project that we are doing in Congo. His brother being an archeologist does a lot of mapping and have been considering building platforms for collaborative mapping. We shared and talked about some of the existing systems and how we can adapt them for the custom usecases.

There are more people that I have spoken to than the above, but definitely these are the conversations that will continue and probably make way for more posts!

The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas of 1961.

I acquired the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas of 1961, first edition, yesterday at a very old bookstore in Bangalore.

cover

It’s an amazing addition to my collection of maps. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any information about the atlas on the Internet.

The atlas was ‘planned’ under the direction of the famous geographer Frank Debenham. With involvement of the British and Foreign Bible Society, British Broadcasting Corporation, FOA, WHO, Information Service of India and numerous other organizations and individuals, the atlas is spread out in four sections.

Paradise is somewhere in the far east. Jerusalem is the center of all nations and countries, and the world itself is a flat disk surrounded by oceans of water. So the monks, map-makers of the Middle Ages, saw the world they lived in.

Jerusalem was considered to be the center of the world, while the geographic center was first calculated in 1864, revised in 1973 and finalised in 2003 by Andrew J. Woods. The atlas attempts to fix these wrong notions by collecting the sum of knowledge from the explorations and scientific discoveries at that time.

The first section called the Face of the World portrays some fascinating relief maps like the ones below. They are structurally and geographically to the utmost detail that I’ve seen in any of the old representations.

reliefreleif 2

The atlas employs various projections like the Conic, Lambert’s Azimuthal Equal Area, Bonne and the Van der Grinten projection. The following map of oceans is better depicted in the Van der Grinten projection.

vandergrintens

And the following interesting illustration about continental drift.

continents

There are more to the atlas than these. I hope to post them when I find time to read through this amazing record of history.

 

The Last 30 days.

I can’t believe that I’m sitting in my Bangalore home and writing this post after what happened in the last 30 days. I don’t have words to thank all those amazing people who took care of me over these days to bring me back and bouncing. Not quite there yet, but in a while. But I’m alive, for that matter.

I was between Italy and Germany during June 23 – July 9. We had an amazing time at the Info Activism Camp and later in Berlin with Kaustubh and Rome with Tin. It was fantastic. Towards the end of the trip I was quite tired from a sunstroke and irregular fever. On my flight back the fever decided to test the case and did the trick. 109 degree Fahrenheit with rigor. I arrived in Bangalore the next morning and went straight to a hospital.

From there until the last week, I have been to 4 hospitals, consulted 9 doctors, subjected to 7 blood diagnosis, 4 different radio-imaging, 3 antibiotics and a lot of stress. This was no fun. Not to any extent. I’ve cried and I’ve seen my mum crying at the same time. I was struck by an unidentifiable fever. I’ve lost weight and hair, and for whatever reasons my heart is heavy and life is rough.

It took a while to identify that I was suffering from a precursor of Enteric Fever. I’ve recovered now, though hopes weren’t too high in my mind. Time heals and patience count.

I want to thank Rahul – for coming over to check on me while I was down in Bangalore, staying over without sleep, taking care of me and taking me to another hospital the next day. I want to thank my mum and dad. I’ll easily run out of words here. What they went through is nothing compared to the pain I suffered. My aunts and brothers – for sending me food and supporting mum whenever she was alone in the hospital. I want to thank Gautam – for taking care of everything so that I could stay away from work as long as I wanted, checking on me and sending me one of my favorite books when I was getting bored. Francesca and Ashima – for talking to me when I wanted to. RijuShashank and Ayesha for letting me know that they miss me and I need to be all right soon.

And thank you everyone – your prayers and wishes helped me through.

Designing a New Map Portal for Karnataka Learning Partnership.

Wrote a rather detail post about the new maps for Karnataka Learning Partnership on the geohackers.in blog.

The map is an important part of our project, action and process because it serves as the pivot point of navigation. I will quickly talk about the data and tools before we discuss the design aspects.

We have a fairly large dataset of schools in Karnataka. The name of the school, location, number of girls and boys etc. in a database. Fortunately, the data was clean and properly stored in a PostgreSQL database with PostGIS extensions. Most of my task was to modify the API to throw GeoJSON to the client using the ST_AsGeoJSON function and export the data.

read more…