The Economic Times - - Power Of Ideas -

CEO, Khosla Labs Prod­uct In­dus­try Round Ta­ble (iSPIRT) think-tank re­leased a pa­per that took note of the coun­try mov­ing from “data poor to data rich.”

This was a few weeks af­ter the UIDAI plat­form Aad­haar crossed 1 bil­lion en­rol­ments. “The Aad­haar sys­tem can au­then­ti­cate 100 mil­lion trans­ac­tions per day in real time,” iSPIRT stated. The pa­per also pointed to three na­tional plat­forms – es­sen­tially ser­vices that would in time digi­tise gov­ern­ment ser­vices on a na­tional scale. These were the Goods and Ser­vices Tax (GST) Net­work, the Bharat Bill Pay­ment Sys­tem which would cover util­ity ser­vices (elec­tric­ity, wa­ter, gas, and so on), and the elec­tronic toll col­lec­tion sys­tem.

All three plat­forms come un­der the Na­tional Pay­ments Cor­po­ra­tion of In­dia (NPCI), an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for re­tail pay­ment sys­tems in In­dia. iSPIRT had helped NPCI or­gan­ise a hackathon in Mum­bai in February 2016 to build pro­to­types for har­ness­ing the Uni­fied Pay­ment In­ter­face (UPI) plat­form’s ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming in­ter­face to digi­tise bank transfers in real time. Sim­i­larly, steps were be­ing taken to open up APIs to large com­pa­nies for the other NPCI plat­forms.

On its part, iSPIRT was draw­ing the at­ten­tion of a breed of soft­ware de­vel­op­ers to the na­tional-scale op­por­tu­ni­ties ahead. It un­equiv­o­cally stated: “Data flows ben­e­fit pub­lic ser­vices and gov­ern­ments.” But even as In­dia moves to be­ing data rich, the out­reach to de­vel­op­ers – es­ti­mated to be more than 5 mil­lion in In­dia – could be fu­tile for two rea­sons.

First, gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and tra­di­tional sys­tems of, say, na­tion­alised banks have a tech­nol­ogy pro­cure­ment cul­ture that is at odds with how de­vel­op­ers build dig­i­tal so­lu­tions. While gov­ern­ment is the largest tech­nol­ogy pro­curer, pro­cure­ment con­tracts typ­i­cally have clauses that en­cour­age low­est (cost) bid­ders, which rarely spawns in­no­va­tion.

“Gov­ern­ment needs to adopt and evan­ge­lise pro-chal­lenger tools and poli­cies that re­duce bar­ri­ers to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, level-play­ing field and en­cour­age in­no­vat­ing around na­tional is­sues,” wrote Swati T Sat­pa­thy for iSPIRT in a Novem­ber 2015 pa­per ti­tled ‘Ig­nit­ing Hun­dreds of Ex­per­i­ments’.

Se­cond, in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers still have to come out in larger num­bers for the best so­lu­tions to shine. Sachin Gupta, CEO of Hack­erEarth, an­other de­vel­oper plat­form, agrees: “Gov­ern­ments may still go ahead and give projects to a TCS and Wipro, but they want to crowd­source the in­no­va­tion, pro­to­type and the whole con­cept. They want to build an ac­tive re­la­tion­ship with the tech com­mu­nity.”

These can be gov­ern­ment bod­ies at the state level, too, like the Depart­ment of Ur­ban Land Trans­port in Kar­nataka, for whom Ven­ture­sity helped with a ‘tran­sit hack’ to solve traf­fic in Ban­ga­lore with sub­mis­sions like how to en­able car­pool­ing or track pub­lic trans­port.

“The gov­ern­ment is re­ally in­ter­ested in the fi­nal prod­uct or an app they can use,” Pan­i­grahi said. For this, gov­ern­ments are will­ing to dis­trib­ute their APIs to even­tu­ally own the app. “De­vel­op­ers par­tic­i­pate in such hackathons to make it part of their port­fo­lios or ré­sumés, or be­cause they love build­ing prod­ucts, or for the prize-money.”

This is crowd­sourced in­no­va­tion. Yet, cul­tur­ally, it is hard for de­vel­op­ers and gov­ern­ments’ in­ter­ests to be aligned.


The API-driven ap­proach is based on a phi­los­o­phy in the United States that dates back to the 1960s. It a cul­ture of giv­ing pow­er­ful build­ing blocks, as op­posed to just build­ing an ac­tual so­lu­tion, said Jon­nala­gadda. A ‘so­lu­tion’ evolves into a plat­form if it can serve as ‘build­ing blocks’ for the next set of de­vel­op­ers to build on.

“A good prod­uct is also one on top of which some­thing more can be built. That has been the prin­ci­ple on which the de­vel­oper com­mu­nity has thrived,” he said. This ap­proach works well in tech­nol­ogy. “It means you are slow, but also that you are a lot more ma­ture and in­no­va­tive.”

The gov­ern­ment has got this as­pect right, by open­ing up se­cure APIs to na­tion­alscale projects and sys­tems. But while they have pro­vided such build­ing blocks, they have al­ready de­cided the path to meet goals like fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion. Mo­bile apps like BHIM (Bharat In­ter­face for Money) are be­com­ing the de­fault mode of reach­ing the masses. Many ob­servers agree with the smart­phone as a medium for In­dia, but de­vel­op­ers feel web browsers are more se­cure than apps. ILLUSTRATION: ANIMISHA GRAPHIC: YOGEESH MH


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