BRIDGING THE DEVELOPER-DIGITAL INDIA DIVIDE Coding for India
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.
INSIDE THE DICHOTOMY
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
NOTE: ALL FIGURES OF CY 2015 SOURCE: AVENDUS