Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Rating for People's Representatives!

Many of us are now used to rating goods and services. The dosa you had in a small restaurant seemed to be the best you have eaten in some time? You write a few lines of review for a site that rates restaurants and give it 4.5 or 5 stars! You thought the driver of the Uber or Ola cab you took to the station could have been more helpful. Ok, give him only three stars!
What about you CM, or your MLA, or your councillor? Why not rate him on a number of dimensions? Voting for/against them once in five years is not good enough. We ought to share our opinions about their deeds and failures almost every month.
The way a leader is to be judged is no doubt very important, but as this is a blog in the field of science and technology, our first priority would be technical issues in designing a rating website. I would suggest the following design objectives:
Credibility: it should be difficult to fool the website and manipulate the data going in
Authentication: The site should ideally work on “one citizen – one vote” principle
Privacy: People who provide ratings may not want some shady company or hackers, to sell a record of their ratings. A good design involves careful consideration of privacy on a site which insists on authentication. One simple design would be to have ratings come in only through SMS messages. No prior registration is required. We can ensure that a cell phone can vote on an issue only once. It can give a rating only to the persons/offices in the state from where it sends a message. I will assume that most users do not care too much about hackers finding out how one’s cell phone voted. After all, in most countries, we are not so scared of the government as to keep our political opinions a secret.       
Simplicity: The system should be based on a good trade off – not too complex to drive users away and not so simple that it can be fooled easily
Accessibility: The system should be accessible from a smart phone. This will deny access to a significant fraction of the Indian population, but it would enable you to build a working system easily. The trade off in this dimension could be examined and different choices can be explored by different groups. What is the value of a smart phone when the votes are cast by SMS? The user can use a smart phone to read the web pages which will help the users to select the issue/person they wish to rate. If the web pages support it, they could answer multiple questions giving answers in the form of a numeral in the range 1-5. The system could summarize answers to six questions, for example, as 325-45 meaning that the six questions were answered as follows, giving ratings on a scale of 5, where 5 is excellent and 1 is very poor:

Question 1: Answer 3
Question 2: Answer 2
Question 3: Answer 5
Question 4: Skipped
Question 5: Answer 4
Question 6: Answer 5

The website would also give a unique ID to the person or office rated, for example SRM for Srinivasan Ramani. The user has to send an SMS to a given number reading, for example as
   SRM 325-45
Why send an SMS, and not submit the answers on the Webpage itself? The security mechanism provided by the cellular network identifies the sender’s cell phone number reliably. In my opinion it is reliable enough for the application and is simple enough to implement. It is also worth noting that the cellular network sends with the SMS the sender’s phone number, the time of sending, and the location from which the message is sent. A computer receiving the messages can use all this information to process them suitably.
The answers I have given to some of the design questions above are not binding on you. You may make your choices. A system like this makes sense only when it operates with a large number of users. So, you need to plan for scalability and reliability. The systems should work round the clock, round the year. Lastly, you need to decide on what your business model would be? Who would pay the bills after the system scales up?
Now, we can turn to the nature of comments and ratings we would like to collect. I have some suggestions about what questions we can ask about representatives and service providing offices but again, in your project, you are free to make your own choices. Please treat my questions as examples what you could ask.
Questions about a people's representative
·        Is he a visionary leader?  (Here and in the following, I merely use “he” to refer to the representative. It can obviously be a “she”).
·        Has he been effective in getting a few major problems solved?
·        Is he known for his integrity?
·        Does he have cronies or sons who are not exactly assets to society?
·        Does he communicate his ideas well?
·        Does he do this frequently?
·        Has he kept his electoral promises?
·        Are you likely to vote for him next time?

Questions about specific issues
·        Should your state have prohibition?
·        Should we ban children below ten being given rides on two-wheelers on city roads or highways?
Questions about specific offices that provide a service
·        Is a given bank branch helpful and efficient?
·        Is a given college a good place to send students to?
·        Is there corruption in a given hospital?
As, I see it, each of these questions is a like raw nerve. The pain-signals of our lives travel through these nerves, but do they bother the person who is responsible for the pain? Usually no! The nerve does not run far enough to touch him.  
Making the ratings public, and highlighting them during election time, are important to make the system sit up and take notice. 
Getting people to rate their representatives and their governments is not exactly new. You can see what other websites offer in this area. Visit
There is a lot of room for innovation, but the basic idea is simple: public feedback makes the high and mighty accountable. App-based taxicab services are responsive to people's problems. We should demand that people's representatives and government services be equally responsive.

Srinivasan Ramani

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Use of dictation software to teach speech and hearing-impaired


There are millions of deaf children in India. Visit Varshney S. Deafness in India. Indian J Otol, 2016; 22:73-6. http://www.indianjotol.org/text.asp?2016/22/2/73/182281
It is generally believed that those who are hearing-impaired need not be speech impaired. They  cannot hear themselves speak and cannot hear spoken responses from others they are talking to; so, they fail to get feedback on their own speech. This absence of feedback is considered the major factor in the hearing-impaired usually not learning to speak. This raises an interesting question: can we encourage students with this problem to speak into a cell phone running a dictation app to get useful feedback on how their speech is perceived by others? A cellphone with a suitable app is not automatically going to solve the problem. A capable teacher, at home or at school, would usually be important to teach the hearing-impaired to use the tool. Further, the learner should have a working knowledge of English.  The ability to learn more will depend upon the level of language skills at that time. So, we must expect that the side-by-side learning of English and use of this tool will be a process that will take months or years of sustained work. Trained teachers will of course speed up this learning a lot. Visit https://www.audiologyonline.com/articles/auditory-oral-education-teaching-deaf-1248
Dictation software of pretty good quality is available on devices such as iPhones and Android phones. I believe you can get cell phones costing less than Rs 4000 (less than USD 70), that can run dictation software. It would be valuable to choose a rugged phone which can stand a few drops, as a broken cell phone can often kill the user’s hope and enthusiasm. A display with a diagonal dimension of  4 inches or more would be useful for this application.
We have to recognise two advances: improvements in the performance of dictation software and wide availability of cell phones to run such software. Also significant is the availability of apps such as WhatsApp that take spoken text messages and send them off to other cell phone users. We empower the hearing-impaired when we give them the ability to send easily created text messages through their cell phones. This enables them to communicate with friends and family irrespective of distance, and without struggling to make a voice call.
The technology discussed above works equally well in enabling people to communicate to the hearing-impaired. The speaker can dictate into any cell phone what they want to say and show the text to the “listener”.


It is worth noting that the cost of the hardware involved is significantly less than that of a good-quality hearing aid, or the cost of a cochlear implant. This is not to argue against hearing aids which have their own value. We should visualise hearing-impaired students using hearing aids as well as cell phones equipped with speech recognition apps. They will complement each other, and together they would enable the users to cope with a whole variety of situations. It is worth noting that hearing aids do not completely solve the problem of poor hearing. Very often hearing-impaired students use affordable hearing aids which do not provide the necessary high quality of user experience. Complementing them with speech recognition apps on cell phones is a good way to to reduce the problems faced by the students, and to speed up their learning.


Can we use an Indian language in this context? I have only focused on English in this article, but Google Docs is able to cope with 40 different languages (as of March 2018), irrespective of your using it on a computer or on (an Android)  cell phone. The one Indian language included in this list of 40 is Hindi. However, I have not tried voice typing in Hindi with Google Docs. Any user interested in this should expect to spend some time learning relevant information and skills. Postings on the Web say that your Google Doc app should be up-to-date and that you should go to settings, then languages, and add Hindi. I am sure that good dictation software will become available in all major Indian languages over the years.  

Lastly, the most wide-spread use of dictation software in India would be among users with normal hearing who wish to improve the way they speak English.


Srinivasan Ramani

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The search drone problem


Imagine that a search drone is on the look-out for a submarine that is careful to avoid detection. The controllers of the drone have been given a convex polygonal area on the surface of the sea and told that the drone should search the area inside that polygon. Assume that the drone flies at 150 KM per hour and the polygonal space covers roughly an area of 60,000 Sq. KM. Further assume that the drone flies at a height of 1 KM above the sea and its sensors can detect the submarine if it is inside a circle, 1 KM diameter, with its centre directly beneath the drone.  
Your task is to program a flight pattern for the drone. You can assume the availability of a function in(X, Y) in the control computer, that returns 1 if the drone’s current position (X, Y) is inside the polygon and 0 otherwise.
It is desirable that the drone’s path be relatively unpredictable, and that all places inside the polygon have equal chances of being visited to the extent possible.
Can you write a program that would plot the scan pattern showing how it would fly the drone over the given area? Use any graphical display software to provide a dynamic display.
Assume that the maximum underwater speed of the submarine is 10 KM per hour when it is trying to evade detection. What would be a good strategy for the submarine to avoid detection under these circumstances? Assume that the submarine gets to sense where the drone is, if it gets within 4 KM of horizontal distance. Try programming this strategy and show the path of the submarine on the display in a different color. 

Srinivasan Ramani

Thursday, October 19, 2017

An app to manage greetings over the Internet



We have been hearing about air pollution in New Delhi, with the Diwali crackers being the last straw. Most of us suffer from an online phenomenon that is a comparable nuisance.

Someone starts with a list of about a hundred colleagues and sends them all a common greeting the day before the New Year, Diwali, or something like that. The hundred of us blindly “reply to all” in the list sending our own greetings to everyone on the list. Then every one of us spends the festive occasion deleting the greetings received. Ten thousand minutes wasted. The emails serve one purpose – it tells the recipients that the sender is alive and is fit to use email.

Then comes greetings from your bank, the shop where you bought lettuce, some miscellaneous jeweler, and hundred others sending you greetings on the occasion. Many of them send you birthday greetings! Very touching to get a birthday greeting from your bank! The same bank that, when asked for a form, tells you that your request would be attended to in three working days!

There can be many ways of tackling this near-spam enterprise. The best would be for email software to identify pure greeting messages and put them in a separate folder. The software can make a consolidated list of senders available for inspection. You should be able to click on a sender’s name and send a message prepared by you in advance – one designed to be sent to all those who greet you. An email generated by a click should be going only to a single person, unless you indicate that it should be otherwise.

The solution could also be in the form of a well-designed app which people could use for sending greetings, in place of email. Would users be interested in one more app? Can we make it attractive enough to find a big clientele?
There are many possibilities. The app could possibly be branded in the name of a sponsor like Red Cross, UNICEF or other NGO and be popularized by them sending URLs through email. The apps could be linked to an e-wallet like PayTM by the user who downloads it. Every time the users send greetings, the app could transfer a pre-set sum of money, like say Rs 5 or 10, to the NGO. The app’s development and operations cost could be paid by an e-commerce site like “Favorites of my city”, and the app could offer a feature for the users to send gift packets through the e-commerce site when they send a greeting.

The app could be enhanced in many other ways. For instance, there could be a provision for the user to send a canned short message, such as the following:

“The kids are growing up well. Rama choreographed a dance item for the Diwali event at her school. She also fooled her grandma by making a phone call, in a voice resembling that of an uncle. Vinay is busy building his model planes.”
The app could also allow the user to type in a few lines of a customized message to selected recipients.

Srinivasan Ramani

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Putting STOP signs on the Google Map


Can we put up traffic signs on something like Google maps using a suitable app to display them to drivers of vehicles at the appropriate time? You might wish to experiment, starting with
 

The other day my wife and I saw a distressing scene at a street corner; three girls who were sharing a scooter had been in a traffic accident. A car running along an intersecting street had hit them and one girl had a bleeding injury on her face. There was crowd around them offering help. The car involved was there on the side of the street and a young man who seemed to be the one who had driven that car was involved in helping the unhappy girls.

It is often pointed out that traffic is chaotic in India. Part of this is due to the absence of any enforcement of traffic discipline. Part of this due to the absence of essential traffic signs such as a STOP sign to show that traffic on the intersecting street have the right of way. Millions of vehicles rush through intersections free of any discipline. Any aggressive driver gets his way, till the day he crosses the path of an even more aggressive one!

Many drivers have a navigational aid mounted on their dashboard or windshield. The map app will use stored data to identify when your vehicle is reaching an intersection and if you have the right of way there. If not, it would flash a stop sign. You would bring your vehicle to a complete stop for a moment and then cross the intersection carefully. The app could warn of speed breakers, prohibited turns, one way streets, your exceeding the speed limit etc.

Do virtual street signs absolve the local government of their responsibility to display real-world signs? No, all they can do is to increase your chances of being alive as and when they fulfil their responsibilities!

Joking apart, there is a necessity for the government to get involved. They should participate in any project in this area to put relevant information on maps. They should ensure that there is a standard for encoding this information. The basic information should be made available in the public domain. What about the app developer? Why should he spend a lot of effort to build this national infrastructure? Well, we will give him the rights to display "paying" signs in addition to traffic signs - like the following:


What about liabilities of the app developer? That is no problem; they will show you a link named Terms and Conditions. As usual, you would ignore it and click on "I accept". The 5000-word T & C would include a line absolving the app developer of all and any responsibilities! (Warning! It may not be as simple as that! But you can worry about it when you have a prototype to show the lawyer!)

Lastly, what are the limits to this technology? Will one day even traffic signals will be run off cyber space? Data from users of navigation devices gives statistical information to servers as to how many vehicles cross which intersections and in which direction. Can one use such data from these servers to drive real-world traffic signals in a highly adaptive manner? 

xxxxx

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Adarsha’s Star



I believe I have given enough time to readers to examine AJ's answer and to discuss it. Over a hundred people have visited the post above. So, it is time now for me to comment on the answer.

AJ (Adarsha Joisa) is right on both counts - the main answer as well as the answer to the sub-question. I had referred to a list of 92 stars brighter than magnitude 2.49. One of these can be said to be “nearest” to Adarsha’s Direction, defined as the intersection of the local meridian and the ecliptic at 6 AM that day. But the star may not be very close to the direction, and may even be more than ten degrees away. 

So, let us change the way we define Adarsha’s Star: On a given day, it will be the star closest to Adarsha’s Direction provided it is in the list of the 170 brightest stars (Visit http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/bright.html ). The dimmest stars in this list are of apparent magnitude 3.0.

The direction of the earth’s orbital velocity around the Sun changes even during the day. So, what is Adarsha’s Star on a given day at 6 AM in Tokyo may not be the one that is Adarsha’s Star at local time 6 AM in Los Angeles on the same day. I am not going to worry about refining the designation of Adarsha’s Star any further now, particularly when none of the 170 brightest stars may be within 5 degrees of Adarsha’s Direction at a given moment.

Let us ask what the purpose of this exercise is. We want to be able to point in a direction in the sky and say that it is the direction of earth’s orbital velocity. Ten degrees of accuracy is good enough for this purpose.

What about planets? The five planets visible to the unaided eye are useful in visualizing what we are hurtling towards at a given time. They have high visibility and are always close to the ecliptic.
Let us look at the sub-question. Many of the 92 stars above magnitude 2.49 are well away from the ecliptic. Since the ecliptic is fairly stable with respect to the stellar background, many of them have no chance in my lifetime, or yours, of being Adarsha’s Star!

What is Adarsha’s Direction today? At Bangalore, the Local Sidereal Time (LST)at 6 AM today (March 9, 2017) was 16 h 53 minutes, as per https://www.iiap.res.in/personnel/reks/software/javascript/calclst.php
(All points in the sky having Right Ascension = LST are on the local meridian, by definition). I looked up a sky map to find a point on the ecliptic which had the right ascension of 16 H 53 Minutes approximately.  I found that this point is within five degrees of the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. That much accuracy will do for me. I am now very happy to know I am hurtling at 110,000 kilometers per hour, roughly towards Antares!
I hope that any policeman who stops me for speeding would have a sense of proportion, and not bother about an extra twenty kilometers per hour or so!    

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What are we hurtling towards?





Outline of Virgo Author: AugPi at en.wikipedia

This is not a project idea, but an interesting question. It will help you exercise your reasoning and visualizing skills.
 
At any moment, the earth, as a whole, has a velocity in relation to the solar system due to its orbital motion around the Sun. Consider the stars as providing a frame of reference. If you represent earth’s velocity as a vector, it is pointing roughly in the direction of some star. Given that there are 92 relatively bright stars in the sky (the Wikipedia lists 92 stars brighter than magnitude 2.49), it would be nice to find a way of mapping the earth’s orbital velocity on any given night to one of these 92 stars. Then we can tell anyone interested that the earth is hurtling that night roughly in the direction of that star.  What a simple way to do this mapping? 

The first satisfactory answer posted as a comment on this blog will earn the author an honor. If the first name of the author is, say Herman, we will name star concerned as “Herman’s Star”. (Don’t make a mistake; “Herman” is used only to give an example. The star is going to be named after you!) A second clarification: Herman’s Star is not one particular star. At any given moment, there is one star which qualifies to be called thus. Over a period of time, different stars would qualify to be called Herman’s Star, one after another. To use another example, on any given date there is one Mayor in a given city, but the Mayor is replaced periodically.
A sub-question: Can every one of the 92 stars mentioned above be a Herman’s Star during your lifetime?

Let me not say more, I do not want to give you too many hints!

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Your fingerprint is not your own! Meaning of privacy in India!



A website I often use made an offer recently – a free SIM that I could use for free for a couple of months. My wife was interested and we decided to try it. Everyone has heard of the well-known promotional offer by a cell phone company.

I filled in a form online, which said to keep the Aadhar card ready and wait for the delivery rider. He turned up in a day and asked if we had received an SMS message. We had and my wife brought her cell phone to read out that SMS. Meanwhile, the man pulled out a fingerprint reader. What was that for? He said that she should have her fingerprint recorded and that their system would get it verified. We said we did not wish to give the finger print as we were not confident that it would be safely handled. Instead we offered other ID and address proof and were willing to give a Xerox copy. The man said that would not be acceptable and we spoke to his supervisor about it over phone. The supervisor said that “this” was a government scheme and the alternative was not acceptable.

In that case, we said, we did not want the SIM!

The Aadhar card was devised by well-meaning people who had thought of various safeguards to avoid misuse. However, this is a country in which privacy means little. A person sharing a train ride could strike up a conversation with you and within minutes, ask you where you work and at what salary!
No wonder, anyone could walk in and have you give them your fingerprint to be used by some app on their cellphone! How does the customer know that the fingerprint will not be stored and used on a different occasion to “prove” his/her presence at some strange place? Does the law provide any safeguards? After all, the delivery man need not even be a staff member of the cell phone company, but be an agent hired on daily wages. You may not even learn his name or ask for his ID.

This poses major risks in a country in which over 25% of adults are illiterate.

We need researchers to find ways and means of making identification possible without any risk of abuse of the technology.  

Friday, January 27, 2017

Secure voting Protocols for Online Elections

Please refer to http://obvioustruths.blogspot.in/2017/01/failure-modes-of-internet-based.html for a short post on risks in online voting. This is a follow-up article discussing a few interesting technical issues. The post quoted above deals with the current state of the art and says

“A service provider usually makes available the software and related infrastructure for running an election to the entity holding the election over the Internet. The service provider is selected to be a trusted partner, and is beyond suspicion”.

It is quite unnecessary and undesirable to use systems that require the service provider to share secrets with the voters. A cryptographic technique named  
enables voters to encrypt and publish their votes. Election results can be computed using the encrypted votes without decrypting individual votes. We can expect such techniques to be in practical use in future. A whole variety of safeguards are, however, required to ensure that an election is carried out in a fair and transparent manner without any mischief-makers being able to alter the results.

Discussions of some of the considerations involved can be found in
Swiss Online Voting Protocol  (select from the displayed page the PDF document with this name and download it) and in 
Creating an online service and an app for conducting secure elections and persuading organizations to use them is not mere technical work. It requires entrepreneurial spirit, management & marketing abilities in addition to technical knowledge and skills. A student project involving a team of three or four students could address this problem.

Straightforward engineering is not sufficient to implement a system in which a service provider does not have to share secrets. The need for advanced cryptographic techniques and the need to design a system free of weaknesses make this project a special one. If it was any simpler, many software houses would be marketing their solutions by now.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Can You Invent a Better World through Technology?

  


(Don’t worry! The competition described below is quite different from the one illustrated by the photograph above!)

IEEE Computer Society offers you an exciting opportunity to participate in a global student competition. Students are invited to create an innovative solution, based on the IEEE Computer Society 2022 report, that will solve a real-world issue. Visit


The IEEE report mentioned above focuses on 3D printing, big data and analytics, open intellectual property movement, massively online open courses, security cross-cutting issues, universal memory, 3D integrated circuits, photonics, cloud computing, computational biology and bioinformatics, device and nanotechnology, sustainability, high-performance computing, the Internet of Things, life sciences, machine learning and intelligent systems, natural user interfaces, networking and interconnectivity, quantum computing, software-defined networks, multicore, and robotics for medical care. Visit

Surely, the world will change a lot in the coming years and the 23 technologies covered in the IEEE Report will contribute to much of that change. Your challenge is to visualize an innovative solution based on some of these technologies and describe it briefly. Reward to the winner?  Travel expenses and some money!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Making Small Payments Work



Cashless payments are getting a lot of attention nowadays, but have you seen an auto not affiliated to Ola which accepts a cashless payment? I haven’t seen one! I believe that the notion of cashless payments is a bit forbidding for a significant fraction of the people, including many auto drivers. When I talk about auto drivers, it includes people manning small shops as well. I had filed a related post earlier. Visit

A society that does not facilitate cashless transactions is a senseless society. The issue is not merely one of black money; it is also about avoiding waste of people’s time.

Why do so many of our people insist on continuing to use cash? I believe that that technical people involved should study the difficulties new users of technology face and work to eliminate these difficulties. Using technology should make transactions easier, not harder! The app on a mobile phone should require very little from the customer making a payment or the driver receiving it. You should be able to touch the app’s icon, point the phone’s camera at the auto’s meter or a similar display in a shop and touch the icon a second time. That should transfer money from your bank account to the recipient’s bank account or digital wallet. Who has a wallet, who uses a bank account, what is the name of the bank, etc., should be irrelevant at the moment the transaction occurs. Neither the customer nor the recipient of the payment should have to enter any numbers or addresses into a phone.

Character recognition is robust enough to let the app read off the amount to be paid as displayed; the app should similarly read the recipient’s Unified Payments Interface address from a sticker on the meter. (For information on UPI, visit Unified Payments Interface). 

While the front end described above has to be implemented, UPI already provides you the infrastructure to support it. I believe that student projects can easily achieve the goal of demonstrating such a user-friendly front-end for cashless transactions, integrated into the UPI network. A word for those who wish to carry out this project: print information to be read by the app using an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) font. This may not be necessary if you use a standardized font carefully chosen for the purpose, but it may simplify your task.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Research related to financial inclusion


                              A socio-economic survey camp, Howrah, West Bengal
                           Report by Devinder Sharma, http://indiatogether.org/poverty-in-rural-india-poverty 
                                          Picture: Wikimedia Commons
There is a desire in India that the country should soon become a “cashless economy”. It is important that researchers in the fields of banking, commerce, management, ethnography, design, computer science should look into the problems that need to be addressed in taking banking to the poor and the illiterate.

The following questions are worth studying in this context:
What are the skills and knowledge required to operate a bank account, to use a debit card, and to use an ATM? Can any literate person manage these tasks? What level of literacy does one require? Can we do surveys to find out if people with low levels of education have (or do not have) useful access to banking? What are the practices for issuing cheque-books, debit cards etc.? Have any studies answering questions like these? Where have they been published? 

These are problems of major interest in India. “India currently has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world with 287 million”, said a 2014 report in “The Hindu” newspaperhttp://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-illiterate-population-largest-in-the-world-says-unesco-report/article5631797.ece

“A 2015 Unesco report said that in terms of absolute numbers, India - with 28.7 crore illiterates - was the country with the largest number of adults without basic literacy skills in 2010-11 compared to 2000-01 when it had 30.4 crore illiterates”. Visit http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Literacy-rate-up-but-so-is-illiteracy/articleshow/50749744.cms

A publication by the Indian Banks Association said “Normally no cheque book facility is provided to illiterate persons and blind persons. However, to meet periodic repayment of retail loans, utility bills etc. we will consider issuing of cheque book with safeguards to protect your interest”. Visit http://www.iba.org.in/bcsbi_code.asp and look for the paragraph with the heading “8.1.5 Special Accounts”.

Compare the change mentioned in the Unesco/Times-of-India reference cited above. Illiteracy declined by only 1.7% from 30.4% to 28.7% over the first decade of the 21st century. We hear the phrase “financial inclusion” fairly frequently. Unless the plight of the 28.7 Crore is well understood and documented, it would be difficult to extend the benefit of banks accounts, ATMs and cards to them. We should also find out if all those that are said to be literate do in fact benefit from banking. Are there several crores among them who find banking too intimidating to use in any significant manner?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Using ATMs to do currency tracking





                                   Photo: "ProjectManhattan", From Wikimedia, 
          Published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0license.

This post is a sequel to the one at http://newstudentresearch.blogspot.in/2016/11/the-real-big-data-sources-and-laundries.html I will assume that the reader has read that post before reading this one.

Most ATMs do not keep track of who was issued which currency note. Here I will argue that this can be done with suitable software modifications. Let me make one question at the outset. Limits set for withdrawals and deposits using ATMs do not permit large transactions. So, why bother about ATM transactions? The answer is that not including ATMs in surveillance could create loopholes that would be quickly exploited. For instance, that a fair amount of “black money” is likely to be “white-washed” by using paid intermediaries to deposit smaller amounts (say, Rs 40,000 each) into their own bank accounts. These will be withdrawn later and given back to the holders of black money. So, ATM transactions should also be covered by currency tracking. How can this be done?

Currency notes are loaded into ATMs in multiple trays. New currency notes being delivered to banks can be in tray-sized stacks with contiguous serial numbers. Old notes to be loaded into ATM trays can be counted by modified currency counting machines (CCMs) so that modified ATM software can keep track of what high denomination notes were issued to which customer. Most computations and data storage can be done on centralized servers on a network that drives the ATMs. This will require that each ATM reports to a central server before a transaction how many high denomination notes are remaining in each tray loaded into it. They should also report how many high denomination notes are issued to which customer from which tray, every time a withdrawal takes place. The ATM need not handle the serial numbers at all, as they will be stored on the server. So, if an ATM has reported that its Tray No 3 has 630 notes left, and that it is now issuing 20 notes from that tray to the customer carrying out the transaction, the server can find out the 20 serial numbers of the notes issued, from its own files. Deposits through ATMs can be reported easily, as bank staff have to count notes in such deposits anyway; they can use a modified CCM.

Do we need to modify ATM hardware to do currency tracking? No. There seems to be no reason to do that.

So, we conclude that it is not very difficult track currency notes being handled by an ATM. Software changes necessary do not have to be done nationwide in a few weeks. The changes being made do not change the primary functions of an ATM; they only add a few additional functions.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Real Big Data – sources and laundries of black money



The recent demonetization raises interesting questions that can trigger student research. What can we do with currency counting machines that read serial numbers of high denomination notes they handle and send them to a computer? Cash being deposited by customers can be counted and read by them keeping track of which notes are being deposited into which bank account. They can send a list of serial numbers to a computer, to link them to a given account. Payments of any significant amount of money over the counter can also be covered similarly. I will deal with serial number tracking of notes handled by ATMs in my next post; for the moment, assume that those notes can also be tracked.

Will this lead to draconian surveillance? What risks does such a technology pose?

Visualize a currency tracking system in which every bank branch reports serial numbers of notes it issues, or receives from, customers to a central authority identifying the customer involved. This could have many uses. For instance, suppose the police have found 10,000 Rs with a terrorist who was apprehended or killed. If an individual or organization had received those notes from a bank branch in the previous week, investigators would love to have that information.
A single note going from A to B may not mean much; A might have paid his milkman, who bought chappals from B with that money and B might have deposited the cash in his bank account. However, if ten notes had all gone from A to B within about a week there is some probability that A transferred them to B directly. What we are talking about is a system that will show currency flow from any given account A to another given account B over a given period. Flow through random middlemen would not explain a significant number of notes that were issued to A turning up in account B by sheer accident. In any case, a high flow of identified currency notes from A to B could flag it for the attention of Income Tax authorities, even if it is not dependable evidence of wrong doing. 
The research question is this: Can we identify a dozen economically significant applications that would justify the cost of this surveillance? We have thousands of students who are studying the use of big data techniques. They could be students of management, economics or engineering. Some of them could perhaps investigate this question.

A couple of concepts that may be relevant to research. We can define a bank account as a possible source of “black money” if a significant number of high denomination notes issued to it do not turn up in the banking system for a specified period. The presumption would be that A has paid it to someone who hoards cash. Similarly, we can define C as a “possible laundry” if high denomination notes not in circulation for a long time turn up in C’s bank account frequently!

To give an example, it would be worth finding out if employees in specific types of economic activities such as trading in gold and jewellery, or construction, are potential laundries. The presumption is that they could be paid in cash, using (unaccounted) money received in cash from customers. Similarly, if A is a possible source of black money it would be worth asking if he invests a lot in real estate or in jewellery.

Now, come to the feasibility of reading the serial numbers. Automated reading of numeric characters in a few known fonts has always been easy. This becomes easier when those numbers occur in specific locations on precisely cut sheets of paper and are in a unique colour contrasting with the background. In some series, the Reserve Bank of India has printed serial numbers using varying size font instead of uniform height numerals. That does not pose a major problem for automated reading of numbers.


What about the serial numbers being unique or otherwise? It does not matter. We are looking at the probability of a currency note traveling from A to B. Rare coincidences of a large set of notes with the same numbers (as set mentioned above) traveling from some C to some D at about the same time is statistically improbable.

Another research question. Traditionally, currency notes are said to be fungible. The presence of machine readable serial numbers threatens this fungibility. Payments in cash are generally believed to ensure privacy. So, would currency tracking threaten this privacy? If I was a college student buying a bottle of whiskey, would I be worried that the authorities would inform my mom and dad about it? Surely, they have others things to do! I need not worry. Who should? Those who use the privacy of cash flow to evade taxes? Should we protect their privacy?

One last question: What would be the utility of a partial system in which deposits and payments over the counter are the only ones tracked, and that too only if the amounts exceed a certain value? Does the reporting of serial numbers of notes involved in such transactions add value? Or is it enough to identify the bank account holder and the amount involved?
My aim here is to share what I think are interesting questions. Not to provide answers!    

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Good old tiles with embedded solar panels

I wish to trigger several student projects around the idea of using roof tiles to tap solar energy.  I think that students of architecture, design, or civil/electrical engineering would find this most interesting.

At the higher end, Tesla Motors in the US has showcased advanced batteries for home use to store solar energy as well as efficient and attractive solar tiles. Visit

However, affordability in countries like India makes it necessary for them to develop their own solutions. I urge students in such countries to try their own designs. The greatest value would be in areas where power failures/cuts are frequent, and of course in rural areas which are not electrified. As the cost of electrical power keeps going up at the consumer end, many rural homes may choose solar solutions to cut expenditure. 
Look at what is called a Mangalore Tile in India: 
http://www.btiles.com/roofing-tiles/mangalore-roof-tiles.html



It is usually made of clay and is 10 to 16 inches in size. I think that there is some logic in making solar tiles of the same size. Such solar tiles can be used along with the traditional Mangalore Tiles to build a roof and use only a fraction of the roof area to produce electricity. An alternative would be to make a big tile 20 x 32 inches in size, to replace four Mangalore Tiles. A large tile would be more susceptible to breaking during transportation and installation. So, some reinforcement should be considered to make them less fragile. Ideally, the tile should provide a connector on the lower side, that is inside the dwelling, to minimize wiring required. It would be great if the tile provides for supporting a lithium ion battery below it. This would enable keeping the battery inside the house. Care would have to be taken to insulate the battery from the heat that would emanate from the tile during daylight hours. An air gap between the tile and battery would help. It would be nice if the tile also provides mechanical support for suspending a small ceiling lamp with a reflector and LED. Then the wiring required would be minimal. 

How would you turn the lamp on or off? A hanging power cord with a switch at the lower end? Or a remote-control mechanism that responds to the TV set’s remote control when it is pointed at the tile? 
If you manage to get all this done, you can then consider if you can buy a DC driven small fan and incorporate that as well into the system. By then you might consider using two or more big tiles connected in parallel. The tile design should provide for serial or parallel connection of individual tiles.  
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the US provides information about solar energy incident at different places in North West India.  http://mnre.gov.in/National%20Renewable%20Energy%20Laboratory/contents/solar_products.html

In general, most places in India seem to receive about 4 to 7 kWh/m2 per day. That means that a big tile (as defined above) would generate only a fraction of this energy. Such a tile would have energy generating area somewhat less than 20x32 sq. inches, which is about 0.4 sq. meter.  A tiled roof would receive direct sunlight only for a few hours per day, and the energy it receives would depend upon the place it is in, the slope of the roof and the direction it is facing. Then there is the efficiency of energy conversion, perhaps about 10%. My guess is that with good engineering one could expect to get about 0.05 kWh per big tile, enough to power one or two 6W LED lamps for a few hours a day.
There are solar lighting solutions in the market that could provide parts for experiments with tile based solar energy system. Visit, for instance, 



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