Friday, January 25, 2008

Programmer-Journalists and India

A couple of days ago Programmer/Journalist Adrian Holovaty and his team launched EveryBlock, a web site that hopes to answer the question "What's happening in my neighborhood?". EB has been described as a "hyper-local news" site that collects publicly available information from a lot of sources and presents it in a neatly summarized form. EB gives you information ranging from local crimes to film shoots. I am impressed by EB; you can read more about how the site has been received at the EB blog. The EB team is funded by a two year, 1.1 million USD grant from the Knight Foundation.

After checking out EveryBlock I did a little research about Indian sites that combine programming and journalism. I found that there are hardly any. Although all major Indian newspapers have online web sites none of these do anything much beyond serving as digital translations of printed material. Features focused on disseminating publicly available information in a structured fashion are extremely rare. For instance I couldn't find anything comparable to The Washington Post's collection of information widgets in any major Indian news site.

Can programming and journalism be combined in the Indian context? What follows are the results of a thought exercise to answer this question.

A crucial difference between the US and India is that structured, publicly available data is hard to come by in the latter. Notable exceptions include election results, budget information, results of certain college/school examinations and cricket match scores. But these have always been covered by print media anyway. (I would say covered to death in the case of cricket. But that is for another blog post) What other data is publicly available? I can think of the following.
  1. Detailed information about candidates standing in local elections. Income declarations, police/court records, manifestos if any etc.
  2. Details of public construction activity. For example the Bangalore City Corporation has made information about road maintenance available online. The information is available in the form of PDF documents. This data can be converted to a more user friendly format and perhaps superimposed over Google's satellite maps as well.
  3. Traffic information. I am certain that a LOT of people would really appreciate such a feature covering Bangalore's roads.

These are but a few. In addition to the above newspapers (startups?) could possibly think about collaborating with various agencies to make additional data available. It is worthwhile to note that one of the four members of the EB team, Daniel X. O'Neil, is dedicated to working with local agencies to free up available data. There are a zillion use cases for such cooperation. A feature to track public buses in Bangalore alone would be hugely useful. Another, pet wish of mine is a listing of teachers of performing arts.

Why hasn't the idea gained popularity in India? In all fairness, it is still brand new. The very idea that programming and journalism can be combined in non-traditional ways only gained popularity after the success of Adrian's, a site that overlays Chicago crime records on Google maps of the city. Startups which have traditionally been sources of innovation find the liaison work and non-profit nature of such ventures unappealing (EveryBlock is a non-profit site, as is ChicagoCrime). Also the Indian print media continues to enjoy a degree of success unlike their western counterparts whose dropping circulations have forced them to investigate new ideas.

Another, more cultural aspect is the vast difference between the programming and journalism professions. Even in the relatively boundary-less West there are but a handful of people who have successfully managed to fuse the domains. Many Indian programmers I know think of Journalism as a low-paying, low-opportunity profession while there is at least one journalist who views programming as the modern day equivalent of dull, regimented factory labor. There also seems to be a variation of the traditional art/science divide in play. Programming is deemed to be in the science camp while journalism combines creativity and artistry.

The idea that programming skills can be as useful to journalists as, say a flair for writing or good conversation skills is yet to gain traction. Adoption of technology among journalists seems to have progressed no further than personal laptops and digital cameras.

What can possibly change the situation? I think change will have to start with Newspapers, specifically their web sites. At present most Newspapers treat their web sites like red headed step children. I doubt if traditional journalists view working in the "web desk" (what are they called anyway?) as lucrative. Similarly aspiring programmers have to recognize the advantages of working with journalism. Newspapers can offer great opportunities to put a lot of data centric programming skills to good use.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Browsing for used books

I recently realized that one of the things I like about Bangalore is its high per capita ratio of used books stores. A good many of them seem to be located in and around Church Street. Today I visited one of the more organized and well known of the Church Street bookstores, Blossom. Blossom is one of my favorite haunts for two reasons. First, they have a good collection of graphic novels and History books. Second, Koshy's is almost next door. Nothing serves better to wrap up an evening spent searching for books than a hot pot of tea served at Koshy's in genuine silverware. But I digress.

Today I ventured unusually close to the software books section in the store. I found it interesting that compared to other sections this one contained mostly "toast of the season" kind of books. Books that people aspiring to quick-start (or quick-boost) their career in the Bangalore software industry would buy. I found a lot of "pour encourager les dummies" type of books and those that scratch the surface of complex topics like *Nix or relational databases. No Knuth, no Norvig to name just a few of the masters. Contrast this with the diverse, rich collection of books on sale in the say, History section.

What could be the reason? I think people who buy really fundamental books on computer science are a minority. Among these the fraction of readers who would *sell* their copies would be really small. Such books would anyway be snapped up as soon as they became available. This is also in part due to the contrasting nature of computer science and history. Very few readers would need history books for daily reference, thereby making selling books after reading more likely.

There were very few used graphic novels on sale as well. I suspect that the small number of people who actually pay to buy them would not part with them easily. I know I wouldn't sell my copy of Watchmen or Neverwhere.

Incidentally I came across a book in the History section that had the marking of a *Free Public Library* somewhere in the United States. Right on the first page was a notice from the library requesting members to take proper care of the book. Given that most people who travel overseas from Bangalore work for the IT industry there is a good chance that the book was liberated from the library by an IT "professional". Right here is another reason why Indian IT workers are labeled "cheap Indian techies". Literally and figuratively.