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Do it yourself

Do it yourself
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First Published: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 03 26 PM IST

Network Savvy: The founders of 9 Circuits in Delhi. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Network Savvy: The founders of 9 Circuits in Delhi. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Updated: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 03 26 PM IST
It’s called the procrastination principle.
An unwavering belief that the problems confronting a project can, and most likely will, be solved later by other people.
It’s the unlikely cornerstone of the Internet’s existence—everything from Google’s Android operating system to Wikipedia relies on it. Its loose philosophy (forever a draft) is the guiding principle for anyone wanting to build something online. It doesn’t matter if your world-changing free encyclopaedia is incomplete. Your users become participants, constantly improving your foundational efforts.
Network Savvy: The founders of 9 Circuits in Delhi. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Now, Bangalore has a brick and mortar building as testament to the principle’s effectiveness. “It’s intentionally incomplete,” says programmer and independent researcher Kiran Jonnalgadda about this pallet-rack wireframe structure off Bangalore’s Richmond Road, which looks like a cross between a jungle gym and the cross section of an architectural blueprint. “Incomplete because it forces you to put some thought into it and do something yourself.”
Called Jaaga, it’s a modular, makeshift, multi-level metal space run by Freeman Murray, a former computer programmer and entrepreneur, and artist Archana Prasad. The structure is designed so that it can be dismantled easily and moved elsewhere at short notice. Their official website even details a succinct five-step process to do just that.
Inside, bent over their laptops, typing lines of “code”, the five-member team of the Bangalore-based start-up HashCube wouldn’t be out of place in one of the city’s several glass-wall buildings. But seated as they are on moulded plastic chairs in Jaaga’s collective space for “technology and art”, something seems different.
Their laptops sit on foldable metal tables as they create online games for social networking sites and mobile platforms such as the iPhone. Next to them is Anusheel Nahar who, after quitting his day job at an IT firm in Bangalore, has set out to establish his own business. A glance away, seated at a level below them and separated by two art installations, is Justin Alva, who co-founded Whoopey, a group-buying company designed on the lines of www.groupon.com
Every day, these entrepreneurs come together to work on their initiatives. Jaaga encourages those eager to start their version of the next big thing to work on their projects under one roof, feed ideas and even help each other. People can use Jaaga as an office space—a huge luxury for start-ups with limited funds—for as long as they want. The Jaaga website, for instance, is currently offering programmers a three-month fellowship to build an “installation” using Microsoft’s Kinect video game device. But while initial expenses for Jaaga are being backed by art grants and the personal funds of the proprietors, they don’t rule out charging for use of the space in the future.
Started in August, and formalized in March, Jaaga wants to encourage a free flow of ideas in both art and technology. Murray oversees technology, and Prasad, art. In the last eight months, Jaaga has hosted research projects that chronicle the livelihoods of Bangalore’s 850,000 migrant workers, and helped create digital 3D models of India’s heritage sites in a project with Microsoft Research India. Jaaga also has an online “Ideas Pool” that anyone can contribute to. Currently, there are proposals to make a film about one local cow, investigate the potential of radio frequency identification (RFID) cards to create personalized art experiences and build local mobile phone networks that will let citizens communicate in the event of an Egypt-style Internet shutdown.
“We want people to use this as a long-term space for exchanges of ideas,” says Murray, adding that users are slowly learning to leave behind their “comfort zones in cubicles” and becoming a part of Jaaga’s “open culture”.
Jonnalagadda says this difference is vital. “The software industry currently works much like the construction industry where programmers are given a task with specifications and are expected to build accordingly,” he says. “What is not being explored is the artistic element to software, that is the experimentation. Where one can say, I have no idea what the outcome is, but I am going to experiment.”
This kind of free-form dabbling has always existed in India, but mostly in separate, isolated silos. Now, it’s not uncommon to see citywide communities of artists and engineers, driven by Twitter and Facebook, collaborating.
Six months ago, Jonnalagadda figured that code jams and “hackathons” (group exchanges in creative engineering and problem solving, made famous recently by Facebook) that last for a single day and aimed at a single topic would be instantly popular. He also hoped more open-source projects would percolate out of India, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai-based MayaVi, a free tool that helps visualize complex scientific data that is now used widely around the world. Most “open-source” projects such as the Linux operating system, called so because their internal workings are freely modifiable, rely on small contributions from thousands of volunteers across the world.
Jonnalagadda was previously a planner at Barcamp Bangalore, a loose association of techies which organizes what are called “unconference” style events, where the schedule is ad hoc and participation is open.
Geeking out: (from top to bottom) The five-member team of HashCube; the multiple levels of Jaaga in Bangalore (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint); Freeman Murray and Archana Prasad (Courtesy Freeman Murray); and Deepak Ravindran of Innoz Technologies.
In October, he founded HasGeek.in, a company that organizes day-long hackathons and seminars on coding and technology. It also has an active online job board, where “awesome” companies post requirements for “kickass” developers. “Both hack events and the concept of co-working spaces like Jaaga were a parallel movement that began in the West,” he says, explaining that in both cases the idea is to share and discuss. Each event produces a flood of speculative blogs, tweets and wikis—letting participants tackle complex ideas one piece at a time, across multiple events.
Hackathons and codejams encourage people to swap ideas for quick projects, which could range from plans for a business to fixes for social and civic problems. In March, both Bangalore and Delhi hosted 54-hour “Startup Weekends”, in which groups of participants go from brainstorming ideas to showcasing a prototype to venture capitalists in two days. “There’s been a sharp rise in ideas around these aspects,” says Arindam Bhattacharjee, the chief architect of business intelligence at analytics firm SAP India. “Technology is being used to solve perennial urban problems.”
There have been six such sessions in HasGeek’s six months—their latest was an Android camp on Friday. Not surprisingly, Jonnalagadda found registrations full. “Android is the new craze, the techies are loving it,” he says. When Google announced a similar camp last year with 5,000 seats, the event was packed but it took weeks. This year, he recalls that it was packed in 59 minutes.
At an average hackathon, a theme or problem is put forth, and ideas are furiously debated. Challenges, usually with a time limit, are issued, and people, alone or in teams, hammer out a basic prototype solution. These, in turn, are incrementally improved by participants.
“It is almost like people are waiting for an event like this to happen,” he says, laughing. “What I am trying to create with HasGeek is that kind of an environment that lets you be creative.”
Murray agrees. “Whenever we organize weekend hackathons, we see crowds pouring in,” he says, adding that he hopes to have day-long sessions at least once a week.
Taking the idea further, Murray would like to blur the lines between hacking and partying. “Maybe an all-day event, where people can code with a beer break. Why not?” he says, smiling. “You don’t have to pretend to be coding all the time.”
A part of this infectious energy has also carried over to the country’s many software start-ups.
Deepak Ravindran is the co-founder and head of a mobile start-up called Innoz Technologies Pvt. Ltd. His official corporate bio has a photograph of him in a racing suit, leaning against a sports bike.
His company, which started as a final-year college project at the Lal Bahadur Shastry College of Engineering in Kerala, now provides an SMS service called SMSGyan that is used one million times a day by Bharti Airtel subscribers. Users send an SMS query (match scores, movie titles, academic references) to 55444, and the system crawls the Internet to get you your answer. “The new wave of tech start-ups will be product companies, which build something relevant for users here,” he says. “Not those geared towards providing services to the West.”
Ravindran works out of an eighth-floor apartment in Gurgaon, which serves as his “marketing office”. His company has followed a successful trajectory, from engineering college project to incubation by a programme sponsored by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), that is becoming increasingly common. “The ecosystem is very comfortable with start-ups, and I think we’re building the same kind of base that Silicon Valley did,” he says, referring to technology-centric start-ups around the country. “India badly needs more small success stories to get people to follow this path more often.”
Similarly, Jaaga’s Murray met the founders of HashCube, friends Deepan Chakravarthy and Ramprasad Rajendran, when their company was being incubated in a unique programme at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in 2009. On the inception of Jaaga, Murray invited them to use the space free of cost. It was a deal the two new graduates couldn’t refuse.
“This cut our costs; plus the idea of a co-working space was exciting. The energy at IIM-A was high, and Jaaga promised the same,” says Chakravarthy, stressing that the presence of other innovative minds pushed their own creativity. Co-working spaces also create opportunities for serendipitous encounters, something HashCube has benefited from. “We are engineers and we think like engineers, so we sometimes get help from artists here on the look or the colours we use in a game,” says Chakravarthy. Likewise, the HashCube team has helped another start-up put up its website, for a fee.
What Jaaga and HasGeek are attempting to do with software, four engineers in Delhi are hoping to replicate for hardware.
Nandeep Mali, Harry Samson, Priya Kuber and Pronoy Chopra are the founders of 9 Circuits, an online store that hopes to kickstart the country’s fledgling do-it-yourself (DIY) hardware community. Hardware engineering includes everything from building prototype vehicles to experimental gadgets. The store sells an entire range of programmable Arduino Boards (the engineering foundation for everything from a robot to a GPS module), hardware components, sensors and spare parts.
It operates out of a single room on the first floor of a shopping complex in east Delhi’s Mayur Vihar. Their unlikely neighbours include a detective agency called Omniscient Detectives. Inside the 9 Circuits office are four desks arranged haphazardly, stacked with miniature mountains of electronic components. “Everything is about software here, so the hardware hobbyists in India are largely fragmented. There’s lots of knowledge but very little networking,” says Mali, rooting through a box of touch screens. “The entry barriers become very heavy.”
9 Circuits is a result of the four’s frustration with procuring items for college projects and DIY ideas.
“We saw that nobody catered to the hobbyist market here,” Mali says. “Nobody makes components at the individual scale. If you want 100 pieces, good, but one? Nobody will do that.” He contrasts this with the US, where open-source “3D printers” such as MakerBot (www.makerbot.com) let hobbyists fabricate single units of anything they want made. Mali says 9 Circuits hopes to procure a MakerBot within the next year.
“When you study abroad, every student is exposed to some broader arm of DIY culture,” Kuber says. “We want to recreate that atmosphere. Create documentation and videos that can be replicated locally.” While detailed instructions exist on the Internet for just about every conceivable engineering conundrum, many of these assume that you’re living in a society with easy access to specific components. “Try going to a hardware store and asking for an M3 screw,” Kuber says. “They’ll blink.”
Kuber conducts workshops on DIY at engineering colleges around north India, and wants to encourage more women to take up hardware engineering. “The problem here is that there are middlemen and organizations willing to sell you complete college projects, so a lot of people don’t have to solder a thing to get through the system.”
In the absence of a strong, networked DIY community, college projects are most students’ sole opportunity for an education in these topics. “The awareness levels for concepts like open hardware (components and microprocessors that can be customized and reused in other projects legally, like open-source software) are very low,” says Mali.
Mali says things are beginning to change as scattered hardware groups now have a common go-to place. He is also one of the founders of Indie GameDev India (www.indiegamedev.in), which is trying to do for game development what 9 Circuits does for hardware engineering. Here, again, there’s that belief in the procrastination principle.
If we start it, Mali believes, they will come. In the last few months, he’s met people buying components to improve their car’s mileage, or to build customized GPS equipment for use in harsh terrain.
“There are lots of people doing very cool things,” he says. “Everyone wants freedom to express their creativity.”
Here are the five commandments, if you will, of being a new geek
• Have multiple interests. Your love for films can inform the video games you design, and coding skills can make your art projects cooler.
• Trust in collaboration. Share freely, and don’t hoard ownership of ideas. Other people can help make it better.
• If something doesn’t exist, start building it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or complete. If the world needs it, you will find help.
• The tools don’t matter. You don’t need an expensive Mac to become a film-maker. Everything can be started cheap and, in many cases, free.
• Put your personality into your work. Think eclectic, and be idiosyncratic. Leave the cold professionalism to the big firms.
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First Published: Mon, Apr 04 2011. 03 26 PM IST
More Topics: DIY | Geek | Bangalore | Delhi | Jaaga |