Cloud’s power to change India

Cloud-based strategies are catalysts of change, but cannot be the exclusive force for transformation
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First Published: Sun, Dec 30 2012. 08 58 PM IST
Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha, says India does not have 100,000 problems, it has 100 problems repeated 1,000 times. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha, says India does not have 100,000 problems, it has 100 problems repeated 1,000 times. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Updated: Sun, Dec 30 2012. 10 38 PM IST
Iam using the term cloud-based technology strategy as an overarching term to capture not only the Internet, but also all associated aspects like mobile, crowdsourcing, social marketing and so on. Also, it goes without saying that any cloud strategy for India should go beyond English to local languages.
My comments are based on experiences in two different organizations that I am involved with: one, a social business focused on urban financial inclusion (Janalakshmi); the second, a non-profit focused on improving the quality of life in India’s cities (Janaagraha).
At Janalakshmi, the foundation of our enterprise is a cloud-based technology platform that enables pretty much every aspect of our business. With branches in 47 cities across 11 states, we now process over 1 million client transactions every month. The technology platform gives us transaction economics, scalability without loss of control (a critical issue in financial services), the ability to publish performance information in a real-time manner across the organization, and a treasure-trove of client data that we are barely scratching to truly understand our customers and their aspirations.
In Janaagraha, starting a few years ago with one Web-based initiative,we are now focusing a significant share of our effort on building online platforms, driven by one of Janaagraha’s founders, Swati Ramanathan. Our www.ipaidabribe.com initiative is now the largest crowd-sourced platform in the world for what we call retail corruption (getting a birth certificate, a driver’s licence, a sale deed, etc.), with close to 1.5 million visits, 25,000 reports and seven replicator sites in other countries. Most gratifyingly, two process reforms have already been successfully implemented by government champions using the data reported on the site.
Our newest initiative, www.ichangemycity.com, envisions being a social network for social change—a social change network. In barely two months, the first site for Bangalore already has over 12,000 registered users and over 3,000 complaints that are automatically forwarded to civic agencies, who have resolved close to a thousand complaints.
The following have been our key lessons.
1. Translating the power of the cloud into real change for an enterprise—private sector, non-profit or government—is incredibly complex work with many dead-ends and wrong turns. The only path to success is rapid learning loops and iterative improvements.
2. The driving force has to come from the very top of the organization. If the leadership is not engaged in the details, failure is guaranteed. In addition, deep-seated cynicism also sets in—that Indian organizations are not ready for futuristic ideas.
3. There is no off-the-shelf talent that is available in these emerging areas. Most of the so-called experts have done little more than compile Power Point presentations, with little experience in actually building industrial-grade online systems. Whatever little talent is available is moody and hard to align with institutional goals. Better to nurture a core team internally.
4. One powerful aspect of market-based organizations is the availability of universally accepted metrics: sales, profits, inventory turns, and so on. These are missing in non-profits, which struggle to define and track reliable performance metrics. Cloud-based strategies offer non-profits a solution, with metrics that can offer a fairly accurate sense of relevance. For example, number of bribe reports or complaints, intensity of social interest groups, number of return visitors, etc. Being available real-time, these parameters allow quick feedback loops to either adjust strategies or tap into viral forces that are getting triggered.
5. Cloud-based strategies offer tremendous potential to both reduce information asymmetries and increase the velocity of information flows through the power of networks. But for all the online complaints or social discussions about garbage, we still need to segregate and dispose thousands of tonnes of garbage in a safe and sustainable manner every day. This feature is present across every problem in our country. India does not have 100,000 problems—it has 100 problems repeated 1,000 times. Ultimately, real change happens on the ground, in the gullies and the streets of our neighbourhoods. Cloud-based strategies are outstanding catalysts of change, but can never be the exclusive force for the transformation of India.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a non-profit organization.
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First Published: Sun, Dec 30 2012. 08 58 PM IST