Five life hacks to beat the system in 2020

  • How to improve privacy on a phone? When is the ideal time to book a flight ticket? Which roads have the worst traffic in your city? All these questions have plausible data-informed answers
  • Smart data guys tell you how to beat the traffic, travel and shop better, guard your privacy, and track your health

NEW DELHI : A few years ago, S. Anand, a data scientist, was scouting for the ideal Indian city to start a new office. Unsure about where to begin the search, he tapped into what he understood best: data. Anand scraped data from GitHub—the world’s largest open source platform for software developers—and looked at city-level interconnections. Simply put, the number of developers who were talking to each other or contributing to each other’s code, in a slew of Indian cities.

That’s when he got a stunning insight: Bengaluru not only had the highest “density of connections" of any major Indian city, but it was as good as Singapore. “I’ve repeated this exercise almost every year since then, and Bengaluru has remained on top," says Anand (see visualisations here). This finding firmed up Anand’s decision to move to the city, set up a new office and hire people.

And that is what data can do. It can reveal something as abstract as whether a city is collaborative; whether it has a culture that suits one’s business. Naturally, companies and digital startups are increasingly latching on to the digital trail left behind by Indians, an estimated 450 million of whom are online. While consumers may not always be able to rely on big data insights to turn the tables on companies, most people don’t even attempt the basics, says Anand.

There are simple ways to lead a data-informed life—making everything from booking a train ticket to buying vegetables more convenient.

For example, the flipside of Anand’s problem—a young person scouting for the best city to increase the odds of getting hired—has an easy hack. Any job portal will have city-specific listings. “If you want to be in business consulting, just move to Mumbai. It has the highest number of such jobs. On most (job listing) websites, one can filter based on profession and even company," he says. For an automobile engineer, the best cities to target by far are Chennai and Pune.

Mint has put together a listing of a few such uncommon life hacks—informed by conversations with several data scientists and privacy and security experts—which could possibly improve your 2020, and beyond. Let’s dive in.

Simplify city life

If there is one thing that most Indian city residents waste their time on, it is being stuck in traffic. Google Maps data shows that on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road, in the heart of south Mumbai, traffic crawls along on weekdays at an average speed of 8 km/hour. During the evening rush hour, it drops to an unbelievable 5.8 km/hour. For comparison, the average walking speed of a person is about 5 km/hour.

Every city has a set of roads that are just not worth your time, whether it is Bengaluru’s Kanakapura Road, Kolkata’s MG Road, or Delhi’s Netaji Subhash Marg. Mint’s Plain Facts team detailed several of these nightmarish roads as part of a series on urban India. Pick the two or three worst roads in your city and avoid them, particularly while commuting to work. It will improve your life dramatically.

Apart from waiting in traffic, the other quintessential Indian activity is going to the movies. Price comparison between theatres of course helps, but the most effective way to save on movie outings is to snoop out reasonably good single-screen theatres in your city. Movie tickets in single-screen theatres, on average, are about half the price compared to a multiplex in nearly every major Indian city.

And, luckily, there are still a sizeable number of fairly good single-screen theatres in at least Bengaluru, Mumbai and Hyderabad. In all these cities, movie theatres were traditionally owned by film producers and distributors themselves, and thus, have managed to survive the onslaught of multiplexes.

The Delhi and Bengaluru moviegoer is among the unluckiest, however. They pay some of the highest cinema ticket prices anywhere in the country (here’s some recent data from nearly 600 theatres spread across eight major cities).

Become a travel ninja

Many more Indians are taking flights today. There are ways to hack one’s way through flight-ticket bookings. While the chances are relatively low on domestic flights due to reasonable price caps, the essential secret is to try and book when very few other people are booking, says Ansoo Gupta, who promotes responsible travel through OneShoe Travels.

Since airfares are dynamically priced and tickets get released in slots of eight-nine, the trick is to find a full batch when few takers are looking. “I usually just check multiple times. It also makes sense to not book in a 15-45 day window prior to the scheduled date of departure because that’s when most other people are booking," she says.

On international routes, the odds of savings are much higher. Skyscanner recommends the best possible routes between any two destinations. Gupta also recommends keeping an eye out for lesser known airlines. “Ethiopian Airlines, for example, offers great connections to south and north America. I’ve saved 15,000-20,000 on some flights. Ultimately, money saved is money that one can use for more travel," she adds.

That brings us to the great Indian Railways’ network. While the online ticket booking experience has steadily improved, the crippling shortage of seats is fairly obvious. This can even be quantified. Based on patterns apparent from a data analysis of wait-listed tickets, for every seat available on a train, on average, about four people want it.

There are some simple data-informed thumb rules which can help while booking seats. The demand-supply gap widens on Indian trains as the travel distance increases. So, while a confirmed ticket can be booked for a 200-400km journey about two-four weeks in advance, towns that are over 700km apart necessarily require a booking at least eight weeks in advance.

The train route with the most serious shortage of seats in India is between Mumbai and Patna. And since delays matter too after one does manage to get a seat, the country’s worst train is the New Jalpaiguri Superfast Express, which is about 15 hours late, on average. The final thumb rule is to always book a Tatkal wait-list instead of a regular wait-list (35-40% greater chance of getting confirmed).

Prioritize privacy

Ever since news of a massive privacy breach into the WhatsApp accounts of hundreds of individuals, including many Indians, broke late-October, there has been much hand-wringing about the pitfalls of embracing a digital life. There is only so much an individual can do against state surveillance, but there are many things that one can do to at least make tracking difficult—either by a private company or the state.

A few of these are elementary: use DuckDuckGo for web searches more often than Google; rely on a privacy-enabled browser like Firefox Brave or Tor for sensitive browsing; always keep an ad-blocker enabled (because ads are not just annoying, but come with a tracker); and isolate all social media activity by using something like Facebook Container (go ahead, do a web search) so that the platform can’t track you across the web.

But as mobile phones have become the primary and perhaps only digital device for millions of Indians, that is where the privacy battles of this century will be fought. The first step towards taking back control is masking one’s phone number, says Anand Venkatraman, a privacy activist. Unintentionally, the mobile phone number has ended up as becoming an identity number—used for everything from signing up for WhatsApp to a banking transaction using UPI.

“We need to actively create information silos. Use a different phone number for banking and certain WhatsApp chats and never give that out to the world at large," says Venkatraman.

Here’s how it works: with a Twilio (twilio.com) number, which costs about $1 a month, you can get a permanent “cloud" number which you can use for WhatsApp chats with business contacts, for instance. This is a US number (+1) and is different from your personal India number (+91), making it impossible for Indian companies to spam you. “Basically, you just need a virtual phone number to receive OTPs," says Venkatraman. Twilio can then be instructed to automatically forward OTPs to your Indian number.

Even those who believe they have nothing to hide subscribe to the logic that one has to be especially careful with financial information. And with the boom in fintech, financial and banking information may soon become India’s next big privacy concern. Last year, for example, Venkatraman, along with a group of white hat hackers, managed to deposit 1 in Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman R.S. Sharma’s bank account. “We got the bank details by just pinging the Aadhaar database using his phone number," he says.

More Indians need to start thinking of covering their digital tracks through “active deception", he adds. “In India, businesses know too much and consumers know too little. Data is power, and currently, there is an asymmetry of power."

Crack veggie shopping

Onion prices may be soaring at the moment, but Thejesh G.N., a technologist and hacker from Bengaluru, began obsessively tracking the prices of fruits and vegetables for an entirely different reason. “I like mangoes," he says sheepishly.

The government-run horticulture cooperative in his city publishes the retail price of a slew of vegetables and fruits around 10am every day. He wrote a few lines of code to get an alert whenever the price of any item drops 10% below the average. In the process, Thejesh discovered a few surprising things.

For one, it’s a bad idea to go shopping for veggies and fruits a day after it rains. Prices tend to shoot up, perhaps due to a rise in transport costs or spoilages, he says. The other insight was that the effort involved in tracking prices was particularly worth it for fruits, where cost varies highly. “If you take mango, for example, the price per kg of some varieties can drop to as low as 25 per kg. But we all want to eat it in March when it’s too expensive," says Thejesh.

Buying and consuming vegetables and fruits is something that is part of nearly everyone’s life. Anyone can replicate a price tracking system fairly easily, since the National Horticulture Board publishes the prevailing retail prices of a number of commodities in 31 cities and towns every day.

Hack health stats

A Fitbit or smartwatch on a wrist has become a regular sighting over the last few years. With the rise of wearables, measuring daily activity levels has become the hip thing to do. Who doesn’t like seeing green confetti fall on their screen after completing 10,000 steps in a day? But are there more effective or sustained ways to measure and track health?

That was the question Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of HasGeek, asked himself when an accident forced him to stay off his favourite exercise—running. After trying out many things, he landed on a continuous glucose monitoring system that measured his blood glucose (sugar) level every 15 minutes and logged it on to a neat spreadsheet online. He chanced upon a startling discovery. “Many food items that are considered healthy is actually junk that spikes blood sugar," he says. Idli, for instance, is a “sugar bomb".

Since we are all subject to a lifetime of conditioning, and marketing messages on what is healthy are usually “complete garbage", Jonnalagadda says the only way to unlearn is to “measure everything". “We are all illiterate when it comes to what is in our food," he adds.

The single metric that he went after—sugar—is also getting a lot of attention off late in the nutrition sciences for being responsible for a number of lifestyle diseases. “It is going to be a particularly difficult problem in India because we aspire to be sedentary," says Aniruddha Shankar, a diet coach. “Rural India already has a huge diabetes problem."

While data may indeed help some people, Shankar warns that there are “no miracles in nutrition". “That’s why, more than measuring, understanding what the data is saying is more important," he says with a smile.