Wednesday, 25 June 2014

IT in government services: my first-hand experience

Technology enabled analytics might be bread and butter for many of us in the IT/analytics industry. We get to see that in the past one decade, technology services has really redefined the way we did things – be it banking/retail shopping/social networking. But is it really changing anything in the public sector organizations or government agencies? There is some amount of computerization to the extent of getting computer generated bills/applying for documents online. I have always believed in the power of IT to improve the existing processes in the government sector. A real life incident in the past month just showed me how technology coupled with analytics has already made its way into the functioning of the government services sector and is looking more and more promising as we move forward.

The Trigger
It all started with an inland letter arriving through regular mail to our house a week ago (snail mail they call it, in comparison to the faster e-mail). It had a notice from the Bangalore traffic police asking us to pay a fine of 100 INR because our Honda activa had violated a traffic rule 3 weeks ago. The details were mentioned as:

DATE: 12/05/2014 09:00 AM
REGN NUMBER: ********181

Now, this was a bit confusing when we checked back. Among my family members, my bro and I are the ones who use the ACTIVA. These days it is just me, mostly for commuting to and from office. And the day in question was Monday, and there was no way I could pass through Basaveswaranagar, early in the morning. And chances of my brother using it were ruled out. Gut feel told me that something was fishy but was not able to narrow it down to anything. A year and a half ago, we had received a similar notice for breaking a traffic signal, but then the spot of violation was nearer home. And we had simply ended up paying the fine that time, trying to rationalize that maybe we had indeed committed the offence. These notices come after 3-4 weeks after the offence has been committed and the timings/places/type of offence given is so hazy that it forces you into thinking that it might as well have been you. Even on this occasion, in spite of having a clear memory of not having taken my ACTIVA to anywhere near Basaveswaranagar on that date, I thought to myself that maybe it was some other place, but the vehicle could be indeed, mine. And, like the previous time, I decided to pay the fine online when I spotted the following on the last line of the mail notice:

For proof of offence, log on to

Wow… It seemed to me as if the authorities had complete telepathic powers and wanted to leave no doubt in the mind of the offender! I decided to check it immediately and logged into the website. And true to their word, they had these links up there:

Links on the traffic police website allowing to search for information

There were few technical issues on the site, like non-compatibility with an office network and non-compatibility with web browsers like Chrome/firefox and when I finally managed to get it right on IE, this was the dialog that popped up:

Pop-up showing the nature of offence

And when I clicked for proof, this is what loaded (to my surprise)

Shankar Mutt traffic signal and a vehicle crossing the line

It also gave a zoomed in view of the vehicle:

Blue pulsar zoomed in to view the number plate

I could not believe my eyes! I cross checked every character on the nameplate and it was the same as my vehicle’s. Even my brother came and checked it again for confirmation. But the vehicle in the picture was a Bajaj PULSAR while my vehicle was a HONDA ACTIVA. Was it a criminal case of someone cloning our nameplate? Was it some fudging of the image on the website? Was it just a simple error, which we were not able to spot immediately? We could not say! But one thing was clear – it was not us who had committed the offence. And that was such a relief!

But I was too involved now, having found out that it could be a case of data anomaly. I had to get to the root of this issue. So, I decided to contact the traffic enforcement authorities for help. I scanned through their website and found nothing helpful. Fines could be paid online, or at numerous BangaloreOne centres in the city or even at their ‘traffic management centre’ main office. I decided that I would go to the main office directly with the notice, my vehicle and documents and ask them directly what was going on.

Dealing with the government – over the years
Now, anyone who has lived in our country for a long time would know the difficulty involved in dealing with the government agencies, especially the service providers (telephone, electricity, gas, passport, driving license, etc). At some point in the late 90s and the early 2000s, these had become so messy and intricately woven mazes that the common man just felt trapped once inside. I remember going to get my driving license done at the RTO during college holidays, roaming around in the corridors, finding out who would be the right person to contact, observing the sea of middlemen bullying everyone right under the ‘Do not contact middlemen’ board. It had taken me 2-3 visits just to understand what needed to be done. And a further 4-5 visits to finally get a learner’s license. The authorities would be so lethargic and would take their own sweet time to get even the simplest of things done. When I went to get my passport done, we had waited in the queue for over 4 hours only because the authorities did not know how to enter the correct ‘supporting document type’ into the system. They had retorted to manual files, and kept chit chatting with one another all the while (students anyway have a lot of time to waste, no?). And then, there were middlemen/brokers who would charge a hefty amount just to get things done which the government would anyway provide for free, only to spare us the hassles. No one I know has got a PAN done themselves – either the process is too cumbersome, or the number of middlemen who do it for us are too many. One of the biggest complains that we all must have had with the government agencies would be the lack of follow up. Even after successfully submitting the application, the wait would go on for days (sometimes months/years) for you to hear back from them. Most of us would have faced this issue while applying for (landline) telephone or LPG gas connections.

Winds of change came in during the past decade with the introduction of IT in the public sector. Although the bureaucratic process was still cumbersome, the computerization of few processes made things better. Introduction of payment kiosks, one-stop bill payment/application submission centres like Bangalore One, webpages for all government agencies, etc made things a little easier. Even though the websites were badly designed, it was good enough to atleast find information and the right point of contact for submitting applications/ grievances. The online/kiosk bill payment facility helped to save time by avoiding the long queues at the counters. And most of the processes were still offline and had to be done via the cumbersome offline route.

Experience at the traffic management center
I left office quickly on a weekday afternoon and visited the police commissioner’s office infantry road to inquire about the wrong notice. I happened to visit the police control room on the 5th floor. There were server rooms, clean offices and all the police officers’ desks had sleek workstations resembling any other IT office in E-City/Whitefield. This was a pleasant surprise. I was told that the entire traffic operations had been moved to a completely new building called ‘traffic management centre’ (TMC) further down the street. I drove down to the TMC and even here the story was the same – basement parking, elevators with automatic closing doors, and high speed workstations – it was intriguing to note that these organizations were able to quickly transform themselves.

I went into the ‘Enforcement automation centre’, expecting to be re-directed atleast to 3-4 people and find empty seats with coats hanging on the chair. I was immediately attended to by a staff who asked me to occupy a seat, while the officer on duty came back from his break. I expected a long wait, but this staff asked me about the problem, logged into their portal and was able to retrieve the offence image on the desktop in a matter of two minutes! He asked me for my vehicle’s documents and acknowledged the mistake, and asked me to write a letter describing the mistake instead of wasting time by waiting! Not only was I pleasantly surprised by this person’s knowledge of IT, I was delighted by his concern for my time. This was something which was unprecedented in a government office, at least for me.

My complaint letter
The officer then arrived, and allowed me to finish writing my complaint letter. Once done, he scanned through the documents of my vehicle and the picture of their camera carefully in order to make sure that the offense was not actually committed by my vehicle. And then took the written letter of complaint with me. He even got the vehicle documents scanned in no time. As a documentary proof, he wanted a picture of my vehicle. I said I did not have a picture ready, but the vehicle itself was parked in the basement of the building if he wanted to inspect it. I was thinking if he would ask for the picture in a pen drive/CD ROM drive or even worse, a photo print of my vehicle, when he suggested, ‘why don’t you email it to me?’ and even gave me the gmail address of Bangaloretrafficpolice! He then told me that he would get back to me very soon with his findings.

When I left their office then, I just felt good that I had invested time wisely. Of course, there was still mystery shrouding why I was sent the notice in the first place. However, the quick acknowledgement by the authorities that it was indeed a mistake from their side and the subsequent help they offered in following up was really commendable. They had not only setup an automated surveillance system that would track offenders, but also backed it up with proper training to the officials on the possible errors it might cause.

The follow up
I was at home that evening around 6.30 PM when the landphone rang. The person on the other side asked for my father and then kept asking me questions like he was a matrimony broker! He had questions on my education, work, and family background and I was wondering if it was some stupid RJ pulling a prank on me. I played along for some time and then, he introduced himself as the officer whom I had met a couple of hours ago. He had traced the vehicle as a pulsar with number ending ‘484’ instead of ‘181’. It was the way in which the pulsar fellow had painted his nameplate, the ‘4’ on the nameplate looked like a ‘1’. And that vehicle had a whooping nine cases of violation, all of them in the same place! He said that I don’t need to mail the photo of the vehicle and can relax as they had found the root of the issue and could consider the case as closed!

Number of repeat offences commited by the blue pulsar
Closing thoughts
I had just thought I will mail them the photo of my vehicle and absolve myself from any liability and forget all about follow-ups. Owing to my past experiences with the government agencies, I never expected any follow up from them. Though, here they were, coming back with a follow up within 2 hours of the complaint, having traced the real offender in their database even before I could mail them the photo of the vehicle! They had surely exceeded expectations this time. The experience this time was certainly lot different than any of the earlier interactions which I have had with government agencies. Some of the key takeaways from this experience were:

  • Surveillance systems and real time analytics have already made their way into the police departments. So, next time you think of jumping the red because there is no cop watching, beware! 
  • Technology is no more a taboo for the employees of the government sector. They don’t need ‘computer guys’ to operate these systems anymore. The employees realize that these systems ultimately make their jobs easy and are very keen to learn.
  • Private firms (both local and MNCs) have realized that there is huge value in partnering with the government and are competing to grab a share of this valuable (till now overlooked) segment. Ex: Mindtree provides the IT systems for evidence management and Bosch Sicherheitssysteme GmbH (Germany) provides the camera/video recording equipment for surveillance to the BTP.
  • There is lot of scope for technology and real-time analytics to further improve services provided by the public agencies. And the administration has already taken huge steps towards implementing some of these.

Implementation of technology and automated systems in governance is really capable of bringing radical changes in the coming days. I am really optimistic for the future. Are you?

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Great Expectations - Part 2

Read part one onf the post here

A very popular story taught in moral science classes speaks of a king who ruled over a prosperous land, was very wealthy and rich, and loved a lot by his subjects. However, the king could not sleep at night due to some anxiety or depression. Lot of physicians examined the king and tried to suggest a remedy for this unique problem but none of them seemed to work. Finally a learned priest examined the king and told his ministers that all the depression and anxiety would be cured, if the king slept for one night wearing the shirt of a happy man!

The ministers thought it was such an easy thing to find a truly happy man, as the country was vast and fertile and everyone in the kingdom were rich and prosperous. However, when they went in search of a truly happy man, they realized that everyone in the country had one or the other reason to be worried. The minister said that he fought with his son, the dukes said they were troubled by the turmoil in the neighboring states, the farmers were worried about making more money for the future, and so on and so forth. The search party was about to give up their quest for a truly happy person, when they found on the streets, a beggar happily singing and whistling.

Upon speaking to this ragged poor man, they found out that this man was truly happy. He had no money, no home and lived on the streets. But he seemed happy and content with what he had and expected no more. They took him to the king, only to realize that this beggar had no shirt!


A bunch of MBAs including me reported for work in a new company after college and we were immediately put through a rigorous training session, which involved us picking up technical skills like programming, data crunching, the ubiquitous office, statistics and analytics – all in a span of three to four weeks. And at the end of the month, there were back to back tests which grilled on all these topics.

On one fine day, there were two tests scheduled – one in the morning on data models and SQL, and the afternoon exam was on MS-Excel. Although I was very confident on programming and statistics, the data pull or SQL was something which I was being introduced for the first time. And all the questions asked very tricky. After spending sometime in the industry, I now know that all these questions were direct rip-offs from the now so familiar But that time, all the questions seemed very difficult and I fared really miserably. During the lunch break, I was feeling so down and depressed, I did not want to eat nor wanted to study for the next exam. I just went to a meeting room and sat there thinking. A tear or two escaped from my eye. And usually sadness leads to more sadness. I remembered about the tough part I was going through even on the personal front and life seemed so depressing at that point. I had fared so bad in spite of being very passionate – be it the profession or the personal relationship!

It is at that moment a realization hit me. It just struck me from nowhere but the thought was very powerful – “In life there are no successes or failures. It is just that you/someone expected too much or too little from yourself!". That was enough to immediately calm me down and stop feeling depressed! I smiled at the simplicity of the thought. But it made perfect sense. We categorize ourselves as successful/failures only because of the expectations we set for ourselves. And if we do set unrealistic expectations, we are doomed to fail and feel sad more often than not. Quite simple, yet so powerful!


Consider this: By the time you turn 18 and are having a perfectly happy life in school/PU college, expectations are built up on getting into a very nice professional course. Suppose you do choose engineering (because, well, do you need a reason?) and get into an engineering college, expectations are built up aroung bagging the most coveted job offer from the campus. And lets say you managed to do that and landed in (where else?) the IT biggies, you feel successful and remain happy until you see your buddies planning to quit for better opportunities/higher studies. Again, expectations start building up and you feel tell yourself that you’ll be successful only if you got that coveted seat in the top ranked college. And after working hard you do manage to get into a top technology / management college, that’s when the expectations come in fours and sixes! … ‘listen ya! he is doing MS itseems, he should get atleast $120,000 package after college’ or ‘oye, heard she got into that top ranked MII, she will surely get minimum 50LPA package after two years’

Expectations are everywhere. And in today’s fast paced materialistic world, the expectations are never ending but always too high! People want instant results… They want a bike, a car, a house, and a eight digit bank balance by the time they turn 30! Graduates from engineering don’t want to go through the grind of technical jobs. They expect onsite roles in Amreeka within 2 years of joining! Fat people join gymnasium or aerobic and expect to lose more than 10 kg within a month! Even though their parents might have served in the same position for more than a decade, professionals expect promotions every year! Isn’t this too much too soon? And what happens when these expectations don’t get fulfilled? Depression, stress, anxiety, visits to career counsellors, psychiatrists, drugs, anti-depressants and what not! Do we really need to go down that route?

Even relationships are not exempt from this unrealistic expectation menace. Everyone wants that perfect partner who understands them without even having to speak or struggle. They conveniently forget the essential communication aspect which goes into making a relationship work. And adding to all this is the self-glorification tactics due to the advent of social networking sites. Even before you get to know the person, your expectations are set so high that the relationship is on thin ice even before it has begun. How often have you seen marriages/relationships fail these days due to mis-communications/failed expectations. And then there are few of those relationships which you never thought will last but have continued to do well just because the couples involved were willing to talk and set the right expectations.

The next time you feel really depressed or sad for someone/something, just pause for a moment and think – was it because of setting the expectations wrong? Maybe you under-estimated something or did not factor in some important considerations. More often than not, communicating and resetting expectations helps a lot. On that day when I realized this in between the exams, I just said to myself, ‘alright! Maybe I have fared bad in this one skill. That does not mean I have failed. Let me continue to focus on my strengths and achieve some quick wins. I can always come back to the weak areas later’. I went back to the next exam with a totally different approach...and yes, I did really well :)

A lot of people expect things for themselves because of comparisons they make with their peers. If you did really well in your job and did not get that onsite offer which your friend got six months ago, just sit back and think for some time. The situation was different, the evaluation criteria were different, and there was an entirely different scenario then. And instead of fretting about it and sulking, just speak to the leads involved and set the expectations very clearly so that next time you are clear on what you wanted. Success might not come exactly when you want it, but do realize efforts do pay off sooner or later. And yes, don’t just feel sad because you don’t have things in your life. Life does test you a little bit before things start going the way you want them. As the street urchin in the above story proved to us, if all that you expect is happiness, you can be happy even without a shirt. Right?

PS: Title credit - Charles Dickens famous novel. Used it as it made sense. Copyrights belong to their respective owners :)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Great Expectations - Part 1

“Amazon reports 45% drop in profit! Investors cheer and invest some more”

Amazon is the world’s largest online retail store. It has been in operation for over 20 years now. From its humble beginnings in the m-commerce sector, Amazon has now expanded to all things digital – from providing solutions to big data and investing heavily in computer controlled instruments. It made quarterly sales of $17 billion in the Q3 of 2013, and yet the profits it generated were almost zero. In spite of this, investors believe Amazon will make money in the future and hence, they keep on investing, regardless of whether the company posted very less profits or outright losses.


“Nokia sells 15.7 million smartphones!!! Investors, however consider the outlook to be gloomy for the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer!”

This happened in 2008, when Nokia was the still world’s largest cell phone maker. It had 40% of the world’s smart phone market share. It had recently launched its touchscreen device, 5800 Xpressmusic and was investing heavily in a lot of diverse platforms (Symbian/S60, meego, S40, etc) to counter-attack the newest entrants in the market – iphone and android. And although things looked promising for the future, investors had already started to expect the decline. The CEO’s actions or statements did nothing to re-assure them and win their confidence.


“Facebook acquires whatsapp for $19 billion”

Whatsapp is an instant messaging service. It has revolutionized the way people used their phones, by providing a simple data based platform with which users could conveniently exchange texts, and media. From its humble beginnings in 2009, Whatsapp was valued at $1.5 billion and had a user base of around 200 million active users. And within a year, facebook bought all of whatsapp for a whooping amount of 19 billion dollars, leaving the financial pundits perplexed. How could it command such a premium?


“Inspite of critics giving it a total thumbs up and technically well made, fiza bombs at the box office”

Fiza was Hrithik Roshan’s second movie in Bollywood. It was a movie with a well written script, well directed and all the lead protagonists acting so well. And inspite of all of this, the film was a disaster at the box office. Why can a movie fail after being so well-made?


Do you notice any connection in the above stories? For me, a common theme underlying in all these stories is expectations. Whether in business/ sports/ cinema/ politics, managing expectations is one of the toughest of tasks. If you succeed in this one task, anything else will hardly matter. Let us look at the Amazon example, why is it managing to attract investors inspite of failing to make money for the last 18 years? The answer lies in how the expectations have been set by the CEO. Mr. Bezos wants to set up a retail shop for the future! Whatever money the firm makes (and it is really a lot!), he goes on and invests in warehouses, hiring skilled people, robots, and what not. Amazon is promising to create a future with more cash for the investors, and hence, they are not worried for the moment. The same holds true with the acquisition of whatsapp; Even though the current worth of the application might not have been so much, analysts at facebook expected that the firm is much more valuable as it can generate money in the future. Not to mention, the variety of potential business models it could build up in the future by combining a smartphone based IM service, and their very own social networking. And no price seemed too much for having that control in this previously unchartered territory!

On the other hand, failing to meet expectations is something which can get down even the biggest of companies or stars. What killed Nokia was the fact that the top leadership failed to set the right expectations with the investors. During the time when Apple Inc. came up with an iphone and Google announced the open source android, Nokia virtually ruled the smartphone market (almost a 60% share in the market). Both the competitors had very promising device portfolios and nice products lined up for release, and the mobile telephone giant was totally unprepared for such an onslaught. Instead of focusing on getting their strategy right, they went all over the place, going back and forth on the choice of the OS, the choice of their CEO, and on almost everything. Investors lost faith in the company’s ability to take on the mighty competitors. They started pulling out their money. Nokia lost the battle without even fighting!

Perhaps no other Bollywood movie star has stepped into in the movie industry with so much of commercial success and hype as much as Hrithik Roshan. His debut ‘Kaho Naa.. Pyaar hai’ was a roaring success, and a runaway hit at the box office. It broke almost all records at the box office, the music stores and it bagged almost every award for the debutants in that year. Hrithik became an instant heart throb among the Indian female fraternity. So, naturally expectations started to build up when the promos of his second film started to surface. However, ‘fiza’ was a completely different movie as compared to the box-office pleasing romantic melodrama that kaho naa.. was. And hence, the expectations of the audience watching their star in a completely different role were grossly unmet. It was not because ‘fiza’ was a bad movie that it failed. It just failed because people had set very high expectations for the movie after the ultimate success of ‘Kaho naa..’

Expectation management is a very complex thing in itself, something like an art as well as a science. The success of any project depends upon how the expectations are set in the beginning and how the team works towards meeting those expectations. And a very crucial attribute that helps to get expectations right is communication. The importance of communication cannot be emphasized enough. Even at the cost of over-communicating, it is always better to talk to the people involved at regular intervals and make sure that they are aware of what to expect. Very often, projects go bad and draw flak from the stakeholders only because they were never told what to expect at the end of the project.

The other day, we went to a pizza outlet that advertised a ‘meal for two’ at Rs.500/- The person who took the order went on to suggest lot of modifications to the so called meal, without mentioning the costs. We just took what we thought were some reasonable additions (say an extra topping to a veg pizza, crushers instead of cola, etc). However, the final bill came to more than Rs 1200/- which certainly left us fuming and grumbling. That is when we realized that neither of us had bothered to change the hitherto set expectation on price. The waiter thought it was just fair that we pay because we were ordering something more than what was on offer. We just assumed that a little addition would not inflate the bill to more than 100%. Adding just an extra roti and masala chaas to an already advertised full meal, would not just double/triple your bill! Right? We paid up anyway, having learnt a valuable lesson for future eat-out experiences.

Because it is so critical in all professions, expectations management is slowly finding its way in the curriculum of most formal business management courses. It would be nothing more than a more formal course is communications, relationship management and diplomacy, but it is still important nevertheless. Even businesses realize that it is better to be forthcoming on their prospects and set the right expectations, than be secretive on information, which is only going to hurt in the long run. People never panic when things go as per some “plan”, however bad the plan is. In the concluding part of this article, we will see how expectation management applies to not only everything we do in professional life but also to our personal lives. If you have encountered things going wrong because of setting wrong expectations, or if you found things in this piece interesting, do let me know through comments. Set your expectations right and then success will be yours. All the best!

Continued in Part 2... here