Yahoo’s re-invention

Some posts ago, I mentioned that I’d be doing a bit of research into what Yahoo!’s been up to while Google’s been stealing all the limelight and headlines. Well, for starters, Business 2.0 has an good article titled “The Flickrization of Yahoo!

The article talks about how Flickr has kick-started Yahoo!’s re-structuring from the stagnant, generation One portal that it was, into a more community-driven, content-oriented environment. Like Google, it appears to have tuned in to the power of the community’s opinions to build a better Web. Flickr itself, for instance, has changed the face or digital photography, creating a 1.5 million strong community, with 14000 photos being uploaded every hour, being tagged and searched, being linked to blogs and so on. What Yahoo! wants to do, is to Flickr-ize the whole web. To do with all the content on the web that Flickr did with digital photographs.

This is in stark contrast to Google’s approach, which is to use more and more sophisticated algorithms to mine the web for information. To this end, significant acquisitions by Yahoo include upcoming.org (an online calendar system, again created totally by the online society), Konfabulator (desktop widgets), which Yahoo! hopes will get users to “slice and dice Yahoo content any way they want”.

Worth a read. Additionally, I’m exploring My Yahoo! (my.yahoo.com), and it looks promising. Something like Google’s personalised homepage (google.com/ig), and at first glance I’m tempted to say that Yahoo!’s is better. But only at first glance. More about this, coming up!

Mumbai's Amazing Dabbawalas

Rediff.com’s special feature on Mumbai’s “dabbawalas”, the 4500-strong tiffin-box suppliers’ community:

It’s a fascinating article, because this is the first article about the dabbawalas which doesn’t just offer empty praise about their efficiency and laud their “six-sigma” status, but delves into the internal orgranisational makeup of the community, their hiring, logistical and delivery techniques.

For us in the technology industry, the article offers a compelling analogy:

“In a way, MTBSA’s (Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association) system is like the Internet. The Internet relies on a concept called packet switching. In packet switched networks, voice or data files are sliced into tiny sachets, each with its own coded address which directs its routing.

These packets are then ferried in bursts, independent of other packets and possibly taking different routes, across the country or the world, and re-assembled at their destination. Packet switching maximises network density, but there is a downside: your packets intermingle with other packets and if the network is overburdened, packets can collide with others, even get misdirected or lost in cyberspace, and almost certainly not arrive on time.”

And although they’re mostly semi-literate youth from the a certain community who’ve migrated to Mumbai in search of work, the organisation’s been quick to latch on to technology:

“Today customers can also log onto the website www.webrishi.com to access the service.”

There’s a lot to learn from the dabbawalas’ association:

1.) Co-operation from the local railways: There are a few special “dabbawala special” trains every morning running “down” (local lingo for “towards CST/Churchgate”, the two terminuses of the Central and Western local railway networks). Also, “The railway provides sorting areas on platforms as well as special compartments on trains traveling south between 10.00 am and 11.30 am.”

2.) Flat org. chart: i.) “…there is no organisational structure, managerial layers or explicit control mechanisms. The rationale behind the business model is to push internal competitiveness, which means that the four Vile Parle groups vie with each other to acquire new customers.” ii.) “Here nobody is an employer and none are employees. Each dabbawala considers himself a shareholder and entrepreneur.”

3.) Well-tuned financial disbursal system: “
Money is collected in the first week of every month and remitted to the mukadam on the first Sunday. He then divides the money equally among members of that group. It is assumed that one dabbawala can handle not more than 30-35 customers given that each tiffin weighs around 2 kgs. And this is the benchmark that every group tries to achieve.”

4.) Community model: i.) “From his earnings of between Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000, every dabbawala contributes Rs15 per month to the association. The amount is utilised for the community’s upliftment, loans and marriage halls at concessional rates. All problems are usually resolved by association officials whose ruling is binding.” ii.) “This system accommodates those who didn’t or couldn’t finish their studies. It’s obvious that those who score good marks go for higher education and not to do this job, but we have people who have studied up to standard twelve who couldn’t find respectable jobs.”

5.) Self-sufficiency: “…each dabbawala, like any businessman, has to bring some capital with him. The mini-mum investment is two bicycles (approximately Rs 4,000), a wooden crate for the tiffins (Rs 500), at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama (Rs 600), and Rs 20 for the trademark Gandhi topi.”

5.) Internal competition: “
Typically, a twenty member group has 675 customers and earns Rs 100,000 per month which is divided equally even if one dabbawala has 40 customers while another has 30. Groups compete with each other, but members within a group do not. It’s common sense, points out one dabbawala.”

India.gov.in

India.gov.in – This looks like the best effort on the Government’s end to present one common e-face to the nation. I’m still exporing this site, but it sounds promising. Here’s what the “About this portal” page says:

This is the Official Portal of the Indian Government, designed, developed and hosted by National Informatics Centre (NIC), the premier ICT Organisation of the Government of India under the aegis of Department of Information Technology , Ministry of Communications & Information Technology.

The Portal has been developed as a Mission Mode Project under the National E-Governance Plan of the Government. The objective behind the Portal is to provide a single window access to the information and services being provided by the Indian Government for the citizens and other stakeholders. An attempt has been made through this Portal to provide comprehensive, accurate, reliable and one stop source of information about India and its various facets. Links at various places, too, have been provided to other Indian Government Portals/websites.

The content in this Portal is the result of a collaborative effort of various Indian Government Ministries and Departments, at the Central/State/District level. It is our endeavour to continue the enhancement and enrichment of this Portal in terms of content coverage, design and technology on a regular basis.

I’m praying, and hoping against hope that this endeavour takes off into something that really makes a difference to our lives. So far, it’s just a pretty design (which is actually a huge step forward), and what looks like a lot of documents and vision statements. Overall, the purpose of the site appears to be a common front-end to most government sites.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to have posts about what I’d like to see on this site, why and how we can get it done. In two words – content and applications. Not just words, something that’s useful. Using next-generation web technology to make it one of the best in the world. Examining how we can use the power of the individual citizen to make a difference to this website.

Two points which struck me right now: the “maps” section of the site is Bad. These are primitve maps found in school textbooks, and (although probably up-to-date), are about 20 years inthe past in terms of technological innovation. I challenge the Indian government to be bold enough to embrace Google Maps, work with Google to provide better and more detailed maps of India, and make use of the map API to link these maps with Government databases such as demography, road and rail links, natural resources, and the like. Access to the National Spatial Database is for “Authorised Users Only”, which smacks of the control-freak mentaily of the 70s and 80s. Why can’t I, as an Indian. have access to maps of my own country?

Speaking of road and rail links, the Indian Railways website needs an urgent, massive overhaul. It can’t do a thing right, and the UI is Horrible, and the HTML is not standards-compliant. It looks like it was designed by a monkey with a copy of Frontpage.

Prima facie, Google Reader’s great!

I haven’t had much opportunity to try Google Reader (Google’s web-based RSS aggregator), but I gave it a spin yesterday, after exporting my Thunderbird news feeds to an OPML file and importing them into Google Reader. At first glance, it appears to be a very well-designed application – with all the Gmail-like Javascript/Ajax UI magic tricks.

Google Reader Screenshot

You can tag your news feeds, and create feeds out of one or more tags. The next logical step would be to integrate these tags with something like del.icio.us, and be able to subscribe directly to community-tagged feeds. For instance, if I wanted to create a feed for political news from India, I’d subscribe to “India” + “politics”. That’d really be great. I’m now using the power of the community to aggregate feeds from sources that I’d never be able to find on my own.