Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mumbai Journal: Infovision 2007 Highlights Content Transforming a Nation

Three years ago Dr. Shalini R. Urs, the Executive Director of the International School of Information Management at the University of Mysore, contacted me about speaking at the Infovision conference, a new event that was focusing on how leading content technologies and services are changing enterprise, media and personal publishing in India. At the time I had to say no to her generous request and likewise last year. But when her third request arrived earlier this year it was clear to me that the time to say yes had come. Long known for its support of global publishers through development and production services India is beginning to come into its own right as a major media powerhouse, becoming ever more adept at servicing both global and domestic markets with increasingly sophisticated content services.

The Infovision 2007 conference chaired by Dr. Shalini Urs certainly bore out my perception of India as a nation on the move. Peppered with leading thinkers from Google, Yahoo, Thomson and other international electronic publishers the conference was also thick with insight from domestic companies and universities who demonstrated that India is developing an assertive outlook on its ability to innovate, as well as to automate, in the delivery of leading content services. This was a world-class conference filled with world-class thinking.

Yet this move towards innovation comes against a backdrop of India's economic and demographic realities. Dr. F.C. Kohl, Vice Chairman of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), lead off the two day event with a recap of how India's exclusion from much of the industrial revolution creates urgency for its emerging transformation in the current information revolution. Sometimes referred to as the father of the Indian software industry, Dr. Kohl was quick to remind the conference-goers that India had only a handful of PCs - some estimates would place it at about 14 million - for its billion-plus population. In some ways this is good news, as the domestic marketplace has a tremendous upside, yet Dr. Kohl claimed that India lacked basic industrial infrastructure that would enable India to make low-cost PCs for themselves.

But just because PCs are a relative rarity in India does not mean that there is not an enormous penetration of electronic information services into the world's fourth largest economy. Go down the streets of Mumbai and one of the most common sights that you'll find is the local mobile phone dealer sandwiched in to any number of storefronts. According to the Indian government 90 percent of mobile phones in use in India are made domestically, with the total population of phones expected to soar to around 250 million by the end of this year, powered by the burgeoning wealth of India's rapidly expanding middle class. This is stimulating vigorous growth of domestic content services taking advantage of domestically produced mobile platforms - a strong combination.

The technological know-how to power these changes was highlighted in data on patent growth presented by Dr. Hsinchun Chen, the McClelland Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Arizona. Dr. Chen's data showed India to be the world's fastest growing source of patents, much of it via foreign investors who hold those patents but through which the domestic Indian economy is certain to benefit from this nation's re-emergence as a major center of innovation.

Jayanta Chatterjee PhD, a Professor at the Industrial and Management Engineering Department of IIT Kanpur with deep experience in commercial IT services, highlighted at the conference how deeply this revolution in mobile services will penetrate - and how much that it's required. Professor Chatterjee noted that India needs to double its rate of agricultural production growth in the next five years to keep up with the demands of its population, a challenge and a time frame that makes it impossible to rely on literacy efforts alone to educate and inform the 900 million people in India who speak hundreds of native languages and dialects but not English.

Professor Chatterjee's hopes for these people is expressed through the Agropedia project, a repository of agricultural knowledge and know-how sponsored by IITK that uses farmer-created ontologies and insights to help people contribute and benefit from front-line experiences. Currently the Agropedia interface requires villagers to travel to computer-based koisks for access to its resources but IITK is moving to introduce a voice interface to Agropedia that could allow voice access and contributions via mobile phones. Instead of waiting for knowledge to be normalized into a standard printed language the voice-activated Agropedia will enable knowledge systems to be built upon the rich fabric of languages that make sense to the people most responsible for agricultural production in India. As Prabhakar Raghavan, Head of Yahoo! Research put it at the conference, we are moving to an era in which our identities are being built around the concept of "I share, therefore I am." While Arun Ramanujapuram, head of the Advanced Technology Group at Yahoo! Bangalore and other panelists pointed out the usual drumbeat of how Web 2.0 is being used in India for marketing and branding efforts the Agropedia project seems to be indicative of the kinds of publishing tools that are more likely to have a significant economic impact for this complex nation closer to is real economic roots.

I would be misleading you to say that the conference at the ITC Maratha focused only on such macroeconomic matters, for in fact there was a great deal of industry-leading insight at the very edge of he content industry throughout the Infovision 2007 conference. But the confluence of the leading edge of content and everyday Indian life informed many of the insights inevitably. For example Rohini Srihari, PhD, CEO of Janya, a U.S. company specializing in multi-language text analytics, highlighted the emerging importance of proximity-based mobile content applications as helping to drive the value of user-generated content. But she also noted that of the world's webloggers 39 percent were blogging in English, 31 percent in Japanese and 12 percent in Chinese. If most of those 300 million mobile phones in India are being used by non-English speakers then there's a large gap to fill in getting people creating social media content in native languages and dialects.

L. Venkata Subramanian PhD of the IBM India Research Lab noted that the power of the collective wisdom found in weblogs was already so strong in Pakistan that blocking them was one of the first priorities of Pakistan's government during the recent state of emergency in that neighboring nation. He also reminded people of the "hole in the wall" experiment with a PC embedded in a wall available for public use in a poor New Delhi neighborhood several years ago. The most avid users were children aged 6 to 12, who learned how to collaborate with one another to surf the Web and to use software without any instruction. When asked how they liked using the computer, they said, "What's a computer?" In many ways the universality of microprocessors in our daily lives has many people asking that very same question in many venues. Humanity is learning a great deal from one another how to publish at least as fast as we are learning from experts. Teachers, mentors and innovators are still needed, but the innate ability and desire of people to communicate is the most potent power in publishing today.

It's hard to do justice to all of the great presentations and discussions at this conference but I would be remiss if I did not mention Noshir Contractor, PhD of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. His excellent keynote presentation highlighted many of the learnings he as attained from studying firms such as Proctor & Gamble trying to leverage knowledge networks in enterprise and media environments. Looking at publishers such as LinkedIn which are developing tools that are extending social networks into knowledge networks Dr. Contractor offered the term "cognitive knowledge networks" to describe this complex interplay found in peer-driven relationships that is driving many of today's most valuable insights in enterprise and media content markets. The cognitive power of these networks lies oftentimes in their diversity, as opinions that would otherwise be lost in "groupthink" get a fair audience that can help to change the direction of decision-making processes. This ability to focus more efficiently on the weaker or contrasting ties in one's network that can yield deeper insights. As applications that can mine physically proximate people come into play in the near future this concept of cognitive knowledge networks is certain to become a key cornerstone for those trying to maximize their value in publishing.

When you invest 14-plus hours each way in a coach plane seat you're hoping for good return on your investment; overall I must say that this was a conference that paid off handsomely for me. I was also glad to have a day to explore Mumbai itself beyond the posh comforts of the ITC Maratha and to get some street-level perspective on how India is absorbing the changes driven by its strengthening media resources. More on those adventures later. For now suffice it to say that so many of the key innovations that are driving publishing today combine the leading talents of India with those found in Western markets that it will become increasingly important for Western publishers to tune in to India's insights through venues such as the Infovision conference more frequently in the future.
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