Friday, January 23, 2009

Bangalore Journal: Infovision 2009 Focuses on the Intent of the New India's Content

My trip to this year's excellent Infovision 2009 conference brought me to Bangalore, a still-booming city that enjoys great weather this time of year. Like most places in India Bangalore is a study in contrasts between the ancient and the modern, but perhaps more accentuated in Bangalore than in Mumbai, which has not benefited as much from global investment as Bangalore has. As I arrived in the wee hours of the morning I found myself in an ultra-modern airport on the outskirts of Bangalore, a healthy cab ride away from Bangalore itself - akin to getting into central London from Heathrow - and rather an island in a more traditional landscape. Similar islands dotted central Bangalore, powerful modern architecture for commercial interests alongside a culture largely in parallel with these globally inspired investments.

These contrasts were in some ways echoed in the content of the Infovision 2009 programme, which highlighted some of the major strides that India is making with both its core national information infrastructure and innovations that are driving that infrastructure towards addressing India's key challenges and opportunities. The theme of the conference was "Content to Intent: Understanding user intent in multimodal, multilingual mobile and enterprise." There were a wide range of presentations from both academicians and executives with deep industry experience who highlighted how India's content and knowledge mangement specialists are moving beyond traditional information management to look at how content services deliver higher levels of value through understanding more deeply human intents and needs.

Like India itself, much of the challenge for content in India revolves around both issues of fundamental infrastrucutre and the fundamental structure of its society. On the infrastructure side, Infovision highlighted advances in India's grid computing intiatives that are enabling universities and associated enterprises to compete more effectively in key global research and product development sectors such as life sciences. But the focus at Infovision kept on returning to domestic initiatives that highlighted the importance of moving India's information management capabilities past the boundaries of major institutions and into the fabric of everyday life.

This focus on content making a difference in everyday lives highlighted at Infovision could be best summed up in the concept of the "sensor ether," an ability to collect information from people and equipment that can help people to understand and to communicate real-world conditions in India. Like many initiatives in India, having points of information in a vast and complex nation means being able to make the most of data-gathering resources in cost-effective ways. One initiative being explored is the ability to monitor traffic at intersections in cities like Bangalore using microphones that pick up traffic noises which can be analyzed for sounds that indicate particular kinds of traffic congestion. With sophisticated analysis of simpler inputs, India begins to learn what India really is on a moment-by-moment basis.

A key initiative that underscores this need to learn about India today is the Biodiversity India portal, a wiki-based platform with sophisticated information structuring tools designed to capture many different layers of knowledge relating to India's natural resources. While scientists are one source of data for this resource, citizens are also being enlisted to provide key data points around the nation. For example, a family with a particular kind of tree in their yard can report on its condition throughout the year. As one data point this may not be so important but with a nation filled with such inputs a rich map of climate and environmental conditions can begin to build up. What India may gain through such initiatives is a far more exact knowledge of what India really is today; the state of many of its resources have yet to be revealed in full detail.

Infovision 2009 also highlighted many cutting-edge efforts focused on advanced technologies such as speech and gesture recognition in videos and language translation. Language translation is of particular importance to India's citizens, who use more than 100 languages and dialects to communicate with one another; it's estimated that only five to eight percent of people in India use English to communicate with one another. Rohini Sahari, CEO of Janya, a U.S.-based firm specializing in language translation technologies, highlighted some of the challenges of improving the automated translation of languages and the statistical, lexical and grammatical methods Janya's Semantex product blends to move this technology forward. With the U.S. government's keen interest in funding these capabilities for its security and intelligence operations, there is hope for strong progress in enabling languages and their cultures in India to bridge important communications gaps.

With improving communications infrastrucure India has the potential to unlock much of its emerging potential over the next decade. However, this does not mean that its rich and multi-layered culture is likely to be eradicated by Internet-based communications. Even as India engages in efforts to modernize its infrastructure it is evident from the manner in which it is modernizing that its centuries of traditions are likely to survive and even to be enhanced by the Web's ability to help people express themselves on a personal level. No surprise, then, that my presentation on my new book "Content Nation" was received with some notable enthusiasm. While the potential of social media technologies are being realized already in many ways in India, it is clear that there is a young and enthusiastic generation of Web-aware citizens in India eager to bring their nation to a new level of productivity and self-awareness through social media. To those of you who live and breathe media markets, social media's impact may seem to be old hat at times:. To the world at large, though, we have barely begun to see and to understand how much the world is about to change under its sway.

My thanks out again to Prof. Shalini R. Urs of the University of Mysore, the Executive Director of the International School of Information Management (ISiM), who invited me to speak again at Infovision. It was a memorable event and I was privileged to be a part of it. My thanks go out also to the sponsors of the event, who provided a top-notch venue with great accommodations and fantastic food. If you can manage to fit Infovision into your events itinerary next year, I think that you will find it to be well worth the effort to get there.
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