Sunday, July 24, 2016

Disaster Management: Can Internet of Things Make a Difference?

What happens when disaster strikes? The answer depends, among other things, on where you are located. And if you live in a third-world, hot, crowded and messy country like India—all hell breaks loose.

Millions among India’s billion-plus citizens have seen that hell from up, close and personal: in the ruthless form of floods, earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides and other disasters that destroy lives, livestock and the lock, stock and barrels that help people sustain their existence.

In fact, as I write these lines, the country is in the midst of disastrous rains and flooding in several states across its length and breadth.

On such occasions, the administration goes into an overdrive, the army and paramilitary forces are called in and the voluntary organizations are roped in for relief work. But Nature’s fury often proves too much and, despite all their efforts and hard work, the scale at which misery unfolds in the aftermath is astounding.

Can technology play a role in anticipating, mitigating, controlling and managing this misery? And if so, to what extent and in what ways?

Those were the questions that came flooding to my mind as I attended the launch recently of a white paper titled “Internet of Things (IoT) for Effective Disaster Management.” The paper was brought out by Digital India Action Group (DIAG), a think tank set up by IT vendor lobby group MAIT for “ideating and monitoring policy initiatives to support the Indian Government’s mission of Digital India.”

The objective of the paper is “to create awareness and appreciation about the potential use and applications of IoT for different aspects of disaster management.”

Alongside, DIAG also released another white paper, “Aadhaar-Enablement: A Framework for Citizen-Centric Services”.

For the uninitiated, Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identity issued by the Government’s Unique ID Authority of India. Over 1 billion of these IDs have been given thus far in what is billed as the largest such exercise in the world.

While discussing Aadhaar and the potential of Aadhaar-based services is a Pandora’s box in itself, let me confine myself to IoT in disaster management for this post.

The role of IoT in disaster management, in keeping with the huge potential of this mother-of-all-technological-paradigm, is critical and wide-ranging. A multiplicity of agencies, infrastructure, devices, policies, and applications, among others, must come together to make the whole exercise “effective”, as the DIAG paper rightly highlights in its title.

The presence of a cross-section of officials and executives—from government, industry and consulting organizations (see pic)—is, one hopes, symbolic of the coordinated, on-ground effort that will be required in the days to come to give actual shape to the vision laid out in the document.
The IoT white paper recommends a “Seven-Point Action Plan” to shift from a “relief and recovery” model to “risk and vulnerability assessment” and address key issues and challenges related to management of natural and man-made disasters in India.

According to data from the IoT white paper, as much as 57% land area of India is vulnerable to earthquakes; 12% of this area is vulnerable to severe earthquakes. Besides, 68% land is vulnerable to drought, 12% land vulnerable to floods and 8%, to cyclones. The paper notes that many cities in India are also vulnerable to chemical, industrial and other man-made disasters.

The benefits of IoT in disaster management are easy to visualize (though difficult to implement, given the current realities of India): agencies can gain a clear picture of operations with real-time visibility of data as well as model data from multiple sources. This can further be transformed into accessible, actionable intelligence for faster, better-informed decisions. It is important, therefore, to create “a single, federated information hub.”

The paper calls for building an information backbone which all parties—government agencies, NGOs, infrastructure operators and community—can contribute to and work from.

One term in the paper that specifically caught my eye was “intuitive analytics” which seems to take the capabilities of the current big data analytics technologies to their optimal level.

In this context, SAP’s Lovneesh Chanana presented an insightful video of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. After the disastrous floods in the year 2013, which resulted in loss of close to a hundred lives and millions of dollars, the Argentine capital decided to put sensors in over 30,000 storm drains that measure, as per this report on the SAP site, “the direction, level and speed of water.” One of the key technologies to gather and analyze this huge amount of data in real-time is SAP HANA.

Technologies lie SAP HANA (or IBM Watson, for that matter) are not cheap to deploy for funds-starved governments. But consider the impact of not using the most advanced technologies: A World Bank forecast puts the annual losses from floods alone to reach as high as $1 trillion worldwide if cities don’t take preventive measures.

Each city, in my opinion, will need to take a deep view of what’s the best fit for it in terms of technologies, including IoT and the use of social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. (If you think lightly of the idea, pause for a moment to consider that the US Geological Survey, a government entity, runs a service called the Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED). Under this, there are two Twitter accounts that send out earthquake alerts: @USGSted and @USGSBigQuakes.)

I remember reading a report a few years ago that was in a way precursor to the TED service. When, in the US, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the Northeast in 2011, many New Yorkers learned about it on Twitter—seconds before the shaking actually started. Tweets from people at the epicenter near Washington, D.C., outpaced the quake itself, providing a unique early warning system. (Conventional alerts, by contrast, were said to take two to 20 minutes to be issued.)

Technology is advancing at a much faster pace now, especially with machine learning, robotics and drones appearing more frequently in headlines than ever before.

What should the Indian government and industry players be doing in tackling disasters with IoT and other tools?

The DIAG white paper gives some recommendations, the MAIT DIAG Seven-Point Action Plan, which includes:

- Release of cloud security and related guidelines as part of the Digital India policy framework.
- Inclusion of ICT in Disaster Management in the National Skills Development Framework and Plan.
- Release of IoT Policy for India.
- Development of framework for continuous industry participation in planning for disaster management.
- Back-end applications for asset management with disaster management authorities.
- Knowledge portal for sharing experiences and best practices.
- A comprehensive plan for prevention of cyber disasters.

Even if some of the above points are put into practice by a government-industry “action tank” (taking the think part to its logical conclusion), the disasters that certainly, unavoidably await the Indian multitudes can perhaps be mitigated and managed much better than before.

For CIOs, tech leaders and others who would like to dig deeper or get involved, here are some reference links:

 (The above blog post first appeared on Lead visual credit:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Four Stages of Digital Disruption CXOs Should Know

It is easy for people within an industry to see something repeated quite often as clich├ęd, boring, hyped or done-to-death. But when it comes to the double dose of “Digital Disruption” (with two heavyweight words wrestling alongside), there is usually a lot of discomfort as well.

And while one often gets to hear the names of the usual “culprits”—the Ubers and Olas, the Airbnbs, the Facebooks of the world—who are causing or have caused a lot of disruption in the market, it is good to come across something that helps the existing enterprises or the incumbents chart digital territory with greater confidence.

McKinsey’s aptly titled “An incumbent’s guide to digital disruption” offers a few silver linings and plenty of hope. The introduction lures you in with these powerful words: “Incumbents needn’t be victims of disruption if they recognize the crucial thresholds in their life cycle, and act in time.”

It goes on to describe in interesting detail the four stages of disruption from an incumbent’s perspective, the barriers to overcome, and the choices and responses needed at each stage.

The four stages are identified in self-explanatory terms—Stage one: Signals amidst the noise; Stage two: Change takes hold; Stage three: The inevitable transformation; and Stage four: Adapting to the new normal.

The authors of the McKinsey article, Chris Bradley and Clayton O’Toole, also help the incumbent organizations in visualization of their current stage on an S-curve and mapping their moves and barriers along various inflection points on the graph.

The authors pepper these stages with real-life examples and insights, which makes for useful reading for companies that are in the midst of their own digital journeys and can take cues from those who have been there or done that (or not done that, for that matter).

Sample a few: as long as 10 years back, Norwegian media group Schibsted made the bold move to offer classifieds online—for free; Netflix “disrupted itself” in 2011 by shifting its focus from DVD rentals to online streaming; and Grocery retailer Aldi is said to have disrupted numerous incumbents globally with its low-price model.

You can read the full McKinsey article here or download an assessment guide that helps an organization in ascertaining its position in the digital journey by clicking this link.

It is always better to disrupt yourself than let someone else do it!

Monday, June 20, 2016

International Yoga Day: Meditations on Meditation

Like many other great things that have come to us through the rich inheritance of ancient Indian art and culture, the origin of meditation is difficult to pin down to a single date of the Gregorian calendar (the current map of our oh-so-busy daily routines).

But never mind that. Let’s begin with mindfulness—the very essence of the life mantra that the Buddha, arguably the greatest teacher who ever walked on Earth, chanted for himself and one that he compassionately advocated for millions of his followers.

The four establishments of mindfulness help us see the interconnected nature of everything in the universe and nudge us toward attunement of our self/non-self dualistic instruments to the rhythm divine (or Nada Brahma, as per ancient Indian spiritual sages).

If that sounds quite a mindful, here are the four establishments: in mindfulness, the adept or practitioner tries to maintain awareness of whatever is going on in their “body, feelings, mind and objects of mind”. For instance, if you are breathing, you are aware that you are breathing; if you are feeling angry, you observe this anger and contemplate on the constituents or causes of this anger, how it arises, how it affects your breathing, how it fades, etc. (you do this without reacting to the anger or without abruptly trying to stop feeling angry); and so on and so forth. (This simplified explanation is based on Satipatthana Sutta as described in the book Old Path White Clouds by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh).

The basic idea of mindfulness is to detach ourselves from the perceptions and objects imagined or visualized by the mind and watch over whatever is happening with us as if we are an outside observer to all these phenomena. Gradually and with practice, we can begin to see the cause-and-effect reality around us and the dependent co-arising of everything that exists.

And let’s also not forget about emptiness or Sunyata, another construct of the grand edifice of meditation. In Buddhist references, it is also known as voidness.

So, thus far, you have these three key terms to juggle and tease: meditation, mindfulness, sunyata.

Stay with me a little more, before you run away to the noisy craziness of your life. I know you will. Why, I will (to my own box of craziness, not yours :) But it wouldn’t hurt to let the balmy breeze of meditation caress and smoothen your hair a bit before you put on your daily hat.

Before we talk further about meditation, be aware that just as the divine river of yoga has flowed continuously since eons, so has the ocean of meditation been churned for nectar for ages. And just as yoga today has scores of tributaries, with multiple streams (and “revenue streams” in a fast-commercializing world; see my post on the origins and significance of yoga), the ripples from the ocean-font of meditation have had their far-reaching waves of influence as well. Take chakra meditation, for instance. (Google it, I’m not giving you the link this time :)

One earnest request I would like to make in the backdrop of the apparent usurping of the eternal legacies of yoga and meditation by political and commercial entities. Like the Buddha had said, if someone points a finger to the moon to show it to you in its cool majestic brilliance, then you should not “mistake the finger for the moon.”

So, if the Modis and Ramdevs of the world happen to be, at the moment, “showcasing” yoga or meditation to the world at large, why mistake their religion-loaded or money-making follies for the supreme, everlasting mind-body-soul systems we all can practice and benefit from?

Without further ado, let me put down some of my *meditations* on meditation (a few are taken from my book, Strings of the Soul). So sit back, relax, read, and breathe easy:

“Meditation takes you away from the torrent of oppressive thoughts into the inexplicable joy of stillness.”

“Make your mind not a tangled cocoon of familiarity but a wide open sea, where the waves of free thought continually sweep the beaches of your imagination. And let these waves wash away your worries and keep the delta where mind meets body fresh and fertile.”

“Meditation is the process of setting yourself free from the prison of your own thoughts.”

"Meditation is the key to transforming your monkey mind into a monk."

Don’t try too hard to meditate, nor think too much about what really is meditation. Get a handle on your body, a grip on your mind and a bridle to your breath. Devise your own mantra if you haven’t found a worthy guru who can give it to you (in all likelihood you haven’t but in all possibility you can :) Be with yourself for as long as you wish in an inner atmosphere of freedom, trust and tranquility. Explore the visions of your mind, not with craving or aggression but in a blissful balancing of mind-body-soul. Dissect, analyze as much as you want but, gradually, finally, take a few quiet steps in making everything in the universe look one, look great, look whole.

The thorns pricking in your inner consciousness will begin to feel like rose petals. The turmoil of your feelings and sensations will subside to a gentle swing. And your heart and mind will aspire for something higher, much higher than you ever thought possible.

That, my dear, is meditation.

Meditation teaches you to hold infinity in the calm of your mind.

(Image credit:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

10 Interesting Business Use Cases of Internet of Things

The term “Internet of Things” often throws people, even in the technology industry, off balance. They begin struggling for definitions, explanations, market statistics and what not. There are those who throw multiple spanners in the works by citing security concerns (like they did with cloud). And then, those who generally do a lot of huffing and puffing.

Nothing wrong with that, actually. Any new or not-yet-mature technology segment goes through its own cycle of hype, hazards and hurrahs. So there’s no reason to treat IoT any different. Except perhaps that IoT is much bigger than a typical flavor-of-the-season type technology. (Without giving conflicting numbers but to keep things in some perspective, by 2020, billions of things/devices are to be connected and trillions of dollars in additional value will be generated.)

However, as the stats, standards and stumbling-blocks keep rolling in, the IoT pioneers and large ecosystem players continue to chip away at making it work. (Talking of chips, Intel has just bought Itseez Inc., an expert in computer vision algorithms and implementations for embedded and specialized hardware, an area of great interest to the chip giant for the automotive and video opportunities in IoT.)

I scoured the web for real-life business uses cases of IoT solutions from across different sectors and scenarios. Here are some interesting ones (including a few from India as well):

- Miami International Airport, one of the busiest US airports (over 21 million passengers in 2015) has deployed Internet-connected sensors and IoT apps to provide detailed information to passengers based on their location and needs (the MIA mobile app for Android and iOS relies on a network of 400 beacons that transmit location information throughout the airport). For passengers, the app provides personalized directions through to airport and helps them find restaurants, services and baggage carousels based on their location.

- ATI Specialty Materials, a world leader in the production of special alloys and steels for the aerospace, oil & gas, and medical industries, uses the ThingWorx IoT platform from PTC—which provides a real-time layer that connects with their manufacturing, quality, maintenance, and ERP systems and allows them to rapidly create role based decision support “dashboards” and interactive applications.

- Using AMC Health’s mobile patient monitoring solution, an active pregnant woman who needs to track her blood sugar can use a mobile device to communicate readings from her glucometer at any time and any place she chooses, and that information is stored securely in the cloud. Her care provider has 24/7 access to her information and can determine whether she, her baby or both are at risk. Using this information, the woman’s health care provider can provide more timely and appropriate care for the benefit of both mother and baby.

- Ward Aquafarms, a 1000-cage aquaculture farm in Massachusetts, USA, uses thermal radiometry sensor enabled cameras from Mobotix running on the Verizon IoT platform to collect and analyze data such as environmental and sub-tidal water temperature, chlorophyll values, etc. Combined with satellite imaging data and analyzed properly, it helps Ward in its commitment to efficient and sustainable seafood production.

- The cities of San Diego (California) and Jacksonville (Florida) are running trials that use LED streetlight technology to collect real-time data not only to manage lighting, but also to manage parking, locate and identify potholes and keep track of repairs to municipal streets.

- John Deere has fitted its tractors sold globally with sensors. This helps the company update the farmer if a moving part of the tractor or the harvester is likely to fail, around one month before the event. (The analytics behind the predictive framework is said to have been done by a Bengaluru-based analytics firm, TEG Analytics.)

- Technologies like IoT often find usage in the unlikeliest of places. Take the case of successfully impregnating cows, for instance. A system called Gyujo, which was developed by Fujitsu, uses a pedometer strapped to the leg of the cow to help figure out exactly when is the best time to inseminate a cow. For farmers, the importance of getting this right is huge. Artificial insemination success rates today are around 70% with a pregnancy rate of around 40% when the detection rate of when the cow is in heat is 55%. Pushing that detection rate up to 95% (the level of accuracy claimed by Gyujo) causes the pregnancy rate to shoot up to 67%. (A cow in estrus “walks around furiously” typically at night, which is what Gyujo helps determine.)

- Tata Power Delhi Distribution Ltd (TPDDL) has taken a few steps in the IoT realm with a smart metering project. To manage peak demand and manage grid stress situations better, the company is working on an Automated Demand Response (ADR) mechanism for commercial and industrial high-end consumers (typically, users of 10 KW and above). The IoT project was undertaken to demonstrate technological capability, understand customer behavior, provider for a case study for the regulator to work on differential tariffs and financial incentives, and also to understand the processes required for scaling up as and when the need arises. Having successfully connected a total of 11 MVA non-critical load of Commercial and Industrial HT-consumers (it achieved a Demand Response of 7.2 MVA load during a DR Event in the year 2014), TPDDL is now confident of having the process capability to extend the IoT initiative to a larger base of consumers.

- Sheela Foam, the manufacturer of Sleepwell brand of mattresses in India, has introduced the IoT technology to help identify and offer the right kind of mattress to its customers as per their body shape. Every human body is different and needs a mattress that matches the body posture and the pressure distribution while sleeping. The company has devised an IoT based solution that is fitted to the mattresses on display at Sleepwell’s various retail outlets. There are sensors attached to this special mattress, called Sleepwell Sensobed, which scan and capture the various body shape related parameters when a person lies down on the mattress. The data is then analyzed and used to suggest perfectly matched mattresses to individual customers.

- IBM is using a slew of technologies, including IoT-based solutions, to digitally transform the Rashtrapati Bhavan in India. The company has created the business architecture and operating procedures, implemented the technology platform and solutions, and is managing the entire technology deployment. (The scope includes smart, eco-friendly solutions such as energy management, water management, waste and horticultural management, and security systems.)

The above is but a tiny representation of the humongous IoT ecosystem that is getting built even as I write these words. In all probability, the “thing/everything” part would be subsumed one day and we might refer to the Internet of Things simply as, well, the Internet.

(Image courtesy: This blog post first appeared on

Friday, April 29, 2016

Tinker, Juggler, Mathematician Guy: Claude Shannon Doodled by Google

Google's doodles, just like its profound search box, have been a constant source of rich and curious information for quite some time. And they are already celebrated much in the media.

Still, I found the most recent one, on a guy called Claude Shannon, quite interesting not only to note but to write a blog post as well. And while the doodles have of late been slipping in quality and creativity, this one seems to have put the shine back: what with a cute cartoon of Claude juggling zeroes and ones bang in the middle of the letters that make up Google, dissecting it into GOO and GLE.

I also felt embarrassed, nay ashamed, that I had to refer to the pioneer of information theory and unarguably a great mathematical genius, as "a guy called..." in the above para. headlined its piece on Shannon as The Juggling Unicyclist Who Pedaled Us Into the Digital Age.

Now, that's indeed quite a fitting and interestingly written tribute!

Let's look at how some of the other media sites and scientific portals describe him in their articles (post- as well as pre-doodle celebrating his birth centenary):

Without Shannon's information theory there would have been no internet (The Guardian)

Claude Shannon: Tinkerer, Prankster, and Father of Information Theory (IEEE Spectrum)

Claude Shannon: Reluctant Father of the Digital Age (MIT Technology Review)

Celebration time for Gaylord's Shannon, who 'changed the course of human history' (

Keep doodling, Google!