Thursday, July 11, 2013

Marathi Journalism in the Internet Age

On Saturday, 6th July, 2013, the Observer Research Foundation held a conference titled, "Marathi Journalism in the Internet Age." The conference was attended by around 30 journalists from various Marathi publications, and Satish Lalit, the Public Relations Officer of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Dr. Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman of ORF welcomed the participants and said that when he was advisor to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, Vajpayee used to say that IT was "India's Tomorrow." However, those who speak Indian languages have no role to play in India's Tomorrow. This was leading to a new secessionist movement with people moving away from their mother tongues. He added that the grossly inadequate development of Indian languages on the Net was one of the biggest barriers to inclusive development. He said that what is important to India's development cannot be left to the private sector and that the government must actively support Indian languages online. In particular, he proposed that advertising support to online Marathi publications should be stepped up dramatically. 


Anant Goenka, Head of New Media for the Indian Express Group Internet penetration in India is very low and nothing that people need to use the net in Indian languages is easily available. He said that a Flipkart in Hindi or Marathi would be a wonderful idea. He claimed that when Loksatta, the Marathi newspaper of the Indian Express group launched their Android app, they got 10,000 downloads within a week, most of them from expensive Samsung Galaxy phones, proving that the Marathi language audience had purchasing power. 

Lalitesh Katragadda, Head of the Emerging Markets team of Google joined this meeting over a conference call and gave an overview of Google's work in Indian languages and the road ahead. One of the points he made about Indian language computing being taught in schools was taken up by the Chief Minister's PRO, who said that he agreed with this demand and would place it in front of the CM. Incidentally, Prithviraj Chavan, the Maharashtra CM had started a company developing fonts and other Indian language technologies after completing his MS from UC, Berkeley. 

This was followed by an interactive session that was jointly moderated by Vinayak Parab, Editor of Lokprabha and myself, where the participants spoke on the challenges facing Marathi online journalists. Vinayak said that journalists had a huge role to play in establishing Marathi language on the Internet. He said that he was part of a group of 25 journalists who had met the Maharashtra CM and successfully petitioned the Maharashtra government to use Unicode. 

I mentioned that Wikipedia, Red Hat and Google have come together to create the Indic Computing Consortium. I made the point that while Indic scripts are complicated, may other scripts like are far greater in terms of complexity and yet have a significant presence on the Internet. India has all the technical capabilities required to solve the problem but lacked thew will to do so. If we worked in a focused manner to build the tool set for Indian language computing, we can solve this problem, once and for all.

Some of the key takeaways were:

1) Fonts render very differently on different platforms, and this is a big problem for publishers.

2) Most of the hits that Marathi newspapers are getting nowadays are from links they post on their Facebook pages. This is because search in Marathi is used by very few users because keyboards and input methods are significant barriers to entry. 

3) Many newspaper have e-paper versions that do not show up in search results. These papers should move to Unicode. 

4) Some Marathi sites are now beginning to leverage YouTube to generate more viewership. During the recent Uttarakhand tragedy, one Marathi newspaper posted videos from Uttarakhand which were in Marathi. However, by translating the videos and captioning them in English, they generated many more hits. 

5) There was a strong pitch from the journalists that Google AdSense and Google News should support Marathi. The web sites of Marathi newspapers are seen as a cost center and are therefore resource starved. I got the clear sense that the online journalists were itching to break out of this rut and were keen on seeing their online editions bring in revenues. Some journalists also asked if we could build tablet/smartphone tools that could convert Marathi handwriting into documents. 

6) Satish Lalit, the PRO to the Maharashtra CM said that the government was creating a new advertising policy and invited the online journalists to sen in their representation demanding support for online publications. He said that the Inscript keyboard had been made compulsory across the Maharashtra government. He said that all Maharashtra government press releases are being sent out in Unicode and a PDF copy of the same is also attached. The CM's Facebook page was recently launched and a blog set up. He said that in his travels across Maharashtra, he has found people in remote districts like Gadchiroli access Marathi news over the Internet because the printed papers would take time reaching the districts. In his role, he said that he used to scan 20 newsp0aers every day at 7AM in order to prepare a daily news digest for the CM. That job has become much easier nowadays due to online publications. He also said that he uses Whatsapp extensively to keep in touch with people. 

7) It was suggested that the number of glyphs in fonts should also be standardized.

Some of the action items that were identified were:

1) Create a forum for Marathi online journalists so that online journalism is recognized as a distinct skill. Since mostMarathi online journalists have received very little training, the group has decided to create a handbook for Marathi onlinejournalists. ORF promised all the support needed for setting up this group.

2) The group will petition the Maharashtra CM and ask the Maharashtra Government to create tools like dictionaries etc and make them available for free, in order to promote Marathi computing. It was suggested that the Maharashtra Government could make a one-time payment to CDAC and acquire their fonts and other Marathi language technologies and release them as open source. 

3) Dr. Kulkarni said that he will also reach out to the newly appointed NASSCOM president, R Chandrashekar, who was former IT Secretary of India, and request him to support this initiative. 

Credit goes to Dr. Kulkarni who has taken up this cause with a lot of passion. The organizing committee consisted of Anay Joglekar of ORF, Nilesh Bane of Maharashtra Times, Vinayak Parab of Lokprabha and myself. This event convinces me that online journalists can be a powerful support group for us in making Indian language computing popular, over the next few years.

Monday, June 03, 2013

RIP Atul Chitnis

One of the biggest names in the Indian FOSS community, Atul Chitnis, is no more. Several months ago, I was saddened to hear that he was diagnosed with cancer and, since then, I have followed his updates on Facebook. I must say that Atul put on a brave face and went down fighting (and cooking!).

Atul was one of the pioneers of the open source movement, popularizing Linux and open source with his numerous articles. Many years ago, as a part of the Mumbai Linux Users Group, I kept hearing of how popular the Bangalore Linux User's Group was and saw its popularity for myself when I was in Bangalore. I don't remember the year, but it was a wonderful feeling to attend the BangLinux meeting and see around a 100 FOSS enthusiasts gathered there. Over the years, I spoke at a couple of Bangalore Linux (later renamed to FOSS.IN) events and sought his help during the policy battles around OOXML and Open Standards.

With Raj Mathur and now Atul Chitnis passing away, the FOSS community has lost two of its pioneers, who will be sorely missed.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A quest for change in education


For the last few years, I have been increasingly interested in the area of Open Education Resources (OERs). MIT's Open Course Ware was one of the pioneers of OER and the manner in which it was used across the world was truly fascinating. Khan Academy took the concept of OERs and made it wildly popular – the 3000 videos on its web site have been viewed more than 133 million times!

Why this interests me is because I believe (as do many others) that education is one of the most critical inputs for India's development. Well, more than an input, I'd say this is the critical factor that decides whether our country descends into chaos in the next few decades or emerges out of poverty and takes a place of pride on the world state as one of the developed nations. Think of it as that moment when an aeroplane gathers speed on the runway and generates enough thrust to break free from the gravitational pull of the earth and soar into the sky. If we educate our youth and make them skilled and able citizens of India, we will soar into the skies. If we don't, we will land with a thud. As simple (and scary) as that.

Over the last few months, I've been trying to understand the education space in India and within that space, how OERs can help the Indian education system. It is no secret that there is a huge demand supply gap with the need for educational infrastructure and teachers not being matched by the Indian education system. Even among teachers that I have spoken to, there are huge gaps in the skills imparted to them. It is obvious that, as a country we still have a tremendous amount of work in terms of breadth and depth – breadth, in creating a network of teachers that reaches the remote villages of India and depth, in terms of ensuring that these teachers are equipped with sufficient skills and knowledge to teach their students. To understand this, I have been visiting educational institutions across India and I will be writing and documenting these experiences as I go along.

One of the first such educational institutions I visited as part of my quest was appropriately named QUEST, which is short for “Quality Education Support Trust.” QUEST is an NGO that works on enhancing quality of education and has its office in Saloni Village in Wada District, an underdeveloped tribal area of Maharashtra State in India. Some of the teachers I met their had done their BEd from premier institutions in India, but I was shocked when they told me that they had no training in how to teach in real-life situations. QUEST has been working to fill that gap.

Saloni village is a two hour drive out of Mumbai and by the time we reached the QUEST office around 9.30AM in the morning, the heat is above a blistering 40 degrees celsius. Accompanying me in the car are Nilesh Nimkar, an educationist working for the last 15 years in tribal belts of Thane; and Rammohan Khanapurkar, a young techie working with the ObserverResearch Foundation. Together, they have implemented Moodle, an open source Learning Management System, which has been customized to Marathi, for the benefits of the teachers who are being trained by QUEST.

Some of the work that QUEST has been doing to improve education quality has been so simple that one wishes more people adopt it. For example, over a hundred teachers affiliated to QUEST are now using the Moodle forum in Marathi, to exchange ideas with each other on improving education quality. I find about 25 of these teachers assembled at the QUEST office in Saloni village for a workshop. When I quizzed these teachers about the benefits of the Moodle forum, they said that many teachers who were too shy to ask questions in a classroom would open up and ask questions online. They found that the forum had an impact on education quality because they could post problems and find solutions quickly. One teacher said that he was struggling with slow learners in his class and the ideas from other teachers in the forum helped him bring the slower kids up to speed. The teachers were so enthused by the online forum that many of them spent their own money to buy netbooks and data cards to connect to the forum. One of the key factors for the success of the forum was that the teachers were given a 15 day training in using the Inscript keyboard in Marathi, which helped them use the online forum more fluently. Khanapurkar says that the usage of the forum shot up once the training was completed. For the Indic computing community, this is a point worth noting, for ensuring the success of Indic computing.

Another intervention that QUEST has made for improving education quality is the creation of videos that explain how teaching can be done in an actual classroom. In one such video, a teacher is teaching the Marathi alphabet “Na” to a class of kids who are around two-three years old. She uses more than 20 words with the alphabet “Na” in it, emphasizing the “Na” and makes her students repeat the word. Then she asks each of the students to give her one word with “Na” in it and finally tears up a newspaper into pieces and asks the students to underline every occurrence of “Na” in the piece handed over to them. The video serves as a powerful example of how multiple methods of learning (auditory, kinesthetic etc) can be combined to serve the core concepts being taught. The video is barely ten minutes long, but the teachers say that it has made a difference to the way they teach alphabets in their classes. Nimkar tells me that QUEST sometimes uses as many as eight cameras to make these videos, and pay particular attention to capturing the reactions of the students. Such videos can be a powerful means of upgrading the skills of teachers in India.

Most readers will also agree with me that we need a fundamental rethinking of the education system in India. Critics say that India's education system was created by the British to fulfil their need for clerks who could keep the colonial empire running. Be that as it may, our system treats students as inert objects whose only task is to soak in the information dished out to them, and regurgitate/ vomit it at exam time. When I completed my graduation, I looked back on my five years in college, and the ten years in school, and came to the sad conclusion that those were my most wasted years of my life. Therefore, when I saw Kiran Bir Sethi's video on TED, I looked forward eagerly to meeting her and seeing the Riverside School that she founded.

Kiran got a standing ovation for her TED talk and a well deserved one too because she is teaching her kids at Riverside to be doers instead of being inert absorbers of knowledge. If India is to emerge out of this immense morass of corruption and incompetence, we need more people who believe that they can change the world for the better, and then go out and do it. As Indians, we whine about corruption and wallow in our miseries because our education system loads us with inert information but teaches us nothing about what to do with it. At Riverside, Kiran worked on a program called Design for Change that is transforming kids into individuals who say, I CAN’ instead of ‘Can I?’ Riverside kids have lobbied and campaigned for child-safe zebra crossings and for parts of Ahmedabad to be closed to traffic and dedicated exclusively for children.

I believe this kind of education is the need of the hour for India. If we as a nation do not believe that we can make change happen, we will continue living in the mess we have created and that is a horrible thought. If we teach our children how to make change happen, we can emerge as a strong, powerful and well developed nation in the next few decades and rout poverty from our country. Personally, Kiran's work also appealed to me enormously because in the last seven-eight years that I have worked in public policy and advocacy, I have seen with my own eyes that making policy change is not a difficult as people imagine it to be. The Indian government might be a byzantine and complex organism but there are definite ways of making it work. The Design for Change program started at Riverside has now become a global movement encompassing 35 countries of the world, which encourages children to work on challenges like health, environment, education and others facing our world. Search for “Riverside School Ahmedabad” on YouTube and you see some amazing possibilities how our education system can create better students and a better India. I hope these videos become more popular, and more and more educators rethink how they teach their kids.

The good news is that QUEST and Riverside believe in OERs and are willing to share their work with the rest of the world. In that, I see seeds of hope for a better future for India's students, teachers, our education system, and ultimately for India itself. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The World Foresight Forum: Envisioning a better future

A few months ago, an invitation from an event titled the World Foresight Forum landed in my inbox and the mail said,
we would like to include your speech in the Convention, in the Seminar "Dealing with global challenges: a leadership crisis?", in particular on the topic "Development of a knowledge-based economy."
The invitation added that,
The project, an initiative of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Granaria Holdings and TNO, aims at turning The Hague into the centre of the international debate on “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth”, being already the de facto judicial capital of the United Nations, where institutions, such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are headquartered.
The theme of “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth” is something that interests me deeply, so it took about a few milliseconds to say yes. I landed up last week at The Hague without much expectations, knowing only that it sounded very interesting, and interesting it was. A few prime ministers, the Chairman of Goldman Sachs, the CEO of Thomson Reuters, Edward De Bono (the founder of lateral thinking), several futurists, the Mayor of The Hague, academics, entrepreneurs and many others attended this event at The Hague, The Netherlands.

My session was moderated by the very jovial and sharp, Dr. Stephan de Spiegelerie. Stephan, as he insisted we call him, hit the nail on the head when he said that what was interesting about our session titled, "Development of a knowledge-based economy" was that it was all about possibilities, whereas many of the sessions at the WFF were concerned with issues of the past. In another session, earleier that day, Glen Hiemstra, Founder of Futurist.com said that (and I am paraphrasing a bit here and may not be exact) that there are two ways of creating the future. One was extrapolating from the present and the other was looking to the future and letting that create the present. Taking a cue from Stephan and Hiemstra, I painted a blue-sky picture (and most would say, a very idealistic picture) of the opportunities thrown up by the Internet. I started with a story about Emperor Ashoka, who was one of the greatest rulers of India, that I had read in my childhood that had a deep impact on me.

After the brutal battle of Kalinga, the Emperor Ashoka was so overcome with remorse that he renounced bloodshed and embraced Buddhism. As part of his penance, Ashoka went to monasteries across the country. At each monastery, he would leave munificent donations of gold coins. At one monastery, the emperor left behind one solitary gold coin. When his perplexed followers asked him to explain, Ashoka said that the abbot of the monastery was a great man but he did not share his knowledge with others.

I followed that up with another story. As a child growing up in India, one of the first things I learned is a hymn to Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, which says that:

Wonderful is your gift of knowledge
the more we share, the more it grows
the more we hoard it, the more it diminishes

These two stories amply illustrate the fact that there was a moral imperative to sharing knowledge, in Indian traditions. From these stories, I cut to the present where the Internet and the open source model based on collaboration, community and shared ownership of knowledge was leading to tremendous creativity and knowledge sharing, in a manner that Emperor Ashoka might have approved. I cited the example of Linux that has grown from 10,000 lines of code in September 1991 to around 204 million lines of code valued at 10.8 billion dollars and Wikipedia, the open source collaborative encyclopedia, that has grown from a standing start in 2000 to over 13 million entries in 260 languages of the world. Both these examples prove that by through Collaborative Innovation and sharing knowledge, we can grow richer as a society. With the Internet connecting almost 2 billion people, collaborating and sharing is now possible on a scale that no other technology could have enabled.

As the Internet grows and reaches more of humanity, and as it becomes a part of our day to day lives, is it possible that, as a species we will become more of a collaborative species, instead of a competitive one. Like Emperor Ashoka, will we renounce fighting over finite property like land and borders, and learn the value of sharing knowledge? I know that sounds wildly imaginative, but one of the advantages of speaking at an event titled, the World Foresight Forum is that you are not necessarily constrained by the past, and can imagine a future that is discontinuous (and hopefully, much better!) from the past.

To conclude, I quoted four lines from one of my favorite poems, the immortal "Imagine" by John Lennon. The last four lines of Imagine are,

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

As I concluded, Stephan looked me in the eye and asked me if we all could sing along. We all had a hearty laugh at that and moved along to the next presentation. My presentation was followed by another jovial Dutchman, Jaap Roos, VP of Capgemini, Netherlands. Roos spoke about how words that defined our age, words like "Co-value creation, Exponential globalisation, Collaborative innovation, Prosumerism, The long tail etc" did not even exist five years ago. He said that the web creates a 2 billion person, "no-borders amplification effect." Roos concluded with a final slide that said:

* The web is changing all, people remain central
* Our global society and economy will remain very dependent on raw materials, energy, transportation and industry
* The process of Innovation determines success
* Cyber Security and Identity Integrity are the challenges for the web and our knowledge based future

In the afternoon, I was invited to speak to a group alled, TheYoungTheHague, an important Dutch association of young entrepreneurs. These young entrepreneurs were working on “The Hague's Top Ten Improvements” that they would then present to the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, Government of The Netherlands. The event was held inside a gorgeous church called the Klosterkerk and the lead speaker was drs. Albert van der Touw, the CEO of Siemens Netherlands. van der Touw spoke about how Siemens gets involved in the cities it is involved in, its work in renewable energy, and areas like desaliniating sea water and making it fit for human consumption, in Africa. van der Touw spoke with a lot of passion about these initiatives and I felt happy to see leaders at his level speaking about their social initiatives, with such conviction. I gave a talk similar to the one I gave earlier in the day, but added the point that technology can enable new possibilities, but building a better society is a human endeavour and we can build better societies only if we have compassion in our hearts.

The many discussions at the WFF around concerns like climate change, security, happiness in society etc, made me recall Gandhi's insightful words that, "There is enough on this earth for everyone's needs, but not enough for everyone's greed." Many of the urgent and pressing challenges that we face in areas like climate change can be solved only if we engaged with them in a spirit of collaboration and sharing, and therefore, the need for compassion and a sense collective good was more urgent than ever. The audience consisted of a group of about 100-120 members of TheYoungTheHague, and I hesitated a few minutes before saying something that has been brewing in my heart and mind for a very long time. Having seen many businesses put private profit ahead of the collective good, especially in areas like open standards, an issue that I was closely involved with in India, I said that I was struck by how the world of business is being treated as a "compassion-free" zone, how it seems to operate as if it is above the norms that govern human society. Today, businesses are the dominant economic and social forces in our society and what they do has a profound impact on all of us. It is therefore even more imperative that businesses be guided by strong moral values like compassion and the collective good. It was very encouraging to see some members of the audience nodding their heads and agreeing with these thoughts. Mr. van der Touw later told me that some of the breakout sessions created for suggesting improvements to The Hague referred to my talk. On the last day, we had dinner at the beautiful Peace Palace, which also houses the International Criminal Court.

Among the personal highlights for me at the event were sessions by Edward De Bono, the founder of lateral thinking, the author of "Six thinking Hats" and many other books. De Bono ran us through the principles of the six thinking hats and said that his ideas were being implemented in schools in India and China and showed significant improvements in learning effectiveness. There were many distinguished people in the audience, but that did not faze De Bono, who went about his task like a school master, using a sharp whistle every few minutes to prod people into changing their metaphorical hats. I also met some amazing entrepreneurs from the Kairos Society, a global network of top student and global leaders using entrepreneurship and innovation to solve the world's greatest challenges. It was inspiring to see these young motivated individuals talk about doing good in a way that makes commercial sense.

One tangible example is a company called ThinkLite run by Dinesh Wadhwani that is helping businesses go green without the upfront costs. ThinkLite evaluates a customer's lighting infrastructure and replaces their old, inefficient lighting systems with energy efficient, mercury free lighting at its own cost, and takes a percentage of the savings as its fees. This is the kind of innovative model that can accelerate the adoption of green technologies in the world. I found the Kairos fellows, lead by Ankur Jain to be energetic and enthusiastic and look forward to seeing them bring their work to India.

There were many discussions around cybersecurity and these sessions were very interesting but not very conclusive. On one hand, we had Christopher Painter, coordinator for cyber issues, US Department of State saying that most people paint security and privacy as issues opposed to each other, but that was not necessarily true. After the session, I tried to probe him further on this and his answer was that the surveillance would be around keywords. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to dig deeper. On the other hand, was Pablos Holman, a futurist, IT security expert, and a notorious hacker with a unique view into both breaking and building new technologies. Holman who was born in the Soviet Union, was very skeptical about the aims of governments around the world to do 24 by 7 surveillance of e-mails and Internet traffic. He spoke with feeling of of how the Soviet culture of surveillance lead to neighbors suspecting each other and ended up creating a very unhappy society. It would take a 100 years to change that culture now, he said. As a hacker, Holman said that he ran a personal server on every continent, so that no government could get his hands on his e-mail. He sportingly admitted that it was an experiment that he ran purely because he could as hacker and a technology expert. Between Painter and Holman, I am still searching for a common ground between security and privacy on the Internet, and I expect this to be a long search.

At the World Foresight Forum, one of the most interesting persons I met was Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp. A very warm and affectionate person, I was delighted to know that the Rabbi spoke about the role of compassion at the WFF. He shared a Jewish story about heaven and hell that I wanted to share with you. There was a man who wanted to know the difference between heaven and hell. God took him to hell and there he saw people sitting around a table laden with tasty food, but the people all had arms so stiff that they couldn't bend their elbows and bring it to their mouths. God then took him to heaven and he saw the same thing, people with stiff hands who could not bring the food to their mouths. The man said, 'What the difference? There is no difference between heaven and hell." God said, 'Wait my son.' The man waited and he saw that the people in heaven were feeding each other." If we are to really seek, “Security, Peace and Justice for Sustainable Global Growth” we need tons and tons of the spirit of sharing that the venerable Rabbi spoke about.

-0-

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Moving on from Red Hat to Google

Last month, I moved from Red Hat to Google. After spending six-and-half years at Red Hat, it was a tough decision to make because I got to work on issues like open standards and open source that have such long-term implications for India. To tell the truth, I had also gotten into a warm comfort zone in my previous job and was wondering what to do next, after we won the open standards fight in India.

In the last year or so, there were several offers, but none of them really excited me because I was looking for a role that has a large social impact. When Google sounded me out, I thought this could be interesting because Internet penetration in India, especially the web in India languages, is one area that can have a large impact. I know that broadband, 3G, 4G etc are on their way, yadda, yadda, yadda, and Internet usage will inevitably grow, but those who have been involved in policy know that there is a great difference between having policies on paper and actually having *political will* behind those policies. For example, every politician and bureaucrat agrees that computing in Indian languages is a good idea, but our so-called software superpower of a country has not made this a reality, even as it relentlessly churns out code for the rest of the world.

Another reason for taking up Google's offer was that I'll be able to continue my involvement in open source and open standards. In some ways, it was also a good time to leave Red Hat because most of the defensive work needed to protect the open source community -- open standards, software patents etc -- have been taken care of. Apart from the FOSS non-profits like FSF and FSMI, the Indian FOSS community now has an layer of non-profits like IT For Change, the Center for Internet and Society, Knowledge Commons and others who look at FOSS from an outside-in perspective and advocate for FOSS as a social good. The setting up of the Software Freedom Law Center's India chapter has also helped give the community some sorely needed legal firepower. I feel that these developments have greatly strengthened the community.

I want to conclude by saying that I see great hope for the future, event though the current policy environment seems so bleak and depressing. is is because, in the last six-and-half years, I have had the privilege of working with many bright, passionate individuals who are working for the larger good. Some of them have left the civil service or the corporate world to work in NGOs, and most of them have the caliber to be successful entrepreneurs or business leaders but have chosen to be involved in the area of public policy. This is an exciting development that will change India's destiny.

Monday, January 03, 2011

ODF, OGG listed as standards approved for e-governance in India

Here is some good news to kick off the new year. As a follow-up to the Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance, the Department of Information Technology has published the "Interoperability Framework for E-Governance in India (IFEG)."

The draft of the IFEG lists out the standards approved for e-governance in India. The last date for comments on this draft is 27th Jan 2011. The IFEG draft clearly says that ODF and OGG are standards approved for e-governance in India and proprietary document formats and multimedia formats are not mentioned at all. My understanding is that these standards will be included in the future Requests for Proposals (RFP) for e-Governance applications, which means that these standards will be baked-in to all future e-Governance applications.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Indian Open Standards policy finalized--major victory for the FOSS community

After three years of continuous running battles, India's Department of Information Technology has finalized the National Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance. This incorporates many of the key points submitted by Red Hat. Over the last three years, we worked with our friends in government, academic, civil society and the media to push the Indian government in favor of a policy that mandates a single, royalty-free standard. The final policy and the comments that Red Hat had submitted are attached.

In the previous draft dated 25/11/2009, our major objection was to section 4.1.2 of the policy which said,

"4.1.2 The essential patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard should preferably be available on a Royalty-Free (no payment and no restrictions) basis for the life time of the standard. However, if such Standards are not found feasible and in the wider public interest, then RF on Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND) or Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND) could be considered."
The comments I submitted on behalf of Red Hat reads:.

While the term “Mandatory Characteristics” indicates that section is binding, the usage of terms like “should preferably” conveys the impression that this is non-binding. Since thousands of government agencies, systems integrators and others connected with e-Governance will look up to this policy for guidance, we request that the mandatory characteristics should be laid out clearly and unambiguously. As with the previous section, we feel that the intent and will of the GoI should be clearly expressed in this section. In any case, Sections 4.3, 4.4 and
5 deal with the exceptions.

The term “essential patent claims,” is not defined in the policy and this could prove to be a huge loophole. This term is also a new introduction and it would have been helpful to know the rationale for its introduction. Ultimately, any patent necessary for the implementation of a standard is an “essential patent claim” because a
standard cannot be implemented partially. In this context, I would like to point out that the Chinese government has issued a notification for the compulsory licensing of patents related to standards used in China. An English translation of this notice is attached with this letter for your reference.

Recommendation: We request that the wording of this section should be changed to "ALL patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard should be available on a Royalty-Free (no payment and no restrictions) basis for the life time of the standard.” We also request that the following statement, “However, if such Standards are not found feasible and in the wider public interest, then Fair, Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (FRAND) or Reasonable and Non Discriminatory terms and conditions (RAND) could be considered,” be moved to the sections dealing with exceptions. We feel that this section is the heart of the Draft Policy and placing an exception statement in the very heart of the policy will send out wrong and conflicting signals.


As you can see from the extract below, the points mentioned above have
been incorporated In the recently finalized policy. This section now reads:

4.1.2 The Patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard
shall be made available on a Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the
Standard.

Overall, I'd say this is a major victory for the Indian FOSS community
and more than three years of hard work have paid off. Now I need a loooooong break!