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Google Indic Hackathon

Google Indic Hackathon

When a friend from Google had messaged me several weeks back that there’s going to be an Indic hackathon at Google and that I should try and be part of it, I was quite excited about it. It is not quite often that an “Indic” event is organised by tech giants like Google.

One of the reasons why such events are not so frequent is because we talk about Indic being the future market, we talk about its importance and about how TV channels in local languages, news papers in local languages have been increasing their user base by many fold - but there’s not much commerce happening yet surrounding Indian languages in the digital world. Adding to that the fact that much of the urban population is more or less comfortable with English while using a computer or mobile in India. As software developers, we also tend to overlook the importance of building products in Indian languages and about the importance of reaching out to the population beyond metropolitan cities.

However, Google seems to have opened up to the fact that content in Indic is going to be quite important in future and after the last two days spent at Google Indic hackathon I think the event in itself was a positive little step towards exploring the unexplored horizons for Google. The event was supported by NASSCOM’s 10,000 start-ups program.

One of the speakers during the session before Hackathon rightly quoted Nelson Mandela’s words,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And that is quite true in the context of software as well.

There’s lot to be gained by getting into the Internet of local languages, even if it is not generating much user base as yet.

On the first day of hackathon, there were presentations by veterans in the industry who have built their business model surrounding Indian languages and quite successfully so.

Veteran Entrepreneur B G Mahesh who has spent more than a decade in setting up an on-line business model surrounding Indian languages (OneIndia and others) spoke about how they had to face the challenge of being singularly ignored on par with traditional media. He spoke about how his staff had difficulty getting access to press meets just because they were setup on-line.
He said that that only 15% of total users in India are comfortable with English and that there will be close to 300 million Internet users in Indian languages.
While noting that on-line media doesn’t get the same kind of ads as the traditional media does, he felt that absence of support for Indian languages on ad networks like Google Adsense was a big disadvantage to on-line business models structured around Indian languages.  He also noted how they’ve just had to face hurdles one after the other while there’s not been much recognition for doing so.
B G Mahesh also felt that getting funded to run an Indian language project is extremely difficult. As someone running Indian language projects on-line, I could relate greatly to his words. He said that “Getting funds into the Indic space is very difficult”.  He felt that OneIndia was probably the only profitable firm producing content in Indian languages on the Internet while observing that traffic improved many folds to their projects once they moved completely to Unicode.

Vishal and Amit from Newshunt spoke about how they packaged news in Indian languages into a mobile app that has seen more than 30 million installs so far. Newshunt is one of the top mobile apps downloaded in India. NewsHunt is a big success story among mobile start-ups in India.
In fact, Vishal started by saying “Indic market is bigger than you think”. And we certainly hoped it was so. They spoke about how device fragmentation affects the developers in Android app market. While there are solutions to address this, there is no easy or consistent way of dealing with this fully. Amit spoke on how managing font sizes becomes very important while dealing with various Indian languages. The NewsHunt team brought up several important points that many publishers on Android could relate to pretty well - the importance of keeping app sizes small, compressing utf-8 to make apps download less data and about the tools for language detection. Vishal spoke about how at times the app permissions affected the downloads of their apps greatly.
They observed that more than 70% of reviews on their “books” channel is now attracting reviews in Indian languages.

There were further presentations post-lunch about Indian language tools (by Arvind Pani of Reverie Language Technologies) and about AdMob (by Kanan Rai of Google).

The hackathon started at around 5 pm with several publishers sharing their ideas for quick hacks. Being an invitee as a publisher, I was to present an idea as well. However, I ended up sharing like five different ideas. I was happy to see that four out those five ideas were selected by hackers. In fact, two of them were among the three winning hacks!

The teams participating spent overnight coding until the evening next day. Some of them were quite happy to do so, provided the facilities they have at Google India.

For me, it was quite a privilege to be on the judging panel with Ravi Gururaj, Chair of NASSCOM Product Council and Arvind Pani of Reverie. It was quite fun watching young folks code and it was reviewing their work.

***

On the previous day, just before I was called to present my ideas for hacks, I was reminded of a requirement shared by a friend from GRAAM. GRAAM is a non-profit working at grass roots which does plenty of data collection on the field in Indian languages. Validation of data is of utmost importance for them without which the forms they have collected gets rendered useless. Adding to that, they had to deal with no data connectivity at locations where they collected data as they work mostly in rural areas where connectivity still isn’t there. Something like an off-line data collection and a db sync when connected to the network was required. They also needed to do this on Android tablets as they felt that this way, it was quite affordable. I had continued to present this idea among the ones I put forward on the first day and little did I know that this idea would be picked up by one of the teams that won a prize the next day!

Comments

Hari, Thanks for doing this blog post. Having worked with the Google India team on conceiving this idea of having hackathons around Indic language apps - I am happy to hear that there was some development activity / coding of apps. Is any of the code on github or public repos. I would be very interested in understanding the net output from this gathering :-) beyond presentations.

noticed your comment just now sitting unapproved among quite poorly managed comment queue on this website. I think some of the applications were made available on github later by the contestants. Indic IME was one of the good ones coming out of the workshop (I still use this on my Android phone to type in Kannada). It was sad however that some of the winners did not make their code available.

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