Sunday, August 30, 2009

Interview with Nandan

An NDTV interview titled "Nandan's New Identity" aired on 29th Aug 09. In this candid interview, Nandan, chairman of UIDAI, talks about his experience so far, his objectives, and the approach he is planning to take to implement such an ambitious project. Watch the video.


If you can't see the video embedded above, watch it on NDTV site.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Data Privacy

Privacy is a significant issue when it comes to personal data. We worry about it all the time. But, in these times, everything seems to be out in the open. Marketing agencies get hold of all our profiling data (demographics, transaction history, etc.) and pitch new products every day. Now when we talk about creating a common database of billion plus people as part of UID effort, first question that comes to our mind is "how safe will be my data".

It is imperative that privacy is taken seriously and built into the architecture to secure the data. But, at the end of the day, do the bottom of the society really care of their data privacy. I feel that educated upper class has the basic needs taken care and we have the luxury of debating all these. But, for the poorest of the section, it simply does not matter, at least for now. Eventually, when their basic needs are met, they will surely start worrying about these issues. But, that is several years away.

But, one way or other, when designing a system such as UID, data privacy should be of utmost importance from a system design perspective and cannot be compromised. Securing the data, avoiding tampering, and most importantly completely protecting data from leaking out are all part of architecture design we need to go through. Other aspects such as laws and policies surrounding the use of UID data are also critical.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Addressing Standards

Have you noticed that, in various forms used in this India, we capture addresses in varying formats and structures? For example, address fields in Passport form is quite different (in format, structure, and even terms) from those in, say, PAN application form or Voter ID form. That is because we have not yet standardized address structure.

This issue is significant whenever we capture addresses in a database. Of course, we can always have generic address fields. But, that neither allows us to compare one address to another nor it supports automatic address verification against a master set of address database. That means there is absolutely no clean way to say if two addresses are same.

Several countries have standardized addresses and made it completely machine readable and interpretable. For example, in United States, USPS (Postal Department) has gone through extensive exercise to standardize delivery addresses. Zip codes which went from a 6 digit number to a 6+4 system were part of this. Street names, town names, state codes, etc. are all standardized. See an example address (courtesy USPS):

Building have assigned numbers and building types such as apartment, building, etc. were identified by predefined codes (such as APT, BLDG, etc.). See Publication 28 on their website if you are interested!

UPU (Universal Postal union), established in 1874, is the largest physical distribution network. At the time of this writing, there are about 190 countries who are members of this network. UPU has taken effort to standardize the addresses (domestic and international) and the specification, called S42, along with PATL (Postal Address Template Language) are available for various countries to adopt. It is quite extensive and talks about next generation addressing including "Geo" addresses. Countries are expected to create a template for specific use and mapping those template fields to the S42 standard fields. This specification is quite detailed.

Indian postal department is a member of UPU and is on its way to create next generation addressing and extended pin codes. It may take few years to come to effect. But, we are absolutely in the right path. And as we implement this huge UID database with billion plus addresses, we surely need to be aware of these.
 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Whats in a name

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet." - Romeo and Juliet

Juliet tells Romeo that name itself is meaningless and she loves the person for what he is and not for what his name stands for. Now you must be wondering what this has to do with UID! Actually nothing much except the fact that I wanted to write about one of the issues we are dealing with as part of UID.

Indian names can be from a single word to many words and naming styles vary from region to region. So, how do we map these to a standard structure such as "First Name - Middle Name - Last Name"? Why do we need to map, you may ask. If we do not map names, addresses, etc. to machine interpretable data, we will end up with the same mess as other existing systems. For example, if we capture name as a free flow text where a resident can fill anything, "Ram Lal Sharma" will be different from "Ram Sharma" from "R.L.Sharma" from "Ram Lal S." and so on. And treating these are different can end up with many records of same person because system interprets them as different.

That precisely is the reason we need to be able to structure names as much as possible. Of course, since we have no clear definition of what goes in First Name or Last Name fields, it is still possible for residents to swap them (managing uniqueness is altogether a different issue which I will one day talk about). But, if we have fully expanded and structured names, we at least have some hope of doing "fuzzy" comparisons to identify matches.

More than the technology issue, how does one person actually know what to fill (the upper strata of the society, the educated ones, have it all easy!) in these fields? We need to demonstrate with examples and suggest how to go about mapping their names. Eventually, since UID is expected to cover everyone and become part of birth certificate, we hope that people will start thinking names in this fashion.

We cannot consider name as part of a primary identifier for a person. What do we do with one word names, say, "Krishna" with no middle or last names? What do we do when they change their names, say after wedding? Or change because of some one told them that changing name from "Karthik" to "Kaarthick" will bring them good luck! All these need to be thought through as we build the system.

One thing is clear. Although we cannot depend on the name for any logic, we still need to try getting as much structure in place in all these attributes still supporting all the quirks. Good fun indeed!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

UID Numbering in Indian Context

Now that Nandan has talked about some details (see my earlier post) on UID numbering, I wanted to share some interesting thoughts on numbering.

As he said, ID itself is going to be a random number. But, how random? I suppose we will surely create non-sequential, random numbers from a large and sparse domain (total set of all possible numbers with a particular number of digits). We surely don't want one up numbers for everyone in a village, do we? Why Random? We believe that this number should not be derived from any personal information.

Should it have alphabets too? We decided not to have alphabets (and hence Nandan's reference to number). It is just easier since most folks in India don't read English and alphabets just look like another picture to them!! We can as well use a picture of an elephant or a flower, they wouldn't care. Numbers are also tough for pure native speakers. But, we need to make some decision, I suppose.

How big the number should be? Especially if we want non-sequential, non-reusable, random number to cover for next 100 years?! World population is predicted to be at around 9 billion in next 30-40 years, if we have more than about 12 digits, we should be really good. We are still in design. So, no details I can share yet.

Now comes the real fun part. Everyone wants (especially our VVIPS) an "interesting" number. What interests them can be different too. For example, I have heard that no one wants a number that adds up to 8 in Tamil Nadu for some numerology related issue. This can be daunting if we have all these people coming back and requesting for another number. What about other "good looking" numbers such as 1234... or 1111... etc. If we can't avoid VVIPS insisting on these, may be UIDAI can officially "sell" these special numbers and make some money!!

In India, we seem to find a meaning in a random number. So, it's going to be a challenge indeed!


SpringSource gone!!

WOW! This was indeed the news I am not sure how to interpret. SpringSource is acquired by VMWare (see http://blog.springsource.com/2009/08/10/springsource-chapter-two/) for about $400 million! I recently narrowed down on Hyperic application management solution and by the time we looked they were acquired by SpringSource. Now, by the time we made up our mind on OEM, they are gone too!!!

At a top level, this seems to be appropriate for VMWare to add all those capabilities. But, not sure if all its offering makes sense to VMWare stack. Anyway, I hope Hyperic is retained and extended to support full VM stack management.

I wonder where this ends. Before we realize, consolidation is happening...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bhuvan from ISRO

ISRO has launched Google Earth equivalent called "Bhuvan" (see http://bhuvan.nrsc.gov.in/index.html). It provides several features such as
  • 2D and 3D visualizations
  • Fly to a place and 3D fly through
  • Various navigation options
  • Multi-layer (compared to single layer in Google Earth) and supposedly zoom up to 10 meters!!! Google Earth restricts at 100 meters.
  • Lots of custom 2D and 3D drawing options such as Polygons, Text, overlay of other 3D models, freehand marking, etc.
  • Updated every year unlike Google Earth.
Users need to register on this site and install an IE plug-in (.NET based), yuck! But, that's the only option at this time. I really do hope we will see other browser support without plug-ins. You should surely check it out.

I am impressed (and somewhat concerned) that they are giving views up to 10 meters! I really need to think twice before walking around on my terrace!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

UID News

Our prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had an important meeting with Nandan on UID and here is the news item http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/india/First-lot-of-Unique-ID-in-12-18-months/articleshow/4886915.cms.

At a glance:
  • UID is all about providing a unique identification number to a "resident" (not citizens) and not about smart cards.
  • Most of the one billion plus population has been to be given an ID, a huge task indeed.
  • After all, "inclusion" is the primary purpose. If we leave behind 1/3 of our country without "connecting" back to the system, it's only a question of time before they eventually revolt.
  • Hopefully, Nandan can influence policy makers to find a reason for people at the bottom to stand in line and get an ID.
  • Uniqueness is critical provided everything is duplicated in this country. That's surely a challenge.
I am quite excited about this project and will be blogging quite often. Keep following!

Google Wave

Watched Google Wave presentation (http://wave.google.com/) and was quite impressed. It brings together all independent communications mediums together onto a single system. It merges IM, Email, Discussions, and potentially everything into one. They say it will be launched in September of this year. You can register on that site if you want an invite.

Although I am very impressed by the technology aspects of the demo, I also think that they are catching up with the Twitters and Facebooks of the world. If you look, Google missed on those and have no equivalent service. So, I wonder if this is a scheme to bring back the "collaborative" and "social" nature of those services to Google. We will see.

Last day at work

My last day at Sterling Commerce was on 10th Aug. It was quite an emotional day for me. I have been with this team of people for about 15 years now, from Infosys days to Yantra days to now Sterling. Although it was quite difficult to leave a great bunch of guys, I am equally excited about my next opportunity (I will talk about it in my next post).

Everyone came around on Monday evening to say bye to me and wanted to chat with me on my next adventure. It was very kind of all my friends to organize all that. A great lunch with 13 of the original Yantriks was truly a bonus.

I will miss everyone at Sterling, especially, my old Yantra buddies who made me who I am. Now moving on to something very exciting... The "UID" Project!!!