Centre for Internet & Society

Late January. The buzz was palpable at the MLR Convention Centre in South Bengaluru. Developers were streaming into 50p, a conference organised by HasGeek, which has curated technology forums since 2011. But this wasn't just one of the six HasGeek communions that the programmers attend annually. 50p put the spotlight on digital payments, which meant the gathering would be more diverse than anything before.

The article by Kunal Talgeri was published in the Times of India on February 3, 2017. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

Of the 250-plus attendees in two days, only 40% were developers. There were around 10 lawyers, an activist here, a social-impact investor there, product managers, and a 20-strong team from online payment systems company PayPal. There were managers from traditional banks too. "We realised early on that one thing the developer community really needs to know is how various payment-systems work, like who makes what percentage (in the value chain)?," said Zainab Bawa, cofounder of HasGeek. "It is a big mystery to them."

Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of HasGeek and Bawa's husband, concurred: "A payment conference cannot primarily be centred on technology. Regulations make a bulk of the difference." So the interdisciplinary forum traversed areas as diverse as customer data and privacy, payment-systems unique to India, regulations, and the Watal Committee report apart from technology.

HasGeek got folks from the payments industry to converse with developers. At the outset, Bawa spelt out to the audience something about technology's role in society. "While we (coders) are here to bridge gaps, we also need to understand that technology is not necessarily the solution. Developers must have their ears to the ground." She had touched upon the divide between the coder community and the government.

Globally, governments are only just beginning to be exposed to the geeks. "The broader theme of digitisation and opening up of APIs (application programming interface) is happening across the world," said Sanjay Swamy, managing partner at Prime Venture Partners, and an Aadhaar volunteer with the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) until early 2011. APIs empower developers to build applications that access the features or data of an operating system or service. This requires developers to come together with, in this case, the government.

The digital dream has never showed more promise in India—the chance for a few developers to build a platform that can digitise government services for millions of users. "The government wants to use hackathons for digital disruption—leverage hackers to build solutions for them," says Subhendu Panigrahi, co-founder of Venturesity that helps companies find developers.

This is easier said than done. But how did India even get to this point?

On 10 June 2016, the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table (iSPIRT) think-tank released a paper that took note of the country moving from "data poor to data rich."

This was a few weeks after the UIDAI platform Aadhaar crossed 1 billion enrolments. "The Aadhaar system can authenticate 100 million transactions per day in real time," iSPIRT stated. The paper also pointed to three national platforms - essentially services that would in time digitise government services on a national scale.

These were the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Network, the Bharat Bill Payment System which would cover utility services (electricity, water, gas, and so on), and the electronic toll collection system.

All three platforms come under the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), an umbrella organisation for retail payment systems in India. iSPIRT had helped NPCI organise a hackathon in Mumbai in February 2016 to build prototypes for harnessing the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) platform's application programming interface to digitise bank transfers in real time. Similarly, steps were being taken to open up APIs to large companies for the other NPCI platforms.

On its part, iSPIRT was drawing the attention of a breed of software developers to the national-scale opportunities ahead. It unequivocally stated: "Data flows benefit public services and governments." But even as India moves to being data rich, the outreach to developers - estimated to be more than 5 million in India - could be futile for two reasons.

First, government departments and traditional systems of, say, nationalised banks have a technology procurement culture that is at odds with how developers build digital solutions. While government is the largest technology procurer, procurement contracts typically have clauses that encourage lowest (cost) bidders, which rarely spawns innovation.

"Government needs to adopt and evangelise pro-challenger tools and policies that reduce barriers to experimentation, level-playing field and encourage innovating around national issues," wrote Swati T Satpathy for iSPIRT in a November 2015 paper titled 'Igniting Hundreds of Experiments'.

Second, independent developers still have to come out in larger numbers for the best solutions to shine. Sachin Gupta, CEO of HackerEarth, another developer platform, agrees: "Governments may still go ahead and give projects to a TCS and Wipro, but they want to crowdsource the innovation, prototype and the whole concept. They want to build an active relationship with the tech community."

These can be government bodies at the state level, too, like the Department of Urban Land Transport in Karnataka, for whom Venturesity helped with a 'transit hack' to solve traffic in Bangalore with submissions like how to enable carpooling or track public transport.

"The government is really interested in the final product or an app they can use," Panigrahi said. For this, governments are willing to distribute their APIs to eventually own the app. "Developers participate in such hackathons to make it part of their portfolios or resumes, or because they love building products, or for the prize-money."

This is crowd sourced innovation. Yet, culturally, it is hard for developers and governments' interests to be aligned.

The API-driven approach is based on a philosophy in the United States that dates back to the 1960s. It a culture of giving powerful building blocks, as opposed to just building an actual solution, said Jonnalagadda. A 'solution' evolves into a platform if it can serve as 'building blocks' for the next set of developers to build on.

"A good product is also one on top of which something more can be built. That has been the principle on which the developer community has thrived," he said. This approach works well in technology. "It means you are slow, but also that you are a lot more mature and innovative."

The government has got this aspect right, by opening up secure APIs to nationalscale projects and systems. But while they have provided such building blocks, they have already decided the path to meet goals like financial inclusion. Mobile apps like BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) are becoming the default mode of reaching the masses. Many observers agree with the smartphone as a medium for India, but developers feel web browsers are more secure than apps.

Jonnalagadda cites a 50p session, 'Everyone can see your credit card details. Seriously,' where the speaker Arnav Gupta described the flow of the web as independent websites that can't actually communicate with each other. As against this, every function of a mobile app is a subset of the parent app. "So whatever password you type for one 'function' can be visible to the parent, which never happens on the web," Jonnalagadda said. "If security is defined by the fact that it is tested against being broken, a mobile app is trusted on the basis of goodwill. For developers, this is a shitty way to do technology. It bothers the heck out of him when a security model assumes goodwill because government wants an app."

Also, solutions need a decentralised approach from governing bodies like local municipalities. Independent budgets and decision-making can lead to stronger links between government and local service providers. There are exceptions to this, like Singapore, a city nation. But in larger developed countries like the United States, local government bodies are stronger than in India. "Here, we are getting even more centralised over time," Jonnalagadda said. It makes the government look like a monolith in the eyes of developers. How can the two be compatible? "We haven't found a solution yet."