Centre for Internet & Society
Information is Beautiful hacks in India with David Cameron

India hack day bus 2 Photograph: Guardian

The Prime Minister took some of the UK's top hackers and data experts with him to India this week. David McCandless was with them.

Information is Beautiful hacks in India with David Cameron

India hack day bus 2 Photograph: Guardian

This week, I was lucky enough to accompany UK Prime Minister's delegation to India

I was part of a small contingent of politically active programmers and civic-minded dataheads out to explore links between tech, transparency and community-based democracy in India. The raw stuff of David Cameron's 'Big Society' initiative. 

(To the businessmen, journos and politicos in the delegation, we were known simply as "The Hackers" - an image we played up by sometimes rebelliously removing our ties)

The key event of the trip was a hackday hosted by Google India in the southern central city of Bangalore.

I have to confess a slight colonial attitude going into the meet. Thinking of the UK as a great hacking  nation and leading data port, I was expecting to be helping the collected Indian IT professionals and activists improve their skills and give them fresh ideas on how to bootstrap their democracy.

However, our Indian counterparts very quickly astonished us with brilliant and powerful data projects and grass roots hacks using simple tools and technologies to solve everyday civic issues. Some of which I wanted to exhibit here.

Bus Map Hack

Information designer Arun Ganesh was frustrated by the bus maps in his native Chennai.

India hack

Chennai's bus map goes from this…

The official map was incomplete and incomprehensible - and had been 'under construction' for six years.

Passionate about maps and geo-mapping, Arun took it upon himself to design a new map to help the enormous number of people (Chennai has a population of over 4 million) who used the buses every day. Unfortunately, he faced a major challenge: over 5,000 separate buses & bus routes.


… to this 

 So he turned to crowd-sourcing on the web to gather data on all the routes. Local travellers poured timetables and bus details into his app. And in just 3 days he had compiled enough data to create a fresh map with a clean comprehensible design. And an accompanying interactive app BusRoutes.in for painless route planning.

 Then he went further. Using the data - and a fair walking distance of 500 metres - he visualised the areas covered by all the bus routes. The resulting heatmap instantly and cleverly reveals which areas of the city are poorly served by the bus network.

Karnataka Learning Partnership

Education is a big issue in India, where close to 35% of the population are illiterate. The Karnataka Learning Partnership works to improve government schools in Karnataka region by running literacy, maths and library-use programs across the southern Indian state.

Karnataka schools monitored 

Mashing Googlemaps and their detailed data through a web interface, the Akshara Foundation  provides a dynamic monitoring and look up service for the quality of schools in each area. It's not unlike the recently launched SchooloScope here in the UK.

(Please note: the site is in beta and not live yet. You can see their work at blog.klp.org.in.)

National Election Watch


Using information liberated by the 2006 Right to Information Act in India, Nationalelectionwatch.org  tracks the backgrounds of every single politician in India. An incredible feat given the enormity and intricacies of Indian democracy.

Over 1200 NGOs work to collect data from affidavits filed by the candidates on their financial, criminal and educational background. The myneta.info website acts as an instant power check on a system unfortunately tainted by widespread corruption and bribery.

Critical Information

The crime-o-meter 

Pages on particularly criminal MPs feature a 'crime dial' visualisation to get the message across.

Missed Calls

Despite a thriving tech-sector, India still has relatively low internet uptake. Just 0.05% of the 1.2 billion population are active internet users. Compared to around 40% in the UK and 29% in China.

But nearly half the population own mobile phones. So SMS and missed calls have become a dominant form of free information exchange, especially when ingeniously hacked together.

In a typical hacked service, information providers set up phone numbers. Information seekers phone the number and then immediately hang up, registering a 'missed call'. The information provider then sends them an SMS with the info they might be seeking. Carpenter jobs or internet cafes in the locality, for example.

Ironically, lax privacy protection - by our standards - in the country actually improves this service. While banned here, triangulation of mobile signals to determine the location of a call is freely permitted in India. So services are able to text back localised information. All for free.


Thanks to Harry Metcalfe at TellThemWhatYouThink.Org, Tim Green from DemocracyClub.org.uk, Edmund von der Burg at YourNextMp.com, and Pranesh Prakash at the Centre for Internet and Society for their help and input.

Read the original in the Guardian

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