Indian Hack Day

The Hack Day that we participated in in India was great. A real experience. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of it. In the end, there wasn’t a lot of time for much hacking, but we had fantastic conversations about India’s problems and projects.

Chief among the Indian projects was some amazing mapping and visualisation work. David McCandless has done a great write-up on the Guardian Data Blog. Another fabulous project was National Election Watch, who create public data on candidates by entering the details from their affadavits. This site has one of the most awesome features I’ve ever seen on a political website: a crime-o-meter for each candidate.

But the most interesting thing which came up was the widespread use of missed calls as a way to communicate. Entire services have sprung up built on the idea that you call a number, let it ring once, and then hang up. Which is free. And then the service calls you back. The lack of any privacy regulation also allows these services to enter agreements with the telecomms companies to obtain location data on callers.

This led me to wonder: could a system be made, powered by missed calls, to report incidents of police abuse? Like an ultra-light-weight Ushahidi? So, along with a couple of the Indian devs, I put together a mock-up:

The pins need to be converted into coloured areas, but hopefully that conveys the general idea: that people who experience problems with the police — like being assaulted, or forced to pay a bribe — could anonymously report it, allowing statistics to be built up about where police abuses take place. These could then be compared to the official statistics, or to the numbers of official complaints made. And could allow people to get a real sense of the scale and geography of the problem.

Such a system could work — despite most Indians’ lack of internet access — because it’s powered by mobile phones, which almost everyone has. Even more than that, by taking advantage of missed calls, it becomes free to use and to operate, unlike SMS. And missed calls are a practical approach, because they’re already known and used by Indians in other contexts.

Unfortunately, because we only had the morning, I couldn’t do much more than that basic mock-up. But if anyone in India is reading this, and would like to take over the project, let me know! I’d love to see it up & running.

Update: I’ve just done a podcast interview about the trip with Steph Gray of Helpful Technology.