Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Why the offical reaction to the Bangalore ATM attack is hasty, wrong and disappointing

The vicious attack on a woman at an ATM kiosk in Bangalore should have prompted introspection and action about the kind of city we want to live in. Instead we now have 1,000 closed ATMs and are arguably no safer for it. 

The world's highest ATM on the way to Nathula Pass in Sikkim.
The grainy CCTV camera footage makes a chilling case for looking left, right and over-the-shoulder at all times of the day, and perhaps shopping for pepper spray.

It definitely tells us that we need better security at ATMs - 1.25 lakh of them across the country, according to ASSOCHAM. But, figuring out what that entails is where we seem to have lost the plot.

ASSOCHAM helpfully suggests encouraging credit card use, perhaps forgetting just why ATMs are so ubiquitous. A former top cop suggests that we forget what justice means, what with its pansy notions of 'innocent until proven guilty' and "excessive concern for the rights of the accused", and get 'em scumbags.

Guards and more CCTV cameras at every ATM, says the government. The police gives this a +1. And, when banks failed to meet the five-day deadline to implement this order, the police followed through on the threat to shutter down non-compliant ATMs.

However, these proposals are half-baked, and traditional media seems to be doing a particularly inefficient job of subjecting them to any sort of criticism.

To arm or not to arm guards

First, the guards that we can expect to be posted at ATMs will probably be older (given the poor pay that comes with the job) and unarmed (given the somewhat cautious approach to granting arms licences). A man who can brazenly hack a woman at 7am on a busy street is unlikely to be hindered by an unarmed man with knees stiff from sitting eight hours a day.

On the other hand, the idea of armed guards is scarier. I'd be exceedingly concerned at having 8,700 additional guns in the city (one for each of the three security guards at each of the 2,900 ATMs in the city). Going by the 2012 figure of 10,000 arms licences having been granted (and assuming this includes both commercial and personal arms licences), this would nearly double the number of guns in Bangalore. Not a great boost to sense of security.

Appointment rules being flouted? 

Second, as commentators online have pointed out, the five-day deadline is bizarre, dangerous and perhaps illegal. The Private Security Agencies (Karnataka) Rules 2008 (pdf) require security agencies and the police to verify the “character and antecedents” of anyone applying to be a guard. The police are allowed 90 days to issue their okay certificate. Besides, guards have to undergo 100 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of field training, spread over at least 20 working days. (It's 40 hours in the classroom, 16 hours in the field, over 20 days, for ex-servicemen applying to be guards.)

And what of following a tender process and guidelines from the Directorate General Resettlement of the Ministry of Defence (providing employment to ex-servicemen) before appointing security agencies?

How can a security guard hired in haste make us feel safer?

CCTV guidelines urgently needed

As for the knee-jerk reaction to asking for more CCTV cameras, there is unfortunately still no attempt being made to develop desperately needed guidelines for video surveillance, such as in the UK. These guidelines include a simple piece of advice to the authorities:

You should take into account what benefits can be gained, whether better solutions [such as improved lighting, patrolling] exist, and what effect it may have on individuals.

This common-sense is acutely absent. Who's going to monitor ATM CCTV feeds? If the answer is nobody, the devices will do little as a means of preventing a crime such as this one – which is what one assumes the point of this exercise is. Instead, we'll only have shocking footage that's fodder for water-cooler talk, and perhaps, if we're very lucky, will help identify the perpetrator after the crime.

Banks aren't to blame

But of course, the biggest misdirection is the government putting the blame for the crime on the banks. “It is the bank's responsibility” to keep people using ATMs safe, the Karnataka Home Minister declared. The police chief, who should have used this opportunity to ask for reinforcements for his already stretched force, was quick to agree.

This, as Ajay Shah wastes no words in pointing out, is a cop-out. Karthik Shashidhar's piece on what's public and private property when it comes to ATMs does a great job of explaining why this is a policing issue.

Following a spate of ATM thefts earlier this year, the police stepped up patrolling and foiled further attempts, showing how it can be done with old fashioned legwork.  

Private security in certain zones may be wise, but the onus to protect people has to be on the cops.

Focus on design

In all the knee-jerk, there seems to have been little official consideration on the one thing that will aid police efforts and actually add to safety of citizens: ATM design.

While I'm not fully convinced that ATMs out in the open are the way to go in India - we need to learn to queue up and mind our own businesses first - surely the people that make these rather expensive machines, can figure it out?

An alarm system, access to kiosks limited to entry/exit with a card, good lighting and in full sight of people, can address some of the concerns that this incident - thankfully an isolated one - raises.    

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Sycamore Row: John Grisham in his element

A old, reclusive man, dying of cancer, hangs himself from a sycamore tree in his estate, leaving behind nearly all his hard-earned millions to his black housekeeper. His estranged children, who have been cut out of Seth Hubbard's "substantial" fortune in the last-minute handwritten will, are having none of it – the battelines are drawn for a long legal tussle.     

John Grisham returns to his beloved Ford County, Mississippi, for a sequel to his 1989 debut novel. Three years after the events of A Time to Kill, when young attorney Jake Brigance gets his big win in a racially charged trial in the town of Clanton, his services  are called on again to defend Seth's will. “I want this will defended at all costs,” Seth says in a letter to Jake, peppered with choice words at lawyers. “Fight them, Mr. Brigance, to the bitter end.” 

It's a good ol' fashioned courtroom brawl, and Grisham is in his element, painting it in all its colour and plentiful shades of grey. It's supposed to be dull – there are enough warnings of “death by deposition”, and the legal process, as always, is described in detail. But in a Grisham book, that only brings a comforting familiarity that draws out the chuckles, a sign to put on your softest pyjamas and get some hot chocolate for when stuff hits the fan.              

What made Seth do what he did? Sycamore Row's great reveal is tense and competent, but comes as less of a surprise than other plot twists we've known the author to pull off. Compared to its predecessor, this one seems to tread more cautiously around political correctness. And Lettie Lang, the black housekeeper, is no Carl Lee Hailey.   

Repeated jokes and some inexplicable minor talking points in a 550-page novel are other gripes, but there was, nonetheless, a satisfaction in meeting old characters and stars of other Grisham novels set in the area: Harry Rex, overweight divorce lawyer and loyal friend; Lucien Wilbanks, drunken landlord and mentor; Willie Traynor, one-time journalist and millionaire; the no-nonsense Judge Atlee who we know has some secrets of his own...There's definitely enough character in Ford County for a few more Acts.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Karnataka ULB poll results in graphics

Results of the elections to urban local bodies in Karnataka have just been announced.

And with loads of data at my disposal, seemed like a good time to play around with graphics and some of the online tools I've chanced upon recently.

Given that the BJP government has been in power in the State for the last five years, its lacklustre performance and the good showing by the opposition Congress is being read as the tide turning. Especially with State elections just a couple of months away.

Yes, there's a mandate for the Congress, but this graphic seems to suggest a more drastic loss for the BJP and the Janata Dal (S), the BJP's ex-alliance partner.

The total number of seats up for grabs is 4976. Results have been declared for 4952 (Tardal with 23 seats boycotted the elections; no nominations were filed for one seat in Chickballapur).

Among the seven city corporations that went to polls:

No party has got a majority in the Mysore City Corporation council. (This one was easy, I don't get bragging rights.)

More to follow as I get around to doing it!

Update: Some more elections visualisations (definitely more expert-like!)

Friday, 8 March 2013

Just an experiment

Fooling around with maps. What fun.
View Larger Map

Sunday, 5 August 2012

When a newspaper joke gets lost online

Every newspaper worth its salt has an online presence. Which is fantastic. And probably obligatory. But a print media company is doing more harm than good to itself if its system automatically uploads print articles to the internet.

Because print simply doesn't translate well online.

The art to page layout - using large headline fonts and pictures, and top to bottom positioning to denote news prioritisation - is lost when even the tiny 8-inch long story buried in the bottom left corner of the page gets its own web address.

And missing context can ruin what the paper stands for.

Take the example of this unfortunate article on The Hindu.  It appeared, presumably as a small column with a thumbnail in the lifestyle supplement of the paper, part of a regular 'how to' section, which is usually formatted to indicate that it's a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, humorous column.

While the humour in this piece is admittedly questionable for any medium, the point is completely lost on online visitors, who see an absurd, grammatically incorrect headline ("...get any girl to go out with you") amidst stories of drought and politicking.

Isn't that shooting yourself in the foot when the whole point of your recent marketing campaign was about how The Hindu "stays ahead of the times" without dumbing down news?

Being part of the team that's put in a lot of work into the print edition, it's a real pity to see the message lost in translation.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Election funding (just thinking aloud really)

Free TVs for votes, free fans for no votes, flip-flop politics and missing polity - there's little about recent politics that isn't greeted with cynicism or disgust.

At a recent debate on NDTV's We The People about an increasingly dysfunctional Parliament, one of the suggestions made to end the mammoth quibbles and get things done, was to allow MPs to vote on (most) policy matters independently.

The argument was that allowing an MP to vote against his party on a policy matter would enable him to better represent the interests of his immediate constituency. The electorate too would have something definite by which to judge the performance of their representative.

It's an idea that's almost perfect on paper.

In anything other than theory, it's terrifying.

The Election Commission of India allows a candidate to spend Rs. 25 lakh on his/her campaign for the General Election. A widely reported study by the Centre for Media Studies, however, suggests that as much as Rs.10,000 crore was spent during the 2009 elections (pdf), with "conservative estimates" putting the figure at Rs. 3 crore per candidate.

This picture definitely has a lobbyist waiting to make sure that the candidate turns into an MP, that too one with a valuable independent vote.

Yes, we have our Radias, the farm and fertilizer lobbies, but I'd hate to see it reach the hysteric proportions it is wont to.

At a time when corruption is the dirtiest word in the country, it was interesting to see something a little related to this discussion pan out on the other side of the globe.  Lawrence Lessig, once free culture advocate and now anti-corruption crusader in Washington DC (and all-round awesome guy) talks to Jon Stewart.

Election vouchers? Hmm.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Snooker noob!

Got to watch about three hours of top class snooker at the World Snooker Championship 2011 finals in Bangalore.

It's been a while since doing something new has been so much fun.

It was a pleasure to watch the two players be so precise, patient and meticulous. The angles and straight lines their bodies formed with the table and cue made for a stunning sight.


More photos if I can get 'em.

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