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Monday, July 30, 2007

Anand Chitipothu, Open Library Project and Structured Wikis

Aaron Swartz recently announced that he was working on the Open Library project. The project is an ambitious attempt to catalog all books ever written using collaborative editing. Think of it as a wikipedia for books.

The whole project was developed by a small team of 8 people. Look at the list and you'll come across Anand Chitipothu. I had the opportunity to meet Anand again at BarCamp Bangalore 4 and we had a discussion about the project.

Anand has been spending most of the year working on the Infogami codebase. Although Infogami has not seen an update in ages and is pretty much dead, Anand has been working with Aaron behind the scenes in completely revamping the codebase. The Open Library project is built on this new Infogami codebase.

One of the cool things is that pages in the Open Library are not just a collection of unstructured text. You can actually store and edit structured data.

For example, a book edition (like this one) is made up of a number of fields. When you edit the page, you don't get one page to edit like you do in wikipedia. Instead you get specific input areas for each field. Click on this link for an example.

How does Infogami know what fields are required for a book edition? Simple. That metadata is stored in another page. The metadata for a book edition is here, for example.

So while the Open Library project uses Infogami to store information about books, the codebase can actually support storing any kind of structured data.

My take is that this kind of structured wiki will get a lot more popular in the next few years, especially in the field of enterprise applications. There are some other players trying to promote enterprise apps over a wiki — Jotspot (now part of Google) and TWiki come to mind — and Infogami looks to be another interesting application in this area.

What kind of enterprise app could be built over a wiki?

Here is a quick example: Take a resume manager. A lot of companies have built custom applications to store resume data in a structured format and later query the data when they have openings. Often, an app like this is a straightforward store and query style application. Enter some data - name, employment history, skill set etc and then query it out again later. Once in a while you may need to update a resume or do something else.

Building such an app is relatively straightforward, but a whole lot of work does into doing common things like the user interface, talking to the database and so on.

To build such an app over a structured wiki is simply a matter of defining a resume object and its fields and you are done. The wiki already implements the code for the UI and talking to the database and providing interfaces to add, edit and search the data, so you don't need to do that work yourself. Most of the wikis also have simple permission control mechanisms. Building such an app on top of a wiki would take a maximum of ten minutes.

Even better: If you need to run some custom queries and are willing to code a bit, you can plug a bit of code into the database interface and have the results show up on the page. Many wikis allow you to do that by writing macros that can be inserted into pages.

Using a wiki platform with custom macros can allow you to build these kind of applications in no time at all.

I can imagine a wide variety of applications for such structured wikis. To be honest, using wiki based applications in the enterprise is still very cutting edge, and enterprises are not the most enterprising when it comes to trying out new stuff (how ironic). For the early adopter crowd though, rapid application development on top of a wiki platform is something to keep an eye on.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Co-working space in Chennai?

A co-working or co-office space in Chennai would be very cool.

Basically, the idea is that more than one company works in the same office. In co-working, which is geared towards individuals, each individual gets a table and a place to sit. In co-office, each company gets a workroom that can hold about 5 people, desks, computers. Office infrastructure such as a reception, coffee machine, printers, xerox, conference rooms are shared between all the companies. Maintenance is also taken care of by the space provider.

The rent and expenses are shared between all the companies. So an office space that can accommodate 4 companies will typically have a rent that is around 1/4 to 1/3 what it would cost to rent your own office.

These kind of spaces have big advantages for startup companies in particular.

One, the cost of office space is vastly reduced, so they can have an office at a much cheaper rent. The second big advantage is that they are in an environment with other startups, so during coffee breaks people are likely to run into other startup folks. The third big advantage is that these spaces are rented out on a monthly basis, so there is no need to take out a long term contract with up front advance and deposits.

If anyone knows of such a space in Chennai, drop in a comment to this post.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Chennai OpenCoffee Club

So a few of us are trying to get the startups in Chennai together. Towards that end, we decided to have a bunch of meetings in OpenCoffee format -

Here's the blurb:

The Chennai OpenCoffee Club is a place for people involved in the startup ecosystem to meet in an informal setting. Anyone involved with startups - entrepreneurs, developers, lawyers, investors - is invited to come and join the conversation.


3pm on Sunday, 5th August


New no. 147, G.N.Chetty Road,
Landmark: Opp Murugan Idli Shop.


Anyone interested can drop in at the above place and time. If possible, send me an email with an rsvp so that I can gauge the approximate size of the gathering. Send the mail to

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

My first ShowMeDo video

ShowMeDo is a website started by Ian Ozsvald and Kyran Dale. The idea is to have a collection of technical screencasts on a variety of subjects. I just got my first screencast hosted at ShowMeDo. It is a re-recorded version of my earlier screencast on doing a wiki in Django, this time with a voice over. Have a look here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Post Proto roundup

I have a lot of thoughts to put down after attending Proto. About the event as such, it went off really well. Apart from a small hiccup during the first two hours, the event was smooth and the feedback has been very positive. I had an opportunity to meet a number of interesting startups. It's great to see so many startups here. I really do feel the startup ecosystem growing every month.

Alok Mittal makes a good point in this interview when he says that many of the companies need help with marketing. But isn't that what the VCs are there for? To help companies plug holes in their execution? If a company has everything in place and is doing great, then they usually don't need outside investment. So almost by definition, if someone is at an event like this, they realise that there are some areas where there is a deficiency and that they would like to fix it.

Was Rahman from Dolphin Advisory had another good point when he said that VCs tend to look at companies through a fixed narrow lens. This is so true, and you can read more about it in this very interesting post.

I can relate to that post very well because the company I worked in previously went through two rounds of VC funding. After the second round, all the talk was about scale. How can we scale this, how can we scale that. Suddenly we hired a ton of people (relatively speaking). Never mind that there was no management structure in place. Never mind that things were going out of control. I asked that we grow my project team slowly because adding too many new people to the project was being disruptive, but the team was grown anyway. In a few months, the team went from 4 experienced people to 11 mostly freshers. I later heard that the board wanted to "scale" the development. But adding so many at one go is not scaling, it is disruptive. I don't think the board understood that. When I asked to pause hiring for a while, I heard that the board was questioning why we had slowed on hiring and that they had funded us to scale, not to sit on the money. I'll leave you to figure out how the story ends.

So Was has an excellent point when he says that the Silicon Valley model is not the only model around. There are other ways to develop and grow a business. In some cases, going for VC funds is absolutely the right thing to do. There are times when you need a lot of money to execute on a plan, and at these times raising money through VCs makes a lot of sense. But often there is no pressing requirement for huge funding, in which case you need to think hard about whether going the VC route is the right thing to do.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Django Code Coverage Followup

teenage mutant ninja hero coders builds on my post on code coverage with django and shows how you can get the same effect by creating an alternate test runner. This way, you can get code coverage without having to muck around in the django source.

Pretty cool. I'll have to try this out.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

My pownce micro-review

So I got myself a pownce account thanks to an invite from Harish. My stream is here.

All this while I've stayed out of the twitter-tumblr-jaiku microblogging thing, but pownce was written in python+django, so hey, had to check it out.

Having checked it out, here is my micro review - Its pretty neat. I like the fact that it has private messaging, plus messaging within groups. Makes more sense than forcing all posts to be public like twitter. Pretty straightforward to get going, though others say that the twitter interface is simpler (haven't seen it myself). There is a desktop version too, but it requires Adobe AIR (Apollo), which sucks because no way am I going to install AIR just to use pownce. Plus there is no mobile integration.

It's still pretty new though, so I expect most of these things would be sorted out. At the moment, creating an account is by invitation only. I've got 3 more invites to give out, so if you want one, put in a comment.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Generating sentences using Markov chains

So, a bunch of us - Aswin, Kausik, Moyeen, Sagaro - got together at Aswin's house on Sunday to have a python codekata. We did an intro to Python session, and we wrote a program to generate sentences using Markov chains.

I really like this program. Not only is it interesting to write and run but it makes for a very nice language intro. I'll be doing this session again as a workshop at Bangalore BarCamp 4 at the end of this month.

The final version of the program is given below. The example below uses sample text from Alice in Wonderland, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. Remember that this is the final version — In the actual kata, a number of variations were written before arriving here.
import random

def getLines(filename):
return [line[0:-1] for line in open(filename).readlines()]

def getWords(lines):
words = []
for line in lines:
return words

def createProbabilityHash(words):
numWords = len(words)
wordCount = {}
for word in words:
if wordCount.has_key(word):
wordCount[word] += 1
wordCount[word] = 1

for word in wordCount.keys():
wordCount[word] /= 1.0 * numWords
return wordCount

def getRandomWord(wordCount):
randomValue = random.random()
cumulative = 0.0
for word in wordCount:
cumulative += wordCount[word]
if cumulative > randomValue:
return word

# replace with a large text sample. Here we are using Alice in Wonderland
# from Project Gutenberg
words = getWords(getLines("alice.txt"))

wordMap = {}
previous = (words[0], words[1])
for word in words[2:]:
if wordMap.has_key(previous):
wordMap[previous] = [word]
previous = (previous[1], word)

for word in wordMap.keys():
probabilityHash = createProbabilityHash(wordMap[word])
wordMap[word] = probabilityHash

previous = ("The", "next") # The starting words
numWords = 100 # The number of words to print

print previous[0], previous[1],
for i in range(numWords):
word = getRandomWord(wordMap[previous])
print word,
if word.endswith("."):
print "\n"
previous = (previous[1], word)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Agile software development in South East Asia

There is a new mailing list for discussing agile development in south east asia. If you're from around there, do join in.

This is pretty cool, because when I was in Singapore, I missed the lack of an agile user group. I remember thinking pretty often about whether we were the only company doing agile or what?

This is even more strange because FDD was first used in the UOB project in Singapore (You can read more about that here). Unfortunately, agile didn't spread outside to other companies in Singapore.

So its nice to now see some sort of user group coming up. It only means that there are more people out there doing agile.

If you're a software developer from the region, then you really ought to check it out.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Silver Catalyst v1.2 Released

I've just completed v1.2 of Silver Catalyst. This version allows you to integrate Silver Catalyst with a Wiki. Read more about the release here.

This version is the third release in the last month and a half, so we're iterating pretty rapidly, which means lots of new goodness coming up ever so often.

Oh, and there is a new homepage design as well. Check it out.