Shriphani Palakodety likes Big Data and he cannot lie — that shows in his Instagram account @IndiaViz, a collection of his visual representations of various aspects of India’s geographies, across changes in literacy rates, cities’ street networks, population densities and more. One can distinguish Shriphani’s creations for their radium-tinted graphics against a solid black background, making the information more confronting. Perhaps this is why he has quickly drawn in followers who keenly wait for more posts to be published.
Over the phone from Palo Alto, California, the 28-year-old chuckles occasionally when he describes the various conundrums that data scientists face around Artificial Intelligence and Big Data. Shriphani has worked for Microsoft, and at Yelp and Kimono Labs. He was a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University too, so he is definitely a numbers guy.
While the Instagram account, with close to 2,500 followers, is a solo project, the IndiaViz website has work from his friends and collaborators from school. The first IndiaViz post went up on July 5 but Shriphani nailed the radium aesthetic later that month, which he has consistently retained.
“I began looking at Indian problems which I could address using AI, and I ventured into maps,” he recalls, “Surprisingly, you can produce stunning imagery with maps; people liked it and I decided to do more. My audience on Instagram would request some projects and I’d follow through. It’s been an organic process.”
On people, places and progress
While it takes just one or two evenings’ worth of work to complete these visualisations, the results can be mind-blowing. Think crazy comparisons; it is no secret India has a long-ongoing population boom. Shriphani adds that when people see the population maps in comparison to Europe or the United States, it is a little scary how congested India really is.
“We’ve been doing this series of small cities and their streets,” he recalls, “for example, Mumbai and Hyderabad are iconic cities so you’ll recognise their shapes... but the streets alone have their own stories and this has attracted a lot of urban planners who say ‘if you have these maps, we’d like to use them.’ I had no idea these people needed these resources but some do ask for population maps of Hyderabad or Madurai and I’ll go get them.”
Shriphani mentions the Jammu and Kashmir border disputes and that most people were not aware of the extent of the land seizing, and the visualisations that came of the data drew quite a lot of understanding. He also mentions that posts about literacy disparities and economic fluctuations across the different states over the years. “The big surprise for me is how much is tracked now; every year, they put out the Economic Survey of India before the Union budget is announced and it’s such a detailed assessment.” But he chuckles, “I feel like an alien species studying humanity!”
It has been the decade of Big Data and Shriphani agrees that 2019 is the right time to pursue a project like IndiaViz because this year saw a huge rise in Internet availability across societies. “It’s a natural fit because Indians are interested in the trajectory of their country,” he points out, “and maps are visually stimulating.” It is also worth pointing out that examining maps now is second nature to most people so deciphering them is easy.
The right tooling
- How does Shriphani discern which bodies are giving out truthful datasets? “Surveys from the Indian Government are ones I take at face value... other ones are usually estimates by third party academics and you have to dig a little into peer reviews and so on.” There’s also a responsibility aspect in which creators like him shouldn’t take too much of a creative license and wind up putting across a misinformed image.
Tools of the trade are given their due credit too. Shriphani uses OSM (Open Street Maps) to bring these datasets to life. “Open Street Maps is a collaborative community effort or geographic resource to produce these high quality rasters (a type of graphics) but then there’s a lot of human annotation too, such as infrastructure, which is labelled by hand. It’s very grassroots and highlights how the community effort is exceptional when the organisation of some government resources is not.”
Shriphani is one of the growing breed of data scientists turning a numbers game into an art, for a reason beyond easy consumption. “The tooling has gotten better. You can do a lot with minimal effort from your end.”
At the end of the day, these maps provide a different dimension to storytelling. “I believe high quality imagery can cause a shift in some kind of consciousness about an issue and is more effective than a table or prose. You can tell a great story about how far a nation has come after, for example, a natural disaster or a conflict. Once you appreciate that, you can even see some gaps.”