Know your caller – The SocialCaller App!

Getting a spam call in the middle of the day is not a new problem most of us face in our day-to-day life. One often wonders on the name of the caller and to why that person is calling you. Further, getting to know “who” is calling you is good (Truecaller), but the important question still remains. “Why” the other person is calling? Might be, getting to know the name of the caller is insufficient to allow the receiver of the call to make the decision whether to attend to the call or not.

Now, how do we know why the other person is calling? Well, one good medium to answer the question is – Online social networks [1]. During our research, we observed that many Indian users post their mobile numbers on popular online social networks as Twitter and Facebook to either promote the number in context of business or to stay connected with the friends.  Therefore, a tweet / bio on Twitter or a status update on Facebook exposes the real motive of sharing the mobile number.

Further, users make the posts public (posts with their phone number), thereby making the post accessible to anyone on the Internet. We deployed a mechanism to collect all such publicly shared mobile numbers in public posts, bio, or status updates. Currently our database has around 75,000 mobile numbers collected from Twitter and Facebook.

With this big and continuously growing database, we developed SocialCaller, an Android app (v2.3+), which provides the following two functionalities. The app is available freely at Google Play store.

  • · An online app – When a call comes, the app will show the number, the Tweet, Bio or status update associated with the number, the location of the user who posted that number and the social network where it was published. This service needs Internet connectivity at the time of call. We also store how many times a number has called up other users, and therefore how many times the number was queried in the database.
  • An offline app – This service is supported even when there are no calls. In case someone gets a missed call, or need to know more about a number, he / she can use this service to query the number and the corresponding details will be presented. This service needs Internet connectivity as well.

Please feel free to download this app from the Google Play Store. In case of any suggestions or feedback, please write to

Keep Calling!

[1]: Jain, P., Jain P., and Kumaraguru, P. “Call me maybe: understanding nature and risks of sharing mobile numbers on online social networks.” Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Online social networks. ACM, 2013.

“Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient”

After finishing the last book “The Art of The Start” by Guy Kawasaki I wanted to read more, so went and picked “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande Thanks to Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla for recommending this book in their
recommendations. It was a completely different experience reading this book, this is
probably the first book that I ever read written by a Medical Surgeon. Below are some notes / takeaways from the book.
B: “necessary fallibility” — Some things that we want to do and simply beyond our capacityB: But sometime over the last several decades — and it is only over the last several decades — science has filled in enough knowledge to make ineptitude as much our struggle as ignorance.B: If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.PK: I was scared reading a lot of medical examples that author quotes, e.g. the one where he makes a mistake in the surgery that he did. But, I believe the Doctors (who save human beings) are to be fully believed and that is when the medicine that we take suggested by them completely works on us.

B: One needs practice to achieve mastery, a body of experience before one achieves real success. And if what we are missing when we fail is individual skill, then what is needed is simply more training and practice.

PK: I am reminded of the 10,000hrs concept from Malcom Gladwell’s “The Outliers”. There are some of my friends who don’t believe in this concept, at least about 2 years back when I had read Outlier and described it to them, they were not ready to take it, I don’t know about their impression now (you will know if you are the one I am referring to here).

B: But, really, does it take all that [an M.D. and a Ph.D. in public health from John Hopkins, referring to Peter Pronovost] to figure out what anyone who has made a to-do list figured out ages ago? Well, maybe yes.PK: :-)B: The author asserts, “Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient” in solving complex problems.B: “Forcing functions”: relatively straightforward solutions that force the necessary behavior — solutions like checklists.

B: Author repeats this line / concept “You want people to make sure to get the stupid stuff right.” multiple times in the book, I think it is one of the strong takeaways I have from the book.

B: A great line to show that group work can be more productive / effective than individuals, “Man is fallible, but may be men are less so.” This thought is reinforced in multiple places in the book.

B: No, the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity — where the knowledge required exceed that of any individual and unpredictability reigns — efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail.B: I asked a WHO (World Health Organization) official whether the organization had a guide book on how to carry out successful global public health programs. She regarded me with a look that a parent might give toddler searching the dog’s mouth for the thing that makes the barking noise. It’s a cute idea but idiotic.B: Giving people a chance to say something [introducing themselves, and mention concerns] at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.PK: Looks like a great principle to adapt when unknown people come together to attack a problem or a situation.

B: Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. The are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything — a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and

important steps — the ones that even the highly silted professionals in them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

B: The power of checklists is limited, Boorman emphasized. They can help experts remember how to manage a complex process or configure a complex machine. They can make priorities clearer and prompt people to function better as a a team. By these, however, checklist cannot make anyone follow them.B: What experts like Dan Boorman have recognized is that the reason for the delay is not usually laziness or unwillingness. The reason is more often that the necessary knowledge has not been translated into a simple, usable, and systematic form.PK: Another takeaway from the book for me was, how important it is to work with organizations like WHO to have a larger impact in the society. Thanks to NASSCOM for giving me the opportunity to work as an intern with them during my Ph.D. life, I believe, the experience and the impact one could have working with such organizations is humongous.
PK: As most of you know, my current area of research is Privacy and Security in Online Social Media, during any introductory lecture on this topic, I use the picture below. This is a picture from the incident where a Airbus A320 crashed / landed into the Hudson river and Jkrums tweeted about it “ – There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” This tweet is one of The 10 Greatest Tweets of All Time. Got to know a lot more about the incident than what I knew before and
how team work and following guidelines / principles can be so effective.B: The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity.B: We’re obsessed in medicine with having great components — the best drugs, the best devices, the best specialists — but pay little attention to how to make them fit together well. Berwick notes how wrongheaded this approach is. “Anyone who understand systems well know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence.”B: The same can be said in numerous other fields. We don’t study routine failures in teaching, in law, in government programs, in the financial industry, or elsewhere.

PK: Just focussing on the domain / profession that I am involved, I have never come across any research or reports showing the failures in teaching. If any of you know or find any, please share it with me.

PK: I took away a lot of things from this book, but some concrete steps that I would like to try or see develop: 0. a good checklist for students / researchers (including myself) writing an academic research paper, addressing minute details of preparing the draft. I strongly believe that this checklist may differ from authors / collaborators to authors / collaborators, as mentioned in the book, but having some baseline can be very good. 1. a good checklist for event organization like a conference / workshop. 2. a good checklist for creating a usable / commercializable ideas / startups. I can see some of my friends running startup screaming now saying, there cannot be a checklist for this one 🙂 I am going to keep my eyes and ears open for developing such and many more checklists which can be useful for students / faculty / academia.

Among many new words that I picked from this book, here are a few to note:
– Asystole: Total cessation of heart function
– vicissitude: a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant

I have been Precog-ed!

It all began with an interview with two PhD students and I in PK’s office in April’2013. I was being interviewed for the position of a summer intern at Precog, a research group at my institute IIITD. I had no clue of what I was going to do the coming summer being a part of the group. Being  the youngest member, I often had to be guided.  But the best part about working under PK is that you are never told what to do, you are just shown ways which makes your work so much more exciting and challenging.

Having read all the papers published by the PhDs working at Precog  I realized how every aspect of Online Social Media and privacy was being thought over and processed in the minds of my seniors working at the Precog lab. The five LCDs at the lab showing live view of the systems developed at Precog, intense work atmosphere and intellectual minds pepped up to add to the ever increasing achievements of the group, it was almost scary. Yet everyone at the lab is always ready to lend a hand and my learning curve after joining the group has been steep. Working with the group I saw the lighter side of things eventually. After a long hard day at work, everyone had a well-deserved share of fun. I am glad I decided to stay.

The work I was involved in was based on the decay and growth analysis of activity on Online Social Media during events mainly Indian Premier League(IPL’13) and a few short-term events including natural disasters and  terrorist attacks. Research is not easy and research of the quality being done at Precog is a task in itself. Being guided by all these  amazing people who are a part of the group made the task easier than I imagined it to be.

When I look back at the summer of 2013 I cherish the time I have spent at the lab learning and getting inspired, working on Skype with Raghav (a sophomore at CMU whom I worked with),  the  ‘what’s up’ sessions which involved  giving updates of my work and getting everyone’s valuable guidance.  I have had too many amazing experiences to list them all together.

Most importantly, I cannot forget to mention PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life. Thank you PK!

I have continued my association with the group and I am sure exciting and hard-working times await for summer of 2014. 🙂

Aim in life is to find the “meaning and change the world”

Thanks to Mr. Hemant Kumar, Visiting Faculty at IIITD for suggesting me to read the book “The Art of The Start” by Guy Kawasaki. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, cover-to-cover. You can blame it on my recent excitement and curiosity about startups (in various forms, research labs / enterprises / academic institutes). Even though the book is all about startups in the enterprise sense, I took away a lot of points from the academic / non-enterprise point of view too. While reading the book, I was scribbling some thoughts and making notes from the book, just putting them here for my own purpose. This may help you (if you have reached until here) get excited to read the book or just know the crux of what is in the book. The summary is only of the points that I got excited about and it has nothing to do with the topic or the views that the author has covered. I have asked some questions related to the views that I took away, which I hope some of you reading this blog entry can answer and enlighten me on the same.

Book: “Life is too short to work with people you don’t naturally like — especially in a young, small organization”

Book: “Investors are impressed by the suggestions of professors. In Silicon Valley, for example, a call or an email from a Stanford engineering professor will get the attention of every venture capitalist. I hope you did well in school!”

PK: How much of this happens in India? How many professors interact with industry (startup or established) in an “Advisory” role? How many industry folks know the professors who are working in the area of the industry? How many of the professors in India working on things that the industry might get excited about, which can become a sell-able product?

PK: One of the senior professor in India mentioned this to me, paraphrased “If you are working on the right problem, outcomes can be technology, startups, industry will be interested, etc., but if you are working on the wrong problem, the outcome will be a paper.”

Book: “I have done ok so far, getting us to this point. But if it ever becomes necessary i will step aside.”

PK: I think, this is such a hard thing to do, but I can see how strong message it can send to the investors / decision-makers listening. Not just step aside but let fresh talent grow, nurture it to become tomorrow’s someone. How much does this nurturing happen in industry / academia / government?

Book: Albert Einstien was on a train. He couldn’t find his ticket after searching through all his pockets and bags. The conductor approached him and said something to the effect of “Dr. Einstien, everyone knows who you are. We know the Princeton can afford to buy you another train ticket.” To which Eeinstein replied with something along the lines of “I’m not worried about the money. I need to find the ticket to figure out where I’m going.”

Book: “It is not about what you know, or who you know, but, who knows you”

PK: This is so apt! I am realizing the power of this [positive / enthusiastic / non-self-oriented networking] as I am growing.

Book: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. – Samuel Johnson.” “Make friends before you need them”

PK: Such a deep view, I don’t know how much one can follow this, but will try.

Book: “Why is that those who have something to say can’t say it, while those who have nothing to say keep saying it?” – Anonymous

PK: I also learned some new words like:

  • Mensch: is the Yiddish term for a person who is ethical, decent and admirable
  • Schmoozing: art of networking

bitly could do better!

Recently, we got to get our hands dirty on some URL data from bitly which comprised of suspected URLs that have been clicked by Internet users in October. We thank bitly and particularly Brian David Eoff (senior data scientist) and Mark Josephson (CEO) for sharing this data with us. We analysed about 269,973 URLs marked “suspicious” by bitly to understand how these links are posted and clicked. Figure 1 shows a graph of some of the most common domains for which multiple suspicious URLs were shortened using bitly. Domains like , , and had more that 1,000 URLs each which were marked suspicious by bitly.

bitly uses real-time spam detection services like Google safe-browsing and SURBL. However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of measures to nail spam bitly users. There exist a lot of registered bitly users who shorten spam links regularly. From the 269,973 suspicious URLs, we extracted 4,469 registered bitly users who have posted one or more of these links. After some data crunching, we found that 4,457 bitly users have posted at least 113 suspicious bitly URLs or more (Figure 2). If we analyse the past history of shortened URLs of these users, then we may find more spam links in their profiles. We plan to do this in future. These users are allowed to stay on bitly though they regularly post spam links which are also heavily clicked by other Internet users through various media like emails, blogs and online social networks.

We look closely at top 20 users who have posted the maximum number of suspicious URLs in our dataset and observed that the highest number of suspicious links posted by a single user is as large as 500 URLs (Figure 3). Shortened URLs constitute a large fraction of spam on Internet. Sixty five percent of URLs targeting social media users are shortened URLs [1].

We believe that if bitly suspends the registered bitly users spreading spam constantly or publicly marks them as malicious, this would discourage the use of bitly as a spamming service and deter malicious URLs being shortened and spread on Internet. We hope to see more features from bitly in future which would help to curb out spam and malicious links to greater extent.

We are investigating this data in more detail to develop more insights. One of the student is pursuing her Masters thesis work on this topic. If you are interested in knowing more or want to give suggestions, please write to