BrainstorM and Datasets go LIVE!

BrainstorM: Somebody during my graduate school life, told me [paraphrased] “Strength and / or creativity of a researcher is limited to the literature that he or she is aware of.” After going through a pleasant and a well-needed grind at Carnegie Mellon University, I have started preaching this to others. To practice what I preach, I started doing Research Paper reading sessions with my students starting Fall 2010. We did this for a semester, it went well; some students enjoyed it and some did not (understandably!). In Spring 2011, with the help of some of my Ph.D. students, we named the paper reading sessions as “BrainstorM” referred as BM among the group members. After having done it for the last 3 semesters (Spring 2011, Fall 2011, and Spring 2012), some of the Ph.D. students thought, we should take BM to the next level, i.e. make the schedule, papers, lead student, etc. public, so that other research groups are aware of the type of papers we read and can give suggestions, if any. One Ph.D. student who is part of BM from the starting date, says “It [BM] keeps on motivating me to think “Out of the box” looking at what methodologies others are following. One can understand what a paper is all about, but with smart minds having different backgrounds and expertise (undergrads, postgrads and faculty), one understands multiple perceptions of the same idea. I find weekly brainstorm sessions as a way to cultivate healthy group structure and a coherent feeling among group members, which is hard to achieve otherwise. There is always a take away with every BM session either in terms of technical knowledge or motivation to produce good research.”

With this background, experience, and motivation in mind, we are making our BM details public from this semester; for details, please visit http://precog.iiitd.edu.in/brainstorm.html My hope is that, we will get inputs / suggestions on the kind of papers we should read or probably even feedback on the papers that we are reading now from the community. We hope this can help in more interaction between the members of the research group and the research community.

Datasets: I also strongly believe that wherever appropriate, researchers should share their data for others to use; this can ONLY help the community. At this year’s WWW, I asked a question about sharing dataset to one of the speaker who presented a full paper, and the speaker openly denied sharing the data (understandably!). The chairperson for the session reacted positively and  asserted the importance of making  datasets of the papers public. A NYTimes article was written around the question and a follow-up by Dr. Bernardo A. Huberman (Social Computing group at HP labs) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/science/big-data-troves-stay-forbidden-to-social-scientists.html. With the intent of making  research communities grow healthily, we plan to make our datasets public. In this regard, we are making two datasets public for now; our plan is to share most of the datasets that we have already used and that we will use in future. Please visit http://precog.iiitd.edu.in/resources.html for the datasets and if you have any specific requests on the datasets mentioned here or in any of  our Publications, http://precog.iiitd.edu.in/publications.html please write to me at pk[at]iiitd[dot]ac[dot]in. I will be happy to do needful.

 

Competitive Influence – A Review

Ever since I got into reading papers, it has always fascinated how much knowledge can just a 8 page document hold. How can the 8 page document be currently extending the boundaries of human knowledge? By my blog posts, I want to draw attention of readers towards some of the upcoming concepts in the field of network science. Today I would like to illuminate readers about the topic of competitive influence maximization.

The problem of influence maximization is quite a well known and has been studied extensively in the past few decades both by economists and computer scientists. However, to just be complete, lets define the problem of influence maximization in the viral marketing setting. Suppose a company wants to launch a new product and wants to market it to consumer by giving some free samples. But, its problem is that, it doesn’t want to give everyone a free sample, but it wants to give samples only to say few people as it really cannot afford to give a lot many free samples. Suppose each sample costs 1 unit and it has only 20 units to give. Now the company wants to select the people whom it wants to give the free samples is in the sense that they can persuade more people to buy the product. It all works on the assumption that a user uses the product and then they refer it to their friends, and they in turn refer to their friends. And those friends buy the product. This problem of which 20 seeds to select such that at the end of the process, the reach of the product is maximum is known as Influence Maximization problem. According to me, for CS students, the best paper to get into this area would definitely be work by Kempe, Kleinberg and Tardos titled “Maximizing the spread of influence through a social network” [link].

Researchers over the past have tried to make the model more realistic by introducing various concepts like, time, game theory, budgets, costs, passivity of users, incentive mechanisms and many more. Others have tried to create efficient heuristics so that the algorithm proposed in the above mentioned paper can scale easily for larger networks without compromising much on the accuracy. One more such factor that is very much applicable in the domain of viral marketing is competition or competitive influence. It is a very valid extension to this problem. Whenever the market is not a monopoly, it is quite safe to assume that there are going to be multiple companies launching a campaign simultaneously or there are going to be more than one marketing campaign in the network at a given time. The question however is, how can we model this competitive behavior?

The researchers have tried to model this competitive behaviour by extending some existing models, for example let us consider the Independent Cascade Model as defined in the above mentioned paper. What the independent cascade model says is that, once a node gets activated, it will try to activate all its currently unactivated nodes with a constant probability p. The model is quite simple. Suppose there are b companies which are competing in the market. Each of the company selects a set Si of nodes, consisting of atmost k nodes. It is assumed that a node selected by the company will buy that company product. However, in the case when a particular node is selected by more than 1 company, then that particular node will get allocated to a company randomly. The goal of each of the company is to maximize the expected number of people allocated to their company at the end of the cascade flow. We can definitely view this as a game. And definitely there does not exist any pure strategy Nash equilibrium, however mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium will exist.

It has been shown that a company’s payoff i.e. expected value of revenue from his strategy given that he knows others strategy is a monotone and a submodular function. Algorithm which can give 1-1/e approximation of the optimal follows a greedy approach. The greedy algorithm is basically iteratively adding a node with largest marginal contribution to the subset.

The above mentioned model just introduces us to the problem of competitive influence in social network. Now, we will try to extend this simplistic model by changing settings. For example consider the budget, the above mentioned model did not account for budget of a player but however that might not be the case. Lets look the above mentioned problem from a follower’s perspective. Suppose there are 2 companies which want to launch a product, and company say A has information about who company B’s influencers are going to be. Now it is upto company A to select nodes in such a way that the number of nodes that buy the product A is more than those buying product B. A has to achieve all of this under a fixed budget. Obviously the model assumes that the choice of a particular node is progressive, that means once a node has bought a product it won’t be willing to change its decision. Also, it is safe to assume that there will definitely be nodes in the network which won’t buy either of A and B. The question which will be answered assuming these settings can be viewed as a best response to competitior’s move in a Stackelberg competition.

Mathematically speaking, we are trying to find the solution to the following problem.

Where A is the company which has information about B’s initil seeds, B is A’s total budget, V is the set of vertices and IA and IB is the set of influencers chosen by A and B respectively. f(IA| IB) is the number of people that will eventually buy product A given that influencers chosen by A is IA and by B is IB.

In the model that we discussed above, we saw that the node randomly choses the company it wants to get influenced by, incase there were multiple nodes who were trying to activate it. Let us now introduce 2 more models to achieve the same task as things might not be random everytime.

Model 1: Distance based model

The distance based model tries to relate to competitive facility location concept. It tries to tell that the location of a node in the network is important to influence people. A consumer will try to adopt the technology which is closest to it and in abundance. Consider a node u is connected by “active” edges (by active edges, we mean edges which have produced the result success when a coin was flipped with success probability equal to independent cascade probability p), and the shortest distance to any active node is say x. Now the node u will accept technology A with probability = number of nodes who have accepted A and are at a distance of x from u connected by active edges divided by total nnumber of nodes who have accepted A and who have accepted B and are at a distance of x from u.

Model 2: Wave propogation model

This particular model doesn’t look at overall shortest distance but it gives more weightage to your immediate neighbours. It says each node makes a decision of which technology to accept, irrespective of the decision made by nodes who are at a distance greater than 1 unit from it.

So probability of u accepting technology A is nothing but ratio of the sum of probabilities of a node accepting technology A for all nodes which are at a distance of 1 unit from it or say x-1 unit from the active set.

It has been proved that both of these models are indeed submodular and a hill climbing approach greedy algorithm can give 1-1/e-E approximation of the optimal. Using these it has been shown that A can obtain a good chunk of market share even by chosing the seed set second.

You can go into the exact technical details and see the results of the above mentioned techniques by going through the following papers:

Cairns T., Nagarajan C., Wild S., and Zulen A., Maximizing Influence in a Competitive Social Network: A Follower’s Perspective [link]

Bharathi S., Kempe D., and Salek M., Competitive Influence Maximization in Social Networks [link]

Other good papers to read regarding this concept:

J. Kotska, Y.A. Oswald, and R. Wattenhofer. Word of Mouth: Rumor dissemination in social networks. In SIROCCO, pages 185-196, 2008

S. Goyal, M. Kearns, Competitive Contagion in Networks. In STOC 2012.

UMBC Memoirs: Research, Fun and Baltimore

INDIA2USA: Now it’s been a few weeks since I have come back from UMBC, Maryland, USA after spending the Spring, 2012 semester; and the hangover of the wonderful experience is still there ;-).  The dream started in Dec, 2011, when I first got to know about my plausible visit to UMBC. It was a mixed feeling of shock, excitement, uncertainty and apprehension and 4.5 months seemed a long time… The wait got longer because of some initial glitches like getting the wrong DS2019 documents and the drought of visa appointment dates at the US Embassy, but finally on 20th Jan, I got my golden pass to USA, I had exactly 8 days to pack for my first international trip and these days flew by in packing, packing and more packing 😉 Before I realized how much time has passed, I was there standing at the IGI airport at 11 PM, waving a teary good bye to my family and friends. Believe me the thought that I am going abroad for 4+ months had not even sunk in… It’s only when I sat on the huge Boeing 777 for the first time, and the engines roared with fuel, the realization hit me like a lightning. It was a 24+ hours long and tiring journey to reach my new abode for next few months, BALTIMORE. Having had a stop-over at New York, a few hours before, Baltimore seemed a very different but pleasing city..  It was more like a country-side with a loads of green patches, rare high rises and open roads [and from there onwards Baltimore was rechristened to “US ka Gaon”]

Work@UMBC: Research experience at UMBC was highly enriching and satisfying. This was my first experience of working in an international setting, and it was truly a unique and multi-cultural experience. I interacted with professors and students from all over the world and it was amazing to see how they worked together as a team. At UMBC, I got an opportunity to work at Ebiquity Lab under the guidance of  Dr. Anupam Joshi. Soon, I realized it is one of the best and most sought after lab among the computer science students at UMBC, with a proven track record of placements with Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google. The Research work at Ebiquity lab was always focused and well planned. There were weekly team meetings coupled with scrum meetings to discuss the progress and obstacles and regular updates on research work.

I was highly motivated for my work at UMBC as it was work in my core research domain. Along with the research work I did with Dr. Joshi, I also got the opportunity to attend a course [another meticulously planned detail by my advisor] on “Semantic Web” conducted by Dr. Tim Finin. This was like icing on the cake, as Semantic Web is a new and upcoming field, with numerous applications. In my first few weeks at the research lab, I also got an opportunity to present my work done at IIIT to the Ebiquity group. I got many more wonderful opportunities at UMBC, one such being, when our work was presented by Dr. Joshi at NIST, where I also attended a full day workshop at NIST’s nano-technology labs.

@UMBC I learned about various new domains of computer science research which I had not known earlier, and attended seminars on these topics by the experts. Another interesting milestone for me came during my stay at UMBC, when our research paper got accepted at PSOSM workshop at WWW 2012. I visited Lyon, France for a week to present my work at the conference [another blog coming up shortly about my Paris and Lyon adventures 😉 ]

Fun&Friends: Well no experience is complete without your friends 🙂 and to be honest I met some amazing people at Baltimore and will cherish their friendship throughout my life. These were the people, who made my trip memorable and helped me throughout the stay. It was amazing to see the bonding between the entire Indian community at UMBC. Midnight birthday celebrations, bus trips, movies, bowling, shopping, road-trips,.. it was a trip full of adventure and new experiences. I visited some amazing cities like New York, Washington DC, Boston and Annapolis. I also attended a lot of Indian as well multicultural programs at UMBC, which was an enriching experience too. Now some good things about my “gaon”; the weather in Baltimore was amazing and full of surprises, I experienced snowfall for the first time in my life during my first week at Baltimore, and then stayed through the beautiful spring season to watch all the cherry blossoms bloom to glory and finally bid adieu to the city amidst hurricane warnings.

At the end, I would like to thank my mentors (Dr. Joshi and Dr. PK) for giving me this opportunity to experience a new world and my friends to make it so much memorable for me.

Lifetime Experience @ Microsoft – “Be What’s Next”

After working for more than 2 years in one of the India’s largest IT service Provider Company I always had a dream of working for a product based IT Company.

The dream began to take a concrete shape on 3-May-2012 late in the evening when I found a mail in my inbox from my Training and Placement Officer asking for resume urgently for an internship opportunity in Microsoft. Initially I was a bit hesitant in sending my resume. I felt that I may not be able to make it through the selection process comprised of resume shortlisting, telephonic interview and then personal interview in the Microsoft campus in Gurgaon scheduled for the very next day.

Somehow a thought came to my mind from a famous Bollywood movie which said “Koshish karne waale log kabhi nahi haarte”. The thought triggered me to press the SEND button of the mail containing my attached resume to my Training and Placement Officer.

Things started falling into place thereafter and finally on 14-May-2012 I joined Microsoft Corporation as an intern in the Security and Privacy Division under Deepak Rout (Director Privacy, Microsoft India). He has distinguished experience of more than 20 years in the area of technology management and leadership roles. He has rich experience of 16 years in Military intelligence and is known for his outstanding contribution to the nation in the areas of Intelligence, Security and Technology. He has also been a part of different corporate organizations as Chief Information Security Officer and has been awarded CIO-100 Awards for 2010, 2011 and also Top 100 CISO Awards for 2011. Apart from this he also has a strong inclination towards teaching and has been associated with various educational institutions of national importance (like IIIT-Delhi) in the country. There has been a strong bonding between IIIT-Delhi faculty and Deepak. PK and Deepak have been interacting for the last couple of years.

Amazing co-incidence was that I was also joined by another trainee from Symbiosis Institute of Information Technology-Pune, this guy happened to work with me for almost 2 years in my previous company before joining M.Tech in Information Security at IIIT-Delhi.

It was very impressive to find that on the day one itself we were issued laptops (with Windows 8 OS) along with login id’s and password in addition to the full training plan chalked out on a week by week basis. Day 1 did not end here itself; it was also followed by a training session on Microsoft Privacy Standards and the Privacy laws in India. All these things transformed this wonderful experience from better to the best.

In the week#1 itself we went for a work and fun filled team outing to Manesar ITC resort (about 25 Km from Gurgaon) where we spent almost full day. The outing was comprised of games, meeting on Microsoft’s FY13 targets followed by dance and party. It was yet another awesome experience.

In the week#2 I got another wonderful opportunity to meet and hear Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer who was on a visit to Microsoft Gurgaon.
Every week in Microsoft is characterized by a unique learning experience giving rich insights into the future technology and research areas. Credit also goes to Microsoft and its lively and enthusiastic employees.

I have been handed over independent charge of a number of excellent projects with full authority from planning to execution. It involves interacting with Microsoft partners, development teams, marketing teams and the list goes on…

There has not been even a single moment in my internship tenure till date when I have not lived that moment to the fullest both in terms of work and fun. I will cherish the memories of the time spent at Microsoft throughout my life and hopefully I am blessed with more of such opportunities going ahead in life 🙂

Thanks to the almighty, entire faculty of IIIT-Delhi with whom I got a chance to learn and interact till now, my reporting manager and team mates at Microsoft, my parents and my friends. My selection and internship would not have been possible without their support and teachings.

Below is a pic of mine at Microsoft!

The Republic of Ireland

Football and booze. If those are not the first things that come to your mind when you think of Ireland (or the entire EU for that matter), you’re probably not in the right zone. I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I was about to board my first international flight to Dublin. 19 hours later, I had the answer. Perhaps, it wasn’t about how much the place could offer, it was about how much I was ready to accept!

Apparently, I had landed on a Friday, and there was a long weekend to follow. Day 0 (the day I landed) was damn cold by Indian standards, and I was very tired after the long flight. But the mind refused to shut down and was super-keen on looking around, exploring the new place! The breath-taking greens, the tidy streets, the little traffic and the fresh air were amongst the very first things which caught my attention. Thanks to Sandipan, PK’s friend, who showed me around! I met my mentor, Dr. Maura Conway and Dr. Lisa McInerney, shifted to my apartment with lots of help from Sandipan, bought some stuff to eat and then I was pretty much, all on my own. I had to wake up to a morning to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! The next morning was a different experience altogether. I could not comprehend what I was supposed to do! Perhaps, just breathe and take some time to sink in to this new heavenly place! A visit to the sea side on a sunny Saturday marked the perfect beginning of the trip… Although the wind was chilling to death, the exotic view of the sea-side was inexplicably awesome!

Then came the big day. Tuesday, May 8, my first day at work at the Dublin City University! The feeling was a mixture of nervousness, anxiety, pride and excitement, all at the same time. I went to Dr. Maura’s office in the morning, and she got me started, running around with me to get me my ID card, my desk, access to the lab, and other stuff. She is one great person I must say! She took care of everything so well, and it was a smooth beginning. She even took us out for dinner the same evening!

During the first couple of weeks, I did not get to speak to a lot of people. The students in the lab would work all day, and there would be absolute silence around! I was amazed to see people walking out of the lab if they had something to talk about… Coming from a place where the noisiest place is the lab, I was taken by surprise! It wasn’t long before I started finding a few friends. Students here are really nice. A couple of girls came up to me and we introduced ourselves. Soon, I found an Indian, in fact, some one who lived just a stone’s throw away from my house back in New Delhi! That was shocking!

3 weeks into DCU, it was my 23rd birthday. I was expecting this one to be a silent day. No one around knew. Well, that’s what I thought! But thanks to my advisor, PK, who (I learnt lately) told Dr. Maura about it! Maura offered me to go out to a friend’s place for dinner. I instantly agreed, and thought I’d tell them it was my birthday after the dinner. But to my surprise, it was actually my own birthday dinner I had been invited to! That was the sweetest gesture I’ve ever come across in my academic life! It was a majestic experience… Birthday dinner, the Irish way. Candle lights, small cup cakes with candles, Irish food, and wine. I’m sure it would have been anyone’s dream evening! Especially, when it came as a surprise! I even got a DCU pullover for my birthday gift, again, thanks to one of the sweetest person I’ve ever come across, Dr. Maura. 🙂

The birthday party pretty much marked the beginning of the wild time I had here! I came to know more people, started going out with friends, started enjoying the night life here, basically, it turned out to put me into “party” mode! I was lucky to find a wonderful group of friends, which included people from all over the world! I met people from Spain, Poland, Romania, Greece, Costa Rica, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland (of course), and more… To add to the buzz, the Euro Cup football began, with Ireland qualifying for the tournament after 10 years! Streets and pubs started to fill with enthusiastic supporters cheering for Ireland and singing “holy chants” for the “boys in green”. The atmosphere was electric! I watched all the three matches that Ireland played, with friends at different pubs. That wasn’t all. The partying went to another level when we hung out at nights and boozed and danced till the pubs shut down and kicked us out early in the mornings! It was one of these nights that I tried my first Tequila, and got a bad headache next morning…

But while in Ireland, I also got to learn a lot. The European work culture is different from the Indian one in multiple ways! 8:00 am to 6:00 pm is a strictly followed working period and is often productive. At the same time, evenings and weekends are mostly spent work-free, unless there is a real need to work! I also got the chance to be a part of the School of Law and Government here. Dr. Maura comes from the School of Law and Government, so it was my first time working with a non-computer science mentor! The experience was quite amazing (and sometimes, even amusing) since there were significant differences in the way we approached the research problem we were working on. It was also nice to know how non-computer science students pursued their research, and how they were keen and excited to learn about problems in security and privacy in computer science!

Overall, the visit was amazing both personally and professionally, and the memories and learnings would remain with me for a long time! Below is a picture of me at the Dublin Zoo. Yes, that is a real giraffe, and if you can notice the ostrich in the background! 🙂

Come back soon for more experiences and fun-reads from me and PreCog!

Exciting times! Ph.D. Students, Collaborations, International teaching

I am probably feeling the most satisfied at this point in time after taking up a faculty job! The reasons are many, most importantly my Ph.D. students. As of now, I have 5 Ph.D. students, by the time I am drafting this post, all of them are outside India. Four of the five have traveled international for the first time in their life. If you would have asked me say around Sept. 2011 whether this is something I would have expected, I would have simply said NO. I was keen on trying to give this sort of exposure to students, but, was not aggressively pursuing it. Some time in Sept. 2011, I thought, “How cool will it be to have a research discussion with my students where the students are calling in from different parts of the world?” Even though, this thought seems very silly and funny at the first sight, it requires some important ingredients to make this work, i.e. finding / using the collaborations to send students, finding research ideas / problems that can excite the collaborator to invite the student, and most importantly finding funds for their travel, accommodation, visa, etc. These can be very time consuming, particularly, for somebody like me who is new to this game. Since I had the “stupid” idea, I wanted to sincerely give it a shot.

So, now the details of the visits: Aditi and Paridhi are visiting Prof. Anupam Joshi at Ebiquity, UMBC, USA. Niharika is visiting Prof. Nitesh Saxena at SPIES, UAB, USA. Prateek is visiting Prof. Maura Conway at DCU, Ireland. Anupama is visiting Prof. Virgilio Almeida at DCC, UFMG. The first call that I had with all my students where each and every one of them was sitting outside India was a satisfying feeling. All credits to my collaborators, well-wishers who have made this possible. This may not be a big feat for many, but, I feel very satisfied that my  ‘stupid’ thought has become a reality. Below is a pic of all five of them in their respective location of their visit (yes, they have fun too!!!). Top left to right: Aditi, Paridhi, Niharika. Bottom left to right: Prateek, Anupama.

Moving on to another exciting thing that was going on in the last 5 weeks, I was teaching the PSOSM course at DCC, UFMG. Students were amazing, they are so hands on and systems people. It is always fun teaching them.  Imagine a class where the Prof (me) speaks in Tamil accented English (with some influence from  American English) 🙂 and students speaking in Portuguese influenced English! The course was always going to be heavy with 4 papers to read every week and write summary for the same. But, the students did well and in particular, I felt the students’ quality of the summary improved as we progressed in the course. Since we read most of the papers published between summer 2011 and summer 2012, it was fun for me also to read the papers in detail and discuss with the students. The course made a wave among the DCC community when we decided to have a poster session; as some faculty were interested in the posters, I was worried about the quality of the posters and the projects. I managed to review the posters before the final day of presentation at least once, thanks to all students who put up with me about deadlines 🙂 Students really rocked on the final poster presentation day. Some pics from the poster session. There were about 30 people who attended the poster session. This was satisfying, I was worried about audience. Thanks to some faculty at DCC too who attended the poster session and gave critical feedback.

Hoping to have many more such posts on ‘Exciting times.’

Life @ISI..

It’s always big when you expect it the least..!!

The day I got selected for the Viterbi India Internship program, I was on cloud nine. It’s a different feeling to be amongst few students across the nation, selected for the prestigious program .

I am working under Dr. Kristina Lerman at Information Science Institute, University of Southern California. My office is located in the beautiful city of Marina del Rey.

My research problem is to compare and create different centrality matrices, to find influential people on social media.I am currently working on attention-limited page rank and attention limited alpha-centrality and their approximate versions. The idea is that non-conservative measures works well for social network, also a person will pay less attention to incoming message from a friend if he is connected to many friends in comparison to another person with less friend.

Global exposure!! It was tough in the beginning – new place, different culture, and different mix of people with different accent…but the mantra is “BE YOURSELF!!”, “DON’T LOOSE FOCUS”,”BE PERSISTENT” and everything will fall in place automatically..thanks to PK for being so supportive and guiding me all the way.

It’s different to work here, surrounded with smart and helpful people. People are curious about India – if people use smart phones in India and are they concerned about their privacy…and we had a long discussion. Got a chance to meet different people at ISI, always involved in different activities with great enthusiasm…people here are inspiring!

It’s rigorous in weekdays and complete fun in weekend…i.e. how ISI works!!

Well its almost been a month here and I am enjoying every bit of it…my work…place…people and even my cooking skills have improved…;):P

Stay tuned for more updates on my research.

Below is a pic of mine with my associations with USC / ISI.

NUS School of Computing trip… Wonderful experience of my life :)

15th March 2012, I was working in the lab, and suddenly got a mail that me and Vivekanand were nominated for a trip to Singapore for attending a workshop at NUS. It was beyond expectation, and I was delighted, ecstatic, overjoyed and excited all at the same time. It’s beyond description.

But then, there was one more hurdle to cross, and we had to wait for the final selection from NUS. I need to apply for this summer school and final selection was by NUS. The application asked my research interest, why NUS should select you and future plans. I filled the application with full enthusiasm. And there it was, got final confirmation from NUS on 4th of April that I got selected for summer school workshop on full scholarship basis, I couldn’t be more happier. Thinking about the things I’d see, things I’d do, all the planning, and my first flight experience made me really excited.

Oh god! I was finally going to Singapore!!

The flight was at 7 AM on 28th and I was very excited as this was my first experience in flight. All went well, and we reached Singapore around 3:30 local time and then took a taxi and within 30 minutes reached NUS.
We were given envelopes containing a card, some campus rules and other some papers. We were allocated rooms in Shreas hall. After that we went to our rooms. The rooms were awesome and well furnished, a study table, almirah, bed and the most importantly the outside scene was superb, breathtaking.

Then after freshening up we went to see the city, it was a really beautiful city, the lights, colors and the people gave it unique warmth. We took rides in the metro, went to malls and did some roaming here and there.

Finally it was the day of workshop, 29th May 2012. 

Breakfast was at 8:30, two PhD scholars came to take us to the workshop location. It was a 5 min walk from the hostel. Being a pure vegetarian, understandably I was very afraid of eating anything. But there was a lady analyzing me and she told that the food is purely vegetarian I can eat without any hesitation, but still I was having doubts, but eventually had the breakfast and went towards the workshop room. We did registration there and got a schedule, a nice water bottle, and some other items, including a laptop cleaning kit and a paper containing wi-fi access credentials.

The workshop started at 9 AM sharp. Starting within introductory speech by Dr. Oor Beng Chin, Dean, SoC. Next up, Dr. Tan Kian Lee, Vice Dean, gave an introduction of the research in NUS and the PhD program and its requirements. Than Dr. Tan Tiow Seng, Vice Dean (Graduate studies), gave a talk on the graduate studies at NUS. That concluded the introduction of the workshop.

Then there was the lunch. ‘Horrible‘ is the word which will most appropriately describe it. I couldn’t get anything proper to eat, some strange rice and some strange vegetable, which is hard to describe. The strangest thing is that for them, fish and Chicken were considered Vegetarian!!!

After the lunch, Dr. R.K. Shyamasundar, Senior Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research gave a talk on ‘program analysis’ and ‘scheduling challenges’.

After some more talks the workshop ended for the day around 5:30 and a bus was waiting for us to take us to Night Safari. This opens at 8:00; before all that we had dinner at 7:00 and surprisingly the food was actually nice. We also had 2 PhD scholars to escort us and help us. There were some professors from NUS. They were personally talking to us, guiding us and encouraging us to pursue PhD. One of the goals of the workshop was to showcase to the students from different colleges the PhD program at NUS. The night safari was pretty nice, it involved going in a Zoo kind of place and exploring the animals, many of which I was seeing for the first time. The safari ended at around 9-45 and we reached NUS by around 10:30, that was the end of the first day.

The first day was Superb

The second day had the similar routine and the talks were primarily based on “Information Systems”, got to know the actual value of user studies and new methods of doing that. During the evening we went to ‘Little India’ a nice place with Indian food and nice shops, we did some shopping there.

The third day was primarily on “Graphical Media”, and there were many nice innovations like Zoomable Video which did automatic video compression by analyzing priority of frames and without involvement of users and the likes. There was one more talk by Dr. Terence Sim which I found very interesting that was faces, photos and fanciful things. This project do virtual make up on a simple face by maping it with existing data set. Existing data set contains some already makeup faces. At the end of the day we went to Marina Bay, where we had the laser show, and the place from where the whole of Singapore can be seen. We also had many other students from IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Mumbai, DCE and we enjoyed talking many things and new ideas, their research experience.

The fourth and the last day was on ‘Data Analytics’ which started with a talk Dr. Anirban Mondal at 9:00, on topic “Crowd Sourcing” it was a good one, many other talks followed and by 12:30 the workshop ended. Dr. Abhik Roy choudhary gave an ending speech and the workshop end with distribution of participation certificates.

Then we had a trip of the NUS campus, it’s pretty large and had various facilities, the library is pretty impressive containing books related to almost every topic. During the evening we went to Sentosa, it’s an island resort 1/2 kilometer from mainland Singapore. It has nice beaches and places to relax. We also visited the ‘Song of the Sea laser show’ and the ‘Underwater Park’, both of which were awesome.

We booked our tickets to give us 2 extra days to see the city. On 2nd we went to the Clarke Quay, and it was really beautiful, the night view of the Quay is superb, the multicolored lights fills up the night sky, it’s a treat to watch. The decorated buildings the food, the smells, the overall environment makes it so inviting. Then we went to some more malls and that was the end of the day.

Next day, the first thing on our minds was the “Universal Studios”. It was a real fun filled place, many rides and shows, the 3D rides, and 4D (Shrek 4D adventure) shows were really nice. The food was good and the roller-coaster was so much fun. The various sets and model cities inside were really beautiful and original.

That was it; our trip was at its end, a nice memorable experience for a lifetime.

The next day we were back to India after a great trip.

Finally, in the end of this blog, I want to thank all the professors who nominated me for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you for all your support because without this i could not achieve anything.

Below is a pic of mine standing in NUS!

A Day at Google, Banglore, winning the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship 2012

Amongst 30 unread emails in my inbox, there was one about ‘Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship 2012’ application which I quickly opened and closed without really reading the content. I had heard about the scholarship before and knew that it was awarded to very few students; mostly from top-notch institutes like the IITs. There was no chance of me getting through, rather read the other emails I thought! But after a lot of persuasion from my father, I grumpily filled out the application form. The application asked for my academic details, achievements (I have a very few!) and a couple of essays, and it took me 8 long hours to complete it. Just a week after, the new semester started and I forgot all about the scholarship.

Around March end, I received a phone call from Google Office, and-voila! I had been declared a finalist for the scholarship and invited to their Banglore Office for a one-day conclave. And now, I was excited! Eager to see what happens at the conclave and hoping to get a lot of Google-goodies!

I arrived at Google Office on 20th April, and soon realized that it was going to be much more awesome than I had expected! The day kickstarted with a quick delicious breakfast followed by a talk by Yolanda Mangolini – the chief of Google Diversity Program. She talked about various opportunities and programs by Google which bring together people from across the globe and also help them to hold their identity in their own way. She briefly talked about the facilities and the work culture at Google, some of which was really amazing like the flexible work hours and the easy transition from one project to another. The next talk – ‘Making Magic at Google’ spawned over some of the most successful projects at Google and the journey of people involved in those projects. The next two talks were fairly technical – ‘Map Maker’ by Rachna Agarwal and ‘Android 4.0’ by Rajdeep Dua. Map Maker is one of the most brilliant and successful crowd-sourcing projects in which the native people of a place built the ‘geographical map’ of their region/country because there were no high quality satellite images available for those areas. This is how you actually see accurate Google maps for many places in India and countries like Pakistan. Rajdeep gave us some insightful tips on how to design a user friendly UI for mobile applications and some quick tips to build an Android application.

All the speakers encouraged us to ask questions and made their talks engaging in their own way, but what struck me the most about these Google researchers and engineers was the passion for their projects. The talks were followed by lunch at Google’s food court. There we got to talk with a lot of Google employees; we were free to roam around their offices and talk to just anybody! I had interesting chit-chat with a few people who told me about their projects, how they got into Google and what they plan next. Overall, it was quite a satisfying day till yet; little did we know that there was more to come!

Just after lunch was the ‘Icebreaker Session’. The 16 finalists were divided into four teams and each team was given a stick, cord and a ball and were asked to design and build an automated catapult in next one hour! We had to solve some puzzles like sudoku, crosswords and Soma cube to buy items to build the catapult. The team who could throw the ball farthest was to be declared the winner. Phew! The one-hour activity really showed us how important team-work is. Finally, our team won! After this, the last social activity of the day was a career panel discussion. On the panel were researchers and engineers we had interacted previously and HR – Keerthana Mohan. They gave us tips on how to achieve ones dream job/career. The discussion was less about Google and the speakers shared their experiences about PhD, work and pursuing research at industry.

The eventful day ended with the award distribution ceremony where they declared the winners. I was least expecting to get the award, and was taken aback with surprise when my name was announced. All of the participants at the conclave received a lot of Google goodies – much more than what I had expected!

The whole experience at Google was exhilarating. Interaction with other students at various institutes, talks by Google researchers, chit-chat sessions with other Google employees taught me a lot and was a very effective channel to know about various work being done at other places. I would highly encourage others to apply for this scholarship and try to attend the conclave.

Below is the pic of all the participants at the conclave (finalists).

 

My time at PreCog

When I first visited PreCog’s website, I was impressed not only by the exciting research being carried out but also by a small, recurring line found below each project, “If you are interested in knowing more or helping us with the research please write to pk [at] iiitd [dot] ac [dot] in”. There was a sense of approachability that you don’t normally see in research groups. So, I quickly sent out a mail to PK about internship opportunities and was pleasantly surprised to see a reply under 20 minutes. It oozed professionalism, genuine interest and a no-nonsense attitude, signs of things to expect from the group. Within a month of my correspondence, my application to join PreCog was accepted. A new place, new language, new people, I wondered if I would actually fit into the group. Having never been part of a “research lab” before, my imagination conjured up a dull boring dungeon filled with geeks and nerds without a social life sketching graphs, concocting equations and spitting code. Thankfully, I found PreCog to be very different, a vibrant cohesive group of really smart young people full of bright (and crazy) ideas! The transition to the group was completely seamless, aided by my mentor Anupama Aggarwal and the healthy group culture brewing here. The group members are like family, always willing to help and share. Once in PreCog, there is a very contagious bout of enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and confidence that quickly rubs off on you and gives you a sense of belonging here. Everyone knows what other members are researching on through weekly afternoon ‘What’s Up?’ meetings where idea-sharing, problem-sharing (and sometimes even lunch-sharing) take place! The members work on varied fields such as phishing, spam, social networks, access control etc., experimenting and constantly trying out exciting new ideas. I found that the members research on their topic of interest, limited only by their imagination while being guided (and not instructed) by PK. It gives a feeling of ownership and naturally, pride, to ultimately see YOUR idea flourishing. I also like that special focus is given to building usable software based on research conducted whenever possible, thus creating a real, measurable impact instead of limiting work to just publications. Ofcourse, Precog is not all research, development and publications. We have birthday parties, anniversary parties, celebration parties and even guys-only parties(\m/). 5 cakes and an amusement park outing in 4 months isn’t a bad count for a research group, right? There is plenty that I would take away from my time here, technically I gained a lot, understanding how to go about research, different techniques adopted, inferences that could be drawn etc., but what I didn’t anticipate is how PreCog would shape me personally, my thinking, outlook and confidence. It was a wonderful experience, something that I would certainly cherish and enjoy looking back.

Come back next month for more technical details into my research at PreCog.