Thursday, July 12, 2012

You can be a data scientist for big data just using Excel and Access

Just google 'Big Data' and watch the explosion of results. Some herald it as the next big thing, others peddle their consulting services/software/systems as the magic recipe for companies to mine gold from their (till now) ignored legacy data sets. However, as I've realized from a customer service project during the past few weeks, spreadsheets can do the trick equally well, provided you follow a few basic ground rules

  1. Understand the underlying data, its fields/formats and the limitations. This may need visiting the field/POS/scanners/call centres to get a feel for the source data, but can do wonders in understanding what can be relied upon and what can't. After all, all the number crunching in the world even using 500 columns is useless if the underlying data is not reliable
  2. Frame hypotheses(even though they may seem 'obvious') and look for data to validate and disprove them. For example, if you think that customers recently added on the network will face more issues with their bill delivery, then choose data fields that can help you validate that hypothesis. A few fields well chosen can really reduce the time used for import/export of data. 
  3. Use subject matter experts to review the findings and offer their views. often, if a finding challenges their conventional wisdom, they can offer alternate reasons for the same. 
  4. Creatively think of dimensions like time, space, temperature to analyze data sets. Often, these physical variables are ignored but are available in the system. Using the existing data is far cheaper than trying to get it from scratch. 
  5. Data mining for social networks, stock trading data and other massive data volumes would obviously need some automation via neural networks, crawlers, AI etc. But for everything else, one can use spreadsheets to squeeze out that last drop of insight from existing data sets
  6. Understand the import/export features of spreadsheet/database software like Excel/MS Access etc. If  your data set with some tweaking can fall in that range(like below 1million odd rows etc), then using those standardized tools may be faster and efficient. Also, no need to call expensive data conversion experts, you can do the job yourself(for example importing .txt files to Excel)
  7. Don't be afraid to google any trouble areas. Often, excellent solutions available online(for instance, how to export more than 65,436 rows from MS Access to Excel-the online solutions include exporting w/o formatting, or using OCDBC)
Bottomline:- Don't be awed by big data sets. Use pivot tables etc to summarize the data and get a feel for it, then slice and dice it the way you can using Excel/Access. Often, those quick wins may win you a justification for a bigger data mining project

Sunday, July 8, 2012

How to(and should you) purchase a 3G data card/dongle in India

Having shopped for prepaid dongles in Mumbai and Bangalore, besides having spoken to dealers, distributors and company executives(not just Airtel), I think this post can give some insight and save people money while purchasing data cards.
  1. As telecom operators do not have a pan India 3G license, they resorted to reciprocal roaming arrangements where the big3(Airtel, Idea, Vodafone) offer free roaming in data to their subscribers across India. So an operator offering 'free pan India roaming' may not be an USP. But benefit from this if the tariffs in your home state is different from that in the destination state. The arbitrage opportunity could exist nevertheless
  2. Negotiate the maximum free usage(and its validity) from your operator. For example, if MTS offers 10GB free for 1mth with data card costing just Rs 999, then others may be prevailed to do so. How it works is that the distributor gets a good commission, and may spend some of that giving you that extra top-up, which may not cost him that much. 
  3. Be aware of the lapsation norms of the prepaid data card. You may need to recharge it within a defined period. Longer it is, the better for you in terms of flexibility.
  4. Though not strictly legal/ethical, some stores charge Rs 100-200 to 'unlock' the dongle' to use SIMs of other operators, thus allowing subscribers to go with the cheapest plan across operators while still using the same dongle. That increases the churn quotient of the subscriber
  5. Remember that promised speeds are indicative and depend hugely on your location. So speeds upto 7.2Mbps may amount to just 2-3Mbps if you are lucky.  So do not spend too much on an operator's plan/prepaid data card before testing the speed in your location. Remember, quality of service/speed are not grounds for a refund under TRAI regulations. 
  6. For usage>6GB/9GB,a wifi hub may be cheaper, or even a broadband connection. Explore those options if you are a heavy user. 
Hope this was useful! 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Update your registered mobile number at ICICI ATM

When my Airtel coworkers went to the nearest ICICI branch to update their registered mobile number, the branch informed them that they could do so at the nearest ATM also. Hearing this, I was a bit sceptical as you cannot do so via netbanking, so why the ATM channel is open for that. Still, they were able to do so, and so was I. It was a great experience to do so without filling a single form or taking copies of your identity proof. This is what ICICI meant I suppose by advertising that their ATM is almost a branch.

If I have a grouse against ICICI, it is the low savings interest rate and the lack of other benefits for me.  Some other banks actively advice customers what is best for them. Sample this advice from Kotak Bank on their website Now THAT was what I call customer friendly analytics. 
Helpful advice: Kotak Bank has discovered that a majority of the people choosing a Kotak Edge Account actually end up maintaining the Average Quarterly Balance required to maintain a Kotak Pro Account. It may be in your interest to choose the Kotak Pro Savings Account and not miss out on the extra advantages & free services!'

But then, I suppose that is what you get when you sign up with ICICI. Awesome technology, rapid fast and efficient customer service, but you need to count your fingers everytime you shake hands/transact with them :P

Travails of searching paying guest/short term flat in bangalore for men-II

Earlier, while I was searching for a paying guest accomodation in Bangalore, I blogged about the experience here. Thankfully, the episode had a happy ending for the time being with me finding a working men hostel about 10min walk from office(even at slow pace!). Given the notorious Bangalore traffic, imminent monsoon(though no sign of it yet!) and my other PG arrangement near Sony Signal falling through(I waived a Rs 1000 deposit because I had buyer's remorse after seeing the place, and the place did not have the warmth/comfort I was looking for!), this arrangement was the best for now, despite the slightly expensive(given the amenities-no washing machine/TV/AC) rate of Rs 9000 for a single sharing room of around 100sq feet with attached bathroom. The room is almost spartan but quite functional, given that I'll be staying here just a month before I shift for greener pastures in North Karnataka and then Gurgaon for training for around 2months, before returning here. Some lessons I learnt from the whole experience was
  1. The Rs 500 deduction from the security deposit is quite standard. Live with it. 
  2. Check the bathroom flush, close the doors and check out the room. You may find leaky bathrooms, jammed doors, non functional lights etc. Make sure you get them repaired before you move in. 
  3. Be clear about the notice period needed before you vacate. Usually it is 15days and if you vacate at shorter notice, you may forfeit the small deposit of Rs 2000
  4. Hot water and is no big deal really if you have a water heater(actually in this climate you don't even need hot water).
  5. A washing machine is really useful as you don't have to risk a dhobi washing your nice clothes with a stone! But many places wash your clothes at a per kilo basis on their washing machines, so do not worry about that. 
  6. Wifi is good to have, but check the speed especially at night time(the more people using it the slower it is). You may find it cheaper to have a data card and no wifi, especially if you are a light user. For heavy users of course, wifi is better :)
  7. While phoning to enquire about the place, make sure your non negotiables are specified so that you do not waste time in viewing places that you will never stay in. 
  8. You can rent a fridge, TV, microwave for around 400/month each(I've never tried it but thee facilities are there), so you can use that if the PG allows.
  9. Bangalore usually has good electricity/water supply but still enquire about that 24*7 status and the backup facility if any, so that you can impose penalties if needed later. 
  10. Food is likely to be like hostel food(bare basics), so you will anyways need to supplement it. Don't expect too much in terms of food even in 'good' PGs.  And then, tiffen services are always possible-online ones cost around Rs 60-120 per tiffen.
Of course, do exercise due diligence, but enjoy the experience on the way!

Which is better-prepaid or postpaid voice plan? Analysis for India

The benefits of working for a telecom company is that you get some insight into how the market works. While I do not claim that a month's experience has made me a guru on this(despite what my friends may think!), some useful insights are below. As always, I take resort to the classic MBA answer 'it depends', to point that for each person depending on their circumstances, the conclusion would differ. For data, there is a separate blogpost.
  1. Tariffs:-Since prepaid customers(other things remaining equal) are seen as more likely to churn, telecom companies offer them good tariffs, and newcomers try to lure them with great tariff plans. While companies DO reward their loyal postpaid customers, the latter are likely to take postpaid for reasons like company reimbursements, address proof, loyalty and not tariffs, so prepaid seems the winner in this. Prepaid 1-Postpaid 0
  2. Customer Service/Billing :-Companies need to retain data for their prepaid customers for a much lesser period than for postpaid customers(due to TRAI billing norms). Hence, CRM analytics, customer segmentation etc becomes easier for postpaid than prepaid. This is not to say that high prepaid spenders don't get differentiated customer service, it is just that companies might not go out of the way to resolve issues for their prepaid base whom they see likely to churn out. And given that getting an itemized bill will cost around Rs 50(ceiling imposed by TRAI), disputing charges or getting waivers becomes much more difficult for prepaid. Also the small fact that in prepaid, your money is at their disposal but in postpaid, your not paying is their bad debt. So once money changes hands, it is more difficult to get it waived or so. Prepaid 0 Postpaid 1
  3. Flexibility:-This is really where prepaid scores over postpaid. For example, if you suddenly need to send bulk SMS or make ISD calls in the middle of your billing period, you need to wait for sometime before switching to a better plan, if you are a postpaid customer. But if you are a prepaid customer, just take a top-up/Recharge voucher and you can immediately change your usage pattern. For example, I've made calls to Singapore and USA for hours this month, at a rate of Rs 7.4/minute, but for a Rs 14ISD prepaid voucher, the same calls would have cost me Rs 2.99 only. Ditto for sudden data usage needs etc. Prepaid 1 Postpaid 0
  4. Usage based recomendation of best plan:-Though Airtel launched a portal earlier this year giving such recomendations for prepaid users as well, that is not yet an industry practice. As the telecom companies have data usage of their postpaid customers, they can more easily crunch numbers and offer them better plans. Ideal for those customers not savvy enough to hunt better plans from the same telco. Prepaid 0 Postpaid 1
  5. Address proofs:-Here, there is no doubt that postpaid is easier. Though one would have utility bills etc, a telecom bill is the easiest address proof to generate in 3months,especially for migrants. Prepaid 0 Postpaid 1
These were the points which I felt crucial to decide between the two. Would welcome your comments. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

BMTC monthly pass system-some tips and tricks

Having purchased a monthly Volvo bus pass for Rs 1500(it was Rs 50 extra because I did not take the Rs 100 ID card issued by BMTC), I learned quite a few interesting things which I deemed worthy of sharing

  1. Decentralized sale of passes:-Unlike Mumbai and elsewhere where passes are sold only at depots, the monthly passes here are sold on the buses too(in fact the Rs 1500 pass w/o BMTC ID is sold ONLY on the buses!). So that ensures that people can get access to these passes early in the day without having to go to the depots to get them
  2. Just a paper coupon-easy to lose! Unlike the laminated passes prevalent elsewhere, the BMTC monthly pass is just a paper clipping which can be easily lost/mutilated. So the passenger must take extra care with this.
  3. Easy to forge...I'm no expert on paper but the hologram did seem easy to forge, given that they do not scan/barcode it for machine readability as done in Mumbai. But then, i suppose BMTC must have done a cost benefit analysis on this issue before allowing it. In fact, the reason I did not purchase the pass from the conductor outside the bus was that I feared forgery. 
  4. Only calendar month passes:-The drawback of this is that if you do not purchase the pass and use it from the 1st, you incur some losses! Of course, the relative inexpensiveness of the pass compensates for it I suppose. 
Overall, given that I paid Rs 1500 for using the pass on 9weekends, and many more weekdays, I break even by using it on just 17days in-toto, achievable considering my present living conditions. To best use the system, consider whether you will be using the bus daily(if so, the monthly volvo pass is just Rs 50/day on average, comparable to the cost of an ordinary daily pass @ Rs 45)