Sohan Dharmaraja is an enigma.
His name surfaces on a document submitted to MIT on July 13, 2007 – an extremely technical analysis on a multistep method for solving differential equations. That was for his Master’s degree.
He crops up again in 2011 on everything from blogs to BBC to Wired and Engadget: while wrapping up his PhD in Computational Mathematics at Stanford, Sohan co-developed an app to turn a tablet into a Braille writer. The result was an elegant, viable keyboard that instantly made $5000 Braille machines look like dinosaurs. Then, sometime in 2012, with his feet back on Lankan soil, he created a trilingual app that lets people effortlessly communicate in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Today, slightly built and bespectacled, he shows up with a ready smile, a Macbook and his newest venture: SocialRoo. His new game? Big data.
No, sadly, no kangaroos are involved. SocialRoo, rather, is a bit of a wunderbar concept: a social analytics and utilization platform so advanced that it almost borders the line between insanely cool and somewhat creepy. To fully understand what it is, we have to start from square one – big data.
Now just a few years ago, big data was a buzzword. In fact, it still is, here in Sri Lanka: we mostly run into it in talks involving government initiatives – things like population monitoring. Big data takes on a rather vague, mystical form, with vague implications of population census and forms in triplicate.
The reality, as Sohan explains, is far from the truth. Big data is all around us – and for emerging countries, the best example is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s network is the de facto social media platform in many developing countries, including Sri Lanka.
“The data is just …there,” he explains. “Geographical data. Language stats. Names. Thoughts. What you like. What I like. Dislikes. What you thought of the burger you ate yesterday. Whether or not I liked the latest movie that came out. Who’s talking about what, where and when. Interactions.“
And that’s where SocialRoo comes in. Sohan and his rather distributed team (they literally work from all over the world) have created a data mining engine that traverses this vast field of data. Paired to that is a set of state-of-the art high-level analytics that let users explore this data via human-friendly interfaces that act like interactive infographics – the same interfaces that top-dollar firms like IBM, Sony and Citibank use.
“Big-data meets Marketing,” SocialRoo proudly states on their website. “By mathematicians and computer scientists with PhDs. No BS.”
“We’re not really competing with social media firms or marketing companies,” he says. “For us, it’s more about laying on the board all the analytics – targeting, demographics, the whole nine yards – and making it very accountable. What you do with that data is up to you. In my opinion, it’s very arrogant for a consultant to walk in and say “I can improve your strategy” without having real facts to lay out.
“What makes it special is the analysis layers we add. For example, you can say “Show me my competitor’s unsatisfied customers” – and our scripts will trawl through Facebook and sniff and monitor and find the data you need.”
“We’re gathering a ton of data in the cloud: once we hit a certain size, you can ask it to look for mentions of, say, Sachithra Senanayake. And it’ll show you how many were talking about that incident, at what time, from where within the past few months.”
All of this, he assures me, is using publicly available data on Facebook, which is in some sense is a startling reminder of just how much of our lives are available for public consumption. When you think about it, a stranger on the other side of your internet connection knows exactly when you checked in to work today. Or well would have had a field day: in every sense, we’ve made much of enforced surveillance pointless. All anyone has to do is sit back…and collect.
All of this, of course, is golden for companies, which is why SocialRoo’s enjoying some excellent clients – DIMO, Manthri.lk among them. But what, I ask, is Big Brother built on, and how was it built?
Facebook might be the biggest pocket of data in these waters – but it’s not alone. When I question as to whether they plan to integrate with other things, like more specialized data (for example, using comments from a site like Yamu as feedback), Sohan turns thoughtful.
“We’re exploring quite a few new things,” he confirms. “In fact, we built language analysis after working with Manthri.lk – when dealing with verbatim reports from the Parliament: now we can technically deliver stats regardless of language – English, Sinhala, Tamil. The mathematics is sound.”
But he’s also wary. “We don’t want to overextend ourselves. Until we have enough momentum to do everything right, I’d rather perfect the system around one data source. Everything else can come next.”
Interestingly, SocialRoo might be yet another nail in the coffin for the traditional marketing model, where experts determine what should be done and collect the cheque regardless of success or failure. This is rapidly being turned into a numbers game – now, more than ever, it’s about quantifiable ROI. Marketing firms are turning towards tools like Google DoubleClick and SocialRoo. The numbers don’t lie, Sohan points out. In fact, he’s pretty optimistic about their chances.
“The plan is to tune SocialRoo, perfect it, establish ourselves in Sri Lanka,” he says. “Then we’ll roll out to other countries. if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.”