How Gramener Is Democratizing Big Data, CEO J Ramachandran Shares

Interview with CEO J Ramachandran who shares how his big data startup Gramener is adding visualizations and analytics to Indian Elections, social media, telecom, etc.

The country recently witnessed the 16th Lok Sabha elections winding up with BJP coming back to power in full majority. Led by Narendra Modi, the party invested a significant amount on digital and social media. Not just BJP, other parties like Congress and AAP also experimented with social media along with other mediums.

‘Big Data’, a buzz word in the tech galleries, did find its importance during the elections too. BJP has been the forerunner in using big data to better judge the sentiments of people on crucial issues and prepare itself based on the findings, well before going on TV debates.

“The era of big data in Indian politics has arrived,” said J Ramachandran, CEO of Gramener, a Hyderabad based big data visualization startup while talking to CNBC. His startup has been working very closely during the recent general elections.

CNN-IBN – Microsoft Election Analytics Centre, an initiative created to power Network18’s television and online platforms with election data and analyses was powered by data visualization of Gramener. Also Parliament Elections with Bing, Microsoft’s election analysis that was close to Google’s Election Hub, has a sizable credit going to the team working at Gramener.

The two-and-half-year-old company today working with some large enterprises in the country, is digging out insights from data while presenting it in a consumable format. Apart from working with healthcare, banking and telco giants, Gramener has executed interesting projects one being with the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network – a network that works toward prosperous, productive and secure rainfed agriculture. The objective of the alliance was to better understand the characterization and patterns of rainfed-ness in India.

Prior to starting Gramener

To know more about the journey of Gramener, I dialed in the CEO, J Ramachandran, a leader by trait who believes in solving business problems of customers as opposed to technology problems. A quality that has led
J_Ramachandra_GramenerRamachandran to become the CEO of three companies – Birlasoft, Cura Technologies and Gramener.

The IIT Kanpur engineering graduate grew up almost everywhere in India but formative part of his childhood was in Trivandrum, Kerala.

After completing his engineering, he was based in Bangalore for a while and later moved to the US. A large chunk of his professional career was spent in the US while working with IBM.

Starting as a core technical guy, Ramachandran climbed the ladder to the role of programmer manager and finally became a resource handling implementation of very large IT projects for the premium customers of IBM. “I have been trained very well by IBM to use IT to help large customers meet their business needs. This has helped me a lot in what I am today,” adds Ramachandran who owes a lot to IBM professionally.

After working for 11 years, he then became the CEO of Birlasoft and this was the time when the entrepreneurial dream started building up. The next five years he continued working as an employee and in 2012 he finally started up Gramener with a bunch of his ex-colleagues who used to report to him as a manager. “We have known each other for past 15 years, we are friends but at the same time we had a very close professional relationship,” recollects Ramachandran.

Gramener – big data company in energy sector

In the initial days the startup’s objective was to start as an energy analytics helping the villages of the country. In fact the name Gramener means the same; the last four words ‘ener’ come from energy and ‘gram’ is from ‘gramin‘ or village.

But things didn’t work out as it should have with the government hurdles and the processes in place. “So the name stuck but we had to move on as it was taking a lot of time to do things to move in the right direction,” Ramachandran informs. By mid 2012, Gramener moved on from just being a big data company only in energy sector to become a big data company for all sectors. “We were ready but the government process took time and meanwhile our product got ready which was then used to serve other businesses.”

Gramener – big data company for all sectors

With the shift happening at Gramener’s end, one of the key things the startup realized was the huge amount of hype regarding big data which also meant that the huge volumes involved costs too. During this time everyone was collecting data, analyzing it but most of them failed to solve real business problems.

“Everyone is in big data today but the key question we should ask is what business problem are we solving,” he shares. In fact this particular thought of solving a business objective led to the genesis of introducing data visualization in Gramener. Further he adds, “Translation of information from numbers to consumable outputs is one thing that has always impressed me from the very beginning. When big data came along then it got more relevance. Even today at Gramener when we make any design we always look at consumption pattern and keep the human in mind before the technology.”

Revealing insights on the kind of work that Gramener was doing at this point of time, he shares the work they did with a State Electricity Board. “We looked at where does the board lose revenue, how correct the meter readings are and other data sets which was available with the board. We took the data and we started visualizing them which later became very powerful with our insights.”

The same approach was used for other markets such as telecom and healthcare and this is how the company went into the market adding more value to the enterprise customers.

Gramener’s analytics on Indian elections

Today the two and half-year old company has made its mark in providing visualizations and analytics. One of the impressive works it did recently was visualizing the Indian elections data which involved 800 million people voting across 130 thousand constituencies. Gramener created analytics of all the visualizations for the elections such as finding which are the constituencies where people have stood most, which party has won in each and every constituency after independence, what was the demography, among other things.

The big data problem cannot be bigger than the Indian elections.

Talking about analytics Ramachandra gave an excellent example which is quite relevant after the election results are out now. “We were looking for a constituency that votes for the nation’s winning party, i.e. the party that had the largest number of seats. It turns out that there is one constituency that votes in exactly the same way – Faridabad in Haryana. The party that won Faridabad, since its inception in 1977, has always gone on to win the elections.” In fact the analytics holds true in the 16th Lok Sabha Elections since Faridabad voted for BJP and the party is back in power in the center too. Click here to find more details on Gramener’s blog.

Some other visualizations and analytics that Gramener worked on during the election were – finding the wealth of candidates, pro and anti incumbencies, among others (Find the entire analytics done by Gramener during elections.)

Talking about the wealth of candidates data, Nandan Nilekani who stood from Bangalore supporting Congress has a wealth of Rs. 7,710 cr. His wealth is more than the net assets of the next two hundred candidates. Put another way, his assets are more than those of every other Congress candidate, BJP candidate, independent candidate, BSP candidate, JD(U) candidate and AAP candidate put together.

Similarly, in pro and anti incumbencies data, if there’s an award for consistency, there’s only one constituency that would win that award: Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh.  In every single election since India’s independence, the constituency has voted for the Indian National Congress.

While Gramener has worked during the general elections, it also tapped the state elections by providing analytics in regional language. From Ramachandran’s perspective it is the most untapped market and one of the reason the company tied up with Vijay Karnataka, a Daily Kannada newspaper (part of TOI group). “We have analyzed the wealth of candidates and represented it in a manner irrespective of the language consumed.” (Find all the data visualizations published at Vijay Karnataka.)

With this Gramener moved one step further into Data Driven Journalism by putting the power of data visualizations in the hands of the public, which didn’t get well with the political babus. “One politician who didn’t like the whole data representation became furious and challenged the publication that he will drag them to court. He released that the English speaking population that he generally connects is not much bothered but the moment the vernacular people started connecting, he became very concerned. That’s the power of regional content.” informs Ramachandran who considers that the technology part is very trivial and can be done in any regional language.

Today the company is being approached by print, TV and online media companies.

Gramener Hyderabad Office
Gramener Hyderabad Office

Gramener analytics with social data

Apart from the elections data, the company is working closely on driving analytics from the social data provided by Twitter. The company is working with a telecom company to find out social media responses of netizens when the company rolls out a new product.

Another example is the analytics for Heineken vs Budweiser during the US Open 2013. The metrics included data on the number of Facebook posts, videos, etc. along with Google trends data. Gramener is also working with a pharma company which is interested in understanding the sentiments of people on its social media marketing efforts.

The road ahead for Big Data and Gramener

The future of big data cannot be predicted, shares Ramachandran. He believes, “Large technologies  which influence humans go to the breed of initial hype and afterwards it becomes a plateau or commoditized. Today everybody is in a big data hype mode, the growth is there but predicting the future is impossible.” 

While big data growth is still there, the biggest challenge the CEO finds is with the old management processes that the organizations still have. “The technology has speeded up but the management processes in the companies in terms of action hasn’t been speeded up.” To make it better, he informs that organizations should make consumption of data easy for employees.

Going ahead Gramener wants to expand to international borders after making a presence in India initially. The company chose the path to form a base in India first, build a product test in India and form a good base of healthy customers. “We shifted the traditional business model to go to the US first and the conscious decision taken by us is now reaping us fruits,” adds the grateful CEO. The future looks bright for Gramener with Ramachandran sharing that the company is in talks with really large international companies.

Big data is democratizing data globally and Gramener, an Indian company is empowering it.