‘Political Siri’, Big Data Startups Rise Amid Indian Elections

With nearly 814 million people set to vote over the next few weeks in India’s general elections, the biggest democratic exercise on the planet, political parties are scrambling to out-innovate each other. Amid all this, some technology startups are finding a killer app for their products, especially given the massive outreach programs required by political leaders for wooing their supporters, connecting with people across remote towns and villages.

India’s top political parties — the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party — are tapping into social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter on one hand, and also partnering with disruptive, homegrown startups for solving “the last mile” problem of connecting with millions of people.

One of the startups riding this wave is Voxta, a speech recognition startup that’s being dubbed as “the political Siri”. Earlier this month, the BJP started offering Voxta as-a-service to millions of its followers and potential voters, who need to dial a number (022-4501-4501) to listen to the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s live speeches, pre-recorded messages on specific issues etc. The service is expected to receive over 3 million calls within a month.

The founders — Sirish Reddi and Kavita Reddi — moved from London to the Indian city of Hyderabad in 2009 to set up Voxta. The idea, according to them, “was to use Indian language speech recognition to deliver information and access to the unconnected billion or so people and give them opportunities to drive economic growth.”

According to the founders, while Siri and Google Voice Search have been used to search for pizza or beauty parlours, using Hindi speech recognition to search for policy and candidates’ views is unique, and a first.

“Speech recognition is a very challenging area, still not a solved problem. The dialogue manager we offer is quite similar to Siri,” said Sirish, a veteran management consultant who founded three startups over two decades.

The product currently offers communication in four Indian languages.

More importantly, it’s an application that can be applied beyond the business of politics after the election season is over, similar to how some of “the Obama startups” went on to become mainstream ideas.

“Other potential applications we are exploring include English language testing and learning. This can also be applied in training, reorienting staff,” added Sirish.

Voxta is angel-funded and far from making any big money yet, but it can have quite an impact in a country such as India where millions are deprived of formal services including banking.

“Voxta can scale up to thousands of concurrent calls in terms of scale,” added Sirish.

There are two drivers behind increased use of technology by India’s political parties — to reach out to millions of potential voters who otherwise cannot be met in person, and tap into over 100 million Facebook users in the country who are expected to influence the election results. There are over 100 million first time voters this time.

“At the moment we are primarily focused on IVR/server based applications. We are capable of device-based applications too. It’s simply a question of putting a light application on device.”

Several big data, social media analytics startups such as Frrole and Simplify360 are also beginning to find momentum amid the political scramble to woo voters. Forbes recently compiled a list of political startups in India that are making waves.

Bangalore-based Frrole, a big data startup that sifts through half a billion Twitter posts every month to offer insights about users. For television channels and political parties aiming to get the pulse of what’s buzzing on Twitter, insights from Frrole cost about $100 per month per data stream. The startup analyses over 10 million tweets daily and has sifted through over 100 million tweets since January this year.

Apart from working directly with a handful of political parties, Frrole now counts India’s biggest media groups among its top customers. For instance, it’s powering “The Twitter Debate”, which is among the most watched shows on Indian television about elections.

“We are powering ‘the elections social hub for Times Of India’ (also for Indian Express and MSN shortly, not live yet),” added Amarpreet Kalkat, co-founder of Frrole. 

Another startup making big bucks this election season is Simplify360, a Bangalore-based social media analytics startup that counts over 100 paying customers including big names such as Yamaha, Revlon, Target and Wipro.

“This election meant a lot for us; it gave us good publicity, reach and revenue opportunity. It has been the single biggest upside movement for Digital and Social Media Industry,” said Bhupendra Khanal, co-founder of Simplify360. 

Simplify360 is similar to Topsy, except that it goes beyond Twitter and crawls through terabytes of data that include Tweets, Facebook posts, etc., to offer customized analytics. Founded in January 2009, Simplify360 has been bootstrapped so far with an undisclosed angel investment from Amvensys Capital in December 2012. The startup has 25 people on its payroll, and it currently sifts through around 5 million posts and tweets every day that generates around 5 terabytes of data every week.

Meanwhile, a lot is at stake for the political parties, especially given the influence of social media.

According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), around 160 seats in this election are going to be influenced by social media. With Facebook offering targeted reach across demographies, it’s become even more crucial for the political leaders to use analytics for best results. For instance, Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys co-founder contesting elections in Bangalore, used targeted Facebook ads and Google’s Adwords for reaching out to the first time voters of 18 years and above in his constituency.

“This was crucial because while many are aware of what he’s done with Infosys years ago, the first time voters have only heard about him recently,” said a person involved with Nilekani’s campaign.

Meanwhile, the challenge facing technology startups riding the election wave in India will be to translate all this action into scalable, commercially viable businesses, the way “Obama startups” did in 2012.