India is a hotbed of research and development (R&D) activity for Microsoft. Other than its local data centres, cybersecurity and Smart City initiatives, the country is home to Microsoft Research India, (MSR India), which was established in January 2005 in Bengaluru. The other unit—Microsoft India (R&D) Pvt. Ltd set up its India operations in Hyderabad in 1998. Over the past 18+ years, it has expanded to become one of Microsoft’s largest R&D centers outside its headquarters in Redmond.
MSR India does work around three major areas, said Sriram Rajamani, managing director of Microsoft Research India Lab. “The first is the ‘Theory and Algorithm’ group that does fundamental work with big data clients, which results in very innovative and novel machine learning algorithms. Then we have the ‘Systems’ group which does a lot of work in security, privacy, etc. Third, we have the ‘Technology for Emerging Markets’ group that studies the role of technology in socio-economic development, which does a lot of work around societal problems in healthcare, education and agriculture. This group does a lot of deployments as pilots in India too,” says Rajamani.
Similarly, Microsoft’s India Development Centre (IDC) is part of global centres in Microsoft. “The aim is to work on both global engineering solutions and problems related to India,” says Anil Bhansali, managing director of Microsoft India (R&D) and General Manager, Cloud and Enterprise, MSIDC.
For instance, when the Andhra Pradesh government wanted to examine the reason why children drop out of school, in a bid to stop the trend, it took the help of Microsoft researchers to build machine learning models based on data being collected on student enrolment to predict drop outs. This was done by applying machine learning and advanced visualization techniques that take into account multiple data points, including a student’s board exam performance, post-exam enrolments, school facilities, and teachers’ abilities and skills. This solution, according to Rajamani, has been taken to 10,000 government schools across Andhra Pradesh. “The interface also allows officers to counsel students accordingly,” he says.
Microsoft also partnered with the LV Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI) to create an eye-care solution that successfully predicts the outcome of eye surgeries and improves treatment. Using EyeSmart—an ophthalmic electronic medical record and hospital management system—and Microsoft Azure, LVPEI has registered over 400,000 new patients digitally.
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In another such instance, Microsoft partnered with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a United Nations agency, to analyse volumes of data on weather forecasts, local rainfall and soil conditions. The data, according to Bhansali, was analysed to develop a “Sowing Date” application that tells farmers the right sowing date to maximize their yield. Access to this platform for farmers was simplified by providing information to farmers via SMSes in Telugu.
99DOTS, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and UKAID, is another case in point. Incubated at Microsoft Research India, Everwell Health Solutions—a healthcare technology start-up based in Bangalore—has been developing and deploying 99DOTS for the past three years. 99DOTS is a technology-enabled project focusing on medication adherence for anti-tuberculosis drugs. Treatment programmes wrap each medication pack in a custom envelope, which hides phone numbers behind the medication. Patients can only see these hidden numbers after dispensing their pills. After taking daily medication, patients make a free call to the hidden phone number. The combination of the call and patient’s caller ID yields high confidence that the dose was “in-hand” and they took the dose. Patients receive a series of daily reminders (via SMS and automated calls). Missed doses trigger SMS notifications to care providers, who follow up with personal, phone-based counselling. Real-time adherence reports are also available on the web.
The R&D challenge, as Bhaskar Pramanik, chairman of Microsoft India puts it, is to develop products and services “that have a global footprint and also work in emerging countries like India”.