Experiences,  IIITH,  Students

Solving ‘cool’ problems, with the coolest of all – Precog!

My journey starts from back in May 2017. It was the summer when I was starting off with my first ‘social computing’ project. As I had just completed my 2nd year in college, I had almost no knowledge about the research domain. I was looking for professors or researchers in the field of computational social science and social computing to guide me with the technical aspects of the field. This is when I came across PK sir and his research group PreCog in New Delhi. They were doing some really amazing work analyzing social systems and the social web. What really interested me the most was this was all for social good. They were solving real-life, practical, common-man problems. 

Selfie with #Profgiri on his last day at IIIT Hyderabad campus

That summer, I was also going to be in Delhi for an internship. Naturally, the first thing that came to my mind was to contact PK sir and ask if I could come to IIIT-D to meet him and get to know more about the research area. I discussed this with some friends at IIIT-H and the first thing they suggested was to check sir’s ‘citations’ online. This is when I decided to take a step back. Given that I had no knowledge in the field, and sir was a huge name in the field, I got scared to send that first email. 

Fast forward to August 2018, when I got the news that PK sir was coming on a sabbatical to IIIT-H. The mails mentioning #ProfGiri had already become popular on the campus. That semester, he was also going to take the course on Privacy and Security on Online Social Media (PSOSM). I had already stalked him enough, and I knew about the course through the website and various blogs. Without any delay, I decided to register for the course. This was when my journey with sir started, and the transition from PK sir to PK happened.

Project Presentation for the PSOSM Course

Between 2017 and 2018, I had already worked on a few pilot projects on social computing and had read a lot of research papers. I had also started working on the “Elections 2019” project with Dr. Radhika Krishnan. So I did have a little confidence to go up and talk to PK about my project. I still remember the first meeting with PK on campus. On one hand there was me, nervous about meeting a professor, all prepared like an interview. And on the other hand, there was PK, who saw me standing outside and said “Come in, yaar!”. Yes, that is when all my nervousness and fear went down the drain – seeing a prof in shorts and a cap, with cool goodies all around the office, and defying the traditional ‘desk’ setup. I came prepared with my reports, prepared for all the questions that he might throw at me. But the meeting was just a simple chat, which ended with him saying “Let’s work on this together.”

Kicking off the Elections project with PK and Anubhab

What happened over the next few months, were probably the most fun learning experience I had in IIIT. PSOSM is undoubtedly the best course I took in college! The teaching methodology PK had, was something we had never experienced before. We learnt so much, while just having fun! Apart from the regular coursework, another key learning I took from this course was presentation skills. How you present what you’ve done, is equally important as what you’ve done. 

Precogs, or officially known as Precognitives, are individuals that possess a psychic ability to see events in the future

Minority Report, 2002

It was in the same Monsoon 2018 semester that we started prepping up for the big “Elections Project!”. I remember we almost had tri-weekly group meetings and brainstorming sessions about anything and everything we could do during the 2019 Elections. The enthusiasm in every meeting was unmatched, and the entire team was now well knit! To term this in PK’s language, we had developed #StrongTies. It was a crazy team of around 10 members, spanning across batches, programmes and even institutes!

The Elections Team with IIIT-H’s Director Prof. PJN, on the counting day – May 23, ’19

This was also the time when I saw PK living ‘by the calendar’. I tried this ‘funda’ over the next few semesters in college, and surely it’s one of the most important life skills I have gained. Things didn’t always go as we planned and I think that brought more excitement to the entire project. We were handling a huge real-time dataset, doing some crazy visualisations and trying out everything we could to make sense of the data, in a simple and pretty manner. 

PreCogs @ IIIT’s R&D Showcase 2019

I still remember all the countless late night meetings with PK and the all-nighters to fix things that we were supposed to put out the next day! Apart from social media posts and blogs we were also sending out data analysis to various media houses. Obviously, there were hurdles and delays, and that is exactly when PK sent out “@#@#@#@” (read special characters) over a text or mail. Going back to those messages later, I realised how crucial they were at that moment. They surely went things going and gave us a push to work harder as there was surely a lot on stake. Not only this, PK also sent us appreciation mails which felt great and made me super proud of my work!

The Elections Project team after wrapping up the 12+ hour long war-room during the first phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections

Along with the courses and research work, I also got the opportunity to be the Teaching Assistant for PK’s courses for 2 semesters on NPTEL and 1 semester in IIIT. We even got a chance to conduct a hands-on workshop for sophomore college students in Hyderabad teaching them Privacy and Security in Online Social Media.   

Along with the entire class of the Big Data and Policing course during their project presentation. Got an opportunity to be the Teaching assistant for the first edition of the course by PK

To sum up the people, work and research culture I experienced at PreCog, I’d just say, I couldn’t have asked for anything better! 

PreCog members & Alumni from Hyderabad and Delhi during PreCog’s Birthday Celebrations! #StrongTies
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