Why is Vikram Pudi Obsessed with Data Repositories?

Prof. Vikram Pudi’s expertise lies in data science and data mining. What pings his passion is building Metadata Repositories. He believes that curating a purpose-built segmentation of data saves time and energy. We spoke to the data scientist about his role at IIITH’s Center for Data science and Analytics.

“I always try to create systems which simplify things”, remarks Prof. Vikram Pudi. “I call it the Mother’s test. If you’re really proud of something you’ve created, you should be able to explain it to your mother”.

From something as remote as understanding the best kind of seeds for a particular region to analyzing which among the company’s remote offices are most expensive to operate, mined data can be analyzed most effectively for greater business insights into a wide spectrum of processes. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to automate many of the things that we do as researchers”, says the Professor who juggles his work at the Data science and Analytics Center (DSAC), along with responsibilities as EC Chair for three committees.

Creating Data Repositories as a part of data management is logically the next level of investment. See it as The Great Data Rush. Eric Schmidt, EC of Google observed that where 5 exabytes of information was created from the Dawn of civilization until 2003, that quantum of information is now being generated every 2 days. Big Data is the new fuel and vital component of processes universally and Analytics is perceived as its combustion engine.

Data Science in a rice and tomato field
“The scope of our work at the Center is limitless and full of possibilities, spanning the entire range from theory to system building for industry needs, patents, startups, which is one of the reasons I chose this field” says Prof. Pudi. He teaches regular courses in data science, artificial intelligence, scripting languages and software technologies along with unusual confluence courses between computer science and other areas like Structural Engineering, Bio-informatics and even Humanities.

“For a major interdisciplinary project with CCNSB on Metabolomics, we built the data science platform that had all the bells and whistles, where researchers can upload their datasets and analyze it. We created web-enabled storage systems to keep track of each sample from which a particular dataset emerged; that included parameters like specific growing conditions like soil aridity, water, weather conditions etc. In an interesting project with CCNSB’s Smart Lab with Prof. Vishal’s team, we are analyzing power consumption data from smart sockets to predict the type of smart device used”, explains Prof. Pudi.

TIH and the Data Foundation
IIIT Hyderabad is hosting the Data Foundation, as part of the government’s ambitious TIH (Technology Information Hub) initiative. “This will be a large repository of well curated datasets in socially relevant domains”, explains the data scientist. “We started with health and mobility; areas like smart buildings will follow. We will be building the teams to feed, annotate and validate data as well as the infrastructure to deploy around 2000 terabytes of storage space. We plan to build the platform in collaboration with Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Persistent Systems, Pune”.

Journey to the Centre of Data Science and Analytics
“With both parents being doctors, young Vikram grew up with an independent streak. Yo-yoing between two lifestyles, he had the benefit of a traditional upbringing among the idyllic fields of Tanuku in the West Godavari belt and boarding school life at the Lawrence school, Lovedale in the Nilgiris hills. He enjoyed mathematics and physics and even toyed with the idea of becoming a physicist after reading Stephen Hawking and The Tao of Physics.

As eldest son, the expectations to become a doctor were high, but to do a math-less medical degree was unconscionable for the youngster. He did B. Tech in Computer Science & Engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU). “It was the infamous Four Color problem that piqued my curiosity and eventually paved the way to doing my PhD”, admits the data scientist.

When the young scholar chose topics in Data Science for his PhD, it was pretty futuristic at that point in 1997. “I really didn’t have much of a choice. My advisors chose me”, chuckles Prof. Vikram Pudi.  In his first semester, the course on data mining captivated him! “I was discovering patterns automatically from large data, the algorithms were very elegant and I was coming up with new ideas that I would discuss with my Advisor, Prof. Jayant Haritsa.”

After his Ph.D in Efficient Discovery of Concise Association Rules from Large Databases, Prof. Pudi chose some industry exposure in an international conglomerate but soon realized that it was not the best fit for him. It was just pure luck that he met Prof. Kamalakar Karlapalem during his final days at IISc, who encouraged him to drop in to the IIITH campus. The freshly minted Ph.D scholar visited IIIT Hyderabad and stayed on for the next 17 years.

The Philosopher’s Tone
You could say that Vikram Pudi hit the tarmac running when he joined IIITH as a youngster. “I always preferred to be invisible. But right from the moment I joined, I was part of the Web committee because of my database background from IISc. After that, I was the chair for the Technical Resources Committee(TRC). So these things happened very early in my career”, says the Professor.

“The kind of exposure that I got really shaped a lot of my personality. Working with Prof. Karlapalem, who heads DSAC, was a different kind of experience. In every new committee or new role, there was always somebody more experienced, helping me”, observes Prof. Pudi.

DiscloseNet is a repository of academic research publications that he built to help researchers to keep track of the top research work and publications in the realm.  As a practical demonstration for the IT workshop course on Python and web programming, the Professor created the IIIT portal which is still in use. He has built around 15 more portals for the Institute, including the erstwhile Admissions portal in 2010, which he set up during a family vacation to Tanuku.

Fun to work was the clincher
It was the freedom to do the research and complete ownership of the creative work that he did, that tipped the scales in favor of academic pursuit for Prof. Vikram Pudi. “You can dabble in whatever excites you and there is capacity to make an international impact”, he says. He recommends IIIT for its wonderful faculty and their excellent network of connections, “especially now, when we are on the cusp of growing really big. In the things that we do, we are definitely on par with the best in the world and we publish in the best places”.

Write to fire your imagination
“You never know what you really know until you put pen to paper”, believes the prolific writer who has over 112 publications and 1574 citations. “Writing is something that I really figured out only in my Ph.D and the whole credit goes to my advisor. I always would recommend maintaining a diary, which I started in my B. Tech days. Whether it was jotting down thoughts on a problem or narrating an episode, writing helps organize your thoughts and really changes your whole outlook to life”, he believes.

He has three tips for researchers. Don’t go back and forth between ideas.  Finish the point before you go to the next. Keep your writing short and concise. A Code of Honor that he once wrote for students, evolved from a discussion at a faculty meeting to inspire students not to plagiarize research and homework.

Maintaining a work life balance is important for the Professor. “Your job is changeable but your family is the only constant”, he believes. During the pandemic, he spent quality time with his wife Srivani and children Sai Teja and Deepthi Sri, building fun projects like the Viral Simulator and The Crystal of Argentium. He unwinds after a hectic week with entertaining movies from the Marvel Universe or impactful movies that have a message.

And finally the takeaway
“I put a lot of weightage on the three virtues of a programmer – Laziness, Pride and Impatience”.

Your program should be able to do your work as efficiently as you would. Hubris or pride should ensure that your code is perfect and nobody should find fault with it and finally, your program should be immediately effective and responsive.

 

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.

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