AI for Good: Interview with Rudradeb Mitra, Founder of Omdena

Rudradeb Mitra is the Founder of Omdena, a global collaboration platform that allows individuals from around the world to team up and use AI to solve social challenges. Some of the challenges they have tackled so far involved preventing sexual harassment in India, analyzing social media to prevent violent acts, and identifying trees on satellite images to prevent power outages.

In this interview, Mr Mitra shares the story of how Omdena was started, how AI can be leveraged in collaborative efforts to solve social challenges, and the lessons learned from being a speaker at artificial intelligence events and conferences worldwide.

This interview has been featured in the AI for Education Initiative 2019.

How did Omdena start?

In 2018 I had the privilege to travel around the world and speak at various events. What I observed that online education esp in AI has made knowledge accessible to everyone, even people living in remote parts of the world. Unfortunately, access to opportunities is still limited mostly to people in major cities of the world.

Additionally, despite a lot of talk about AI4Good, not much is being done in that space. I believe the biggest value of AI is solving social problems for people at the bottom of the pyramid. 

Both the above needs made me start Omdena. It is a platform where organizations post the social problems that they want to solve using AI and we bring together a global selected group of AI engineers and enthusiasts to collaborate through our platform and solve the challenge over 2 months period. 

What is Omdena’s mission?

There are two missions: Build a world where everyone, no matter where they live, has equal access to opportunities and the second mission is to spur bottom-up innovation where communities come together to solve their challenges without relying on governments or corporations. 

How does an Omdena challenge work? What makes Omdena special compared to other platforms? How do you manage to get groups of 40 people across the world from not knowing each other to working together to pursue and achieve a common goal?

The beauty is that when we bring together a highly motivated group of people there is no need to manage them. I firmly believe management was invented because people do not like what they do, so a manager has to manage the employees. 

In Omdena, we have some processes and tools that we follow – however they are made to create the best environment for collaboration. I will highly encourage readers to learn more about the concept of SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environments). 

In terms of differences with other platforms, all other platforms are competitive in nature while in Omdena people collaborate. I do not understand why to compete if we can collaborate. 

What characteristics of AI make it suitable for collaborative projects?

One characteristic of AI esp Machine Learning is that it requires a lot of data to train – so a community can tag, clean, and enhance the data much faster. In addition, it is very hard for one person to know which model is the best model for a given problem so typically we have to try different models – again here a community trying different models will work the best. The figure below demonstrates the concept 

There are also challenges like quality control. We solve that via peer-to-peer review process. 

Finally, I believe bringing a community of people from all over the world helps us build more ethical solutions as inherently we won’t build something that we don’t want to use. 

What are some of the most important social challenges faced by humanity that AI and collaborative initiatives such as Omdena can tackle?

We have run 12 challenges till now, forex in Nepal we worked with the World Food Program to identify the type of crops through satellite images. This will help the local authorities to better plan for future food stocks and fight hunger. In Somalia we worked with the UN High Commission for Refugees, to understand the relation between climate anomalies and conflicts. This helped us build a model that can potentially predict future conflicts by finding the correlation between past conflicts and vegetation index. 

Some of the other challenges were to prevent sexual harassment in India, gang violence in Chicago, diagnosis of PTSD, plan for disaster management in case of an earthquake in Istanbul. 

You can check all the challenges here

And the results are published here

What are your challenges, and what kind of collaborations are you looking forward to establishing?

Building a sustainable business is a challenge, and we are working towards that.

We are looking for all kinds of collaborators who have knowledge of AI but more importantly who are highly intrinsically motivated to solve social challenges. 

What has been the biggest satisfaction you had while working on Omdena?

Seeing that people from all backgrounds and works of life can come together, give up their free time/weekend and collaborate to solve social problems has been the biggest satisfaction. It made me believe in humanity and that we are capable to solve our social challenges without relying on governments.

You are traveling around the world while speaking at AI events and conferences. What are the most important lessons you have learned on your journey?

That I know so little in this world. There are so many people who are much smarter and hard-working than me so I feel I am extremely lucky to be where I am.  This makes me humble and I feel the need to make the best out of the opportunity that I got and give back to the world as much as I can. 

Who inspired you along the way?

Every single person who wants to make this world a better place.

What are your future plans?

I normally do not live life with plans – I believe in being present and make the best out of the present while working towards a mission. My mission is to build a world with equal opportunities for all and solve social problems through a bottom-up community-driven approach. 

I once wrote that ‘if God would have asked me to plan my perfect future, I would have never been able to plan it as well as it turned out to be’. So why to plan? 

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