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Physical to digital transition transformed hyperlocal communication: Lokal co-founder Vipul Chaudhary

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New Delhi, Nov 17: Born with the vision of solving hyperlocal informational needs all across India, multi-language news and classifieds platform Lokal is aimed at finding new ways to bridge the information gap and allowing  people to engage with their local businesses online, says co-founder Vipul Chaudhary.

What started as an information platform has now expanded to include classifieds such as jobs, matrimony, real estate and business listings, Chaudhary said.

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“Owing to a dearth of digital sources of hyperlocal information, we are building a content platform with a high frequency use case of local updates, making users discover and adapt to digital behaviors of discovering local jobs, matrimony and advertising their businesses,” Chaudhary told PTI.

According to Chaudhary, the transition from physical to digital has revolutionised hyperlocal communication and classifieds, creating a more inclusive and interconnected ecosystem for the residents of smaller cities and towns in India.

Latest cloud technology and managed offerings by Amazon Web Services (AWS) have enabled the Bengaluru-headquartered company to scale without investing a lot of time and people into managing the infrastructure.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: What was the core idea behind setting up Lokal?

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A: Lokal’s idea came to us after speaking to hundreds of people about their content consumption. This was the first point in one year of trying to find the idea to work on when we could clearly see a user problem with no existing solutions.

People who live in small towns and villages – which were my relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances – had a consumption pattern of reading local newspapers, which was the only place for them to know what was happening around them. While city dwellers were moving increasingly towards mobile, they lacked any such platform. That is how Lokal was born with the vision of solving hyperlocal informational needs all across India.

Q: How has Lokal grown in the past five years and what are Lokal’s future expansion plans?

A: We have made a lot of headway in realising our vision. We now operate in 250 plus districts across eight states and seven languages. Started as an information platform, we now also have classifieds like jobs, matrimony, real estate, business listings. Lokal will continue to find new ways we can bridge the information gap and allow people to engage and transact with their local businesses online.

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Q: How has Lokal leveraged technology to drive its operations?

A: Hyperlocal communication and classifieds in tier 2-3 cities in India have experienced a transformative journey, evolving from traditional physical communities and print newspapers to embracing technology adoption.

With the rise of the internet and smartphones, online platforms emerged as game-changers, providing convenient access to localised information. These digital platforms empowered users, offering a wealth of hyperlocal content, including news, events, job listings and more. The transition from physical to digital has revolutionised hyperlocal communication and classifieds, creating a more inclusive and interconnected ecosystem for the residents of tier 2-3 cities in India.

Owing to a dearth of digital sources of hyperlocal information, we are building a content platform with a high frequency use case of local updates, making users discover and adapt to digital behaviours of discovering local jobs, matrimony and advertising their businesses.

We offer unique content-led digital marketing solutions for SMEs and brands targeting tier 2-plus users of India.

Q: What are the complexities of Lokal’s digital infrastructure?

A: Lokal’s traffic is very peaky, so whenever a trend breaks out on social media, notifications are sent out and we get a lot of concurrent users on the platform. The challenge is to manage performance and response times during these peaks while keeping the cost controlled and not to run over-provisioned instances.

Majority of the load comes on the application servers and the database powering the information.

AWS’s offerings of EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) auto-scaling helped us a lot in managing this kind of workload in our initial stages. As we grew, we started building more services and also started breaking down existing monoliths into microservices. We decided to make a move from auto-scaling groups to EKS (managed Kubernetes service from AWS) which provides us easy deployment and quick scaling for microservices.

On the database front, Aurora Postgres gave us the flexibility of ‘autoscaling’ which is a big boon for us. Aurora gives us higher reliability, higher performance without spending any developer bandwidth on managing databases.

AWS managed infrastructure gives a small and young team the ability to move fast and “not” break things.

Q: How have you embraced new technologies to stay ahead?

A: For a platform like Lokal, where we study and evaluate user demands and consumption habits and then assign appropriate material, content optimisation is critical. Due to the feature-rich corpus in English, a variety of vectorisation techniques, prebuilt models, NER (Named Entity Recognition) tagging etc are available, unlike in local languages. This is one of the industry’s most pressing issues right now. We have been building our own corpus in all these years to help us overcome these challenges and we are now leveraging them to power our personalisation engine.

The advent of readily available LLMs (Large Language Models) is pushing the industry forward, but their performance in south Indian languages is definitely lagging in our experiments. We are currently trying to train and tune them to function better in Telugu and Tamil.

In all these pursuits, there are two major infrastructural needs – data pipelines and storage and model training and inference. For the first problem, AWS has a slew of services that we leverage. These include Kinesis, Redshift and S3 to stream, process and store all the incoming data. Sagemaker, on the other hand, had made our model training and serving absolutely fast without having to worry about provisioning machines, getting GPUs etc.

Q: What did cloud technology allow you to do that you couldn’t do before?

A: Latest cloud technology and the managed offerings by AWS enable us to do more, scale much higher without investing a lot of time and people into managing the infrastructure. In fact, we were able to scale to one million daily active users with just three people in the team. This is the single most important leverage that startups should make use of.

Q: What benefits have you experienced running on AWS?

A: There are multiple things that put AWS in front of the other players and helps you run a lean and fast development team. First, the managed services for almost all technologies that you would need. This takes away the requirement for devops and you can focus on your business needs. This also allows you to scale fast.

AWS’s generous startup credit programme helps you get off the ground, test out infrastructures, make mistakes while scaling up. Their account management team has customer-first approach.

(This story has been produced by PTI in collaboration with Amazon Web Services). (PTI)

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