The point of utter desperation. It comes to us, perhaps, in the form of the sunrise after an all-nighter in the library or at our desks. It’s a point where coffee doesn’t work anymore and words start sliding together on the pages in front of us. It’s the point where we’re weighing the benefit of sleep against the benefit of studying this one more thing. Maybe we were there because we were cramming. Maybe we were there because we did everything right and found that there was still too much material.
At that point, a thought crosses our minds. There has got to be a better way. A quicker way to study. A way to go on less sleep. Divine intervention. Something.
Several of us have made the harrowing journey to study hell. Very few of us got a startup out of it. But that’s exactly what Rohit Pande did.
In 2014, Rohit was studying for India’s civil service exams with his friends. The exam, or the UPSC, is one of the hardest career aptitude tests in the country. Test takers have to be well studied in current events, including the context behind each news development.
The extensive studying grated on him and his friends, but instead of cracking under the pressure, Rohit persevered and got an idea.
“Usually, people like us consume news by hashtags on newsfeeds or social media,” Rohit explains. “We don’t usually give much headway to news unless it becomes unique in some way.” Or, he adds, unless you’re taking a test evaluating your knowledge regardless of news popularity. Opinionated news with left or right leanings makes it even harder to discern the real from the opinion.
News for dummies
In early March, Rohit, his co-founder Shikhar Sachan, and their team launched the answer to their headaches: Civilsdaily, a Delhi-based education and media startup that offers news with context, not keywords. The company offers information on events online and in a mobile app in flashcard format, like information on G20, for example, simplified down to bullet points for easy consumption.
Civilsdaily presents its information as a list of headlines. Information covered falls under economics, environment, geography, history, politics, science and tech, trivia, and world events. Newscards, or flashcards, fall under each headline, along with curated information from the past. When readers are finished, they can then go to an infographic that explains the topic in more depth, in what Rohit describes as a “for dummies” kind of approach.
“Essentially, we have a product [that] helps curate hierarchies of content,” Rohit explains. He believes that presenting the information this way satisfies today’s readers’ desire for instant gratification in their content consumption and gives them a more holistic understanding of the news.
Each news piece is hand-curated by Rohit and his 10-person team, with every member master of a specific domain. The result is a just-the-facts approach to understanding current events.
“We go through the original [articles]. We strip down the opinions. We strip down the original noise, and we pick up the facts. Then, [we] line them up in queue,” says Rohit.
The challenge is offering only the essential information on a topic without boring the reader. The company’s team has to try to keep the information short but informative.
Taking the news to edtech
The problem isn’t that the information isn’t available – readers can find everything they’re looking for. Civilsdaily simply puts the information into one place.
“You can Google anything you want to [read],” says Rohit. “But there’s [layers of context] underneath that content.” Civilsdaily ultimately serves general audiences, he adds, but the audience studying for the UPSC – where news consumption serves a need, not a want – was a great place to start and test their site. They spent about a month testing and working out their model, then launched the app. Rohit excitedly tells Tech in Asia that Civilsdaily passed its 50,000 downloads milestone just a few days ago.
Rohit, who is only 27 years old, graduated with a bachlelor’s in technology in electronics and communication. Shikhar graduated with a genetics and computer science degree, and he heads up tech operations at Civilsdaily. Rohit spent some time working in consulting in the US, then came back to India in 2014. His plan wasn’t exactly to start Civilsdaily, but he wanted an app that a layperson could pick up and use to understand topics on deeper and deeper levels.
Inspiration for the startup also came from the news app Circa. Circa, an American news app that shut down in June, attempted to connect stories in a forward direction, allowing someone to follow an occurrence until the news surrounding it died out. Just this week, Circa was purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group and may be possibly relaunched in the spring.
Where Circa moved forward, Civilsdaily moves back, concentrating less on following an event (though the app does allow for news updates to be added to existing pages) and more on putting them into context.
Rohit plans to extend the app beyond those studying for exams and hopes to cultivate a community around it. The edtech community, he asserts, is one that operates largely by word of mouth, and he plans on developing Civilsdaily further as a content disruptor in the edtech sector.
Civilsdaily currently exists as a mobile app and a website, but Rohit wants to take the product offline as well, distributing in monthly publicized formats. It’s a lot of work, especially for a staff so small, but Rohit and his team are passionate about what they do. Giving people their eureka moments, that point where they finally understand everything they’re reading, is what keeps Rohit at work every day.
“You’ll understand and you’ll say: now I get it. So that’s the best part of this work,” Rohit says. “That process is amazing.”
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