Welcoming Open Data Movement to India

Count the number of times you may have  heard or read about the Indian Government working towards e-governance with a focus on transparency. Although few areas of government offices have been enabled with IT systems for faster and quicker operations like Passport Offices , Income tax Computation(CPC) etc , most of the government  offices do not do anything other than merely uploading some data in their respective web sites in the name of transparency. The data uploaded is  one time event and is not even reflecting the most recent information.

Emergence of RTI – Right to Information Act 

As Govt. has kept transparency and e Governance on the backseat, the emergence of law like RTI is getting more and more relevant .

 RTI is the only option left to common citizens or media watch dogs to petition for info on various government offices  and seek understanding on how tax payers’ money is being spent.

There are  some good RTI based journalism in the recent past  that has brought key issues out in the open that paved way for debate on the efficiency, transparency and corruption in various government offices.Though RTI is a great weapon for bringing some form of accountability , government officers have  been cribbing about the time spent by officials in collecting data for RTI petitions. The more time an office spends on collecting data, it is obvious that the data is not properly recorded or maintained to be served to RTI petitioner’s in easily consumable form.

Source:Ghana News Agency

Responding to RTI is not the way to go for the government if it needs to improve efficiency in its daily operations. Expect  more and more RTI petitions to be filed every day leading to a situation where in officers working full-time only to collect information for various  RTI applications.

Moving from RTI to Open Data

To solve these issues of being transparent and accountable, minimize time spent on responding to RTI , there has to be a way and fortunately , there is. Open Data can be the key enabler that has the potential to solve the aforementioned problems. Every citizen has the right to know how their contribution for tax is spent for various government services.

Open Data is all about being transparent and making all government data out in the open for public consumption ,that does not violate privacy or confidentiality,

Source:cafwd.org

Need for Open Data – Use Cases

  • Data collected about health problems reported in a city by the Health department  and data on  condition of local water body or pollution levels in the same area collected by Environmental Control department  can be collated together to identify cause for any epidemic or health problems.
  • Number of fatal accidents reported  in a city by the Traffic Police and the availability of pedestrian side-walk through out the city by Local City Council can be co-related to understand the accident patterns and plan strategy on avoiding these in the future by means of prioritizing pedestrian walks in accident prone zones.
  • Information on annual rainfall and climate conditions throughout the year and data on  production of  grains and other food products can be better understood so that strategies can be devised as to when , where and what grains can be planned in specific areas.

These are some of the examples on how public government data can be collated together for analysis and make more meaningful interpretation and better planning for the future.

Who can use Open Data ?

Expectation of  ‘Open Data Movement’  is that various governmental department  to submit data  in the Open Data Government website in  formats like excel spread sheet or xml or json . One thing to note is that this data will not be ready for public consumption  in its raw form since there is no graphical representation involved .

Open Data is mostly used by IT enthusiasts and  media watchdogs who digest different data and form opinions . Data enthusiast  is the term commonly referred for people who  mash different data and present interesting facts or observations.

What is the ultimate use of open data : Data from different departments within government can be mashed up together to analyze and infer new data points that can further help to plan , strategize  and deliver public services.

Below example shows how information about rainfall can be used to understand how it can impact us in our day-to-day life. More information here

Source: Pavan Srinath,from OpenData Meet through Slide Share

Open Data Movement – Where India stands ?

UK and US of A are the pioneers of Open Data . Tim Berners Lee , father of world-wide web is an active supporter of this movement and the movement has gained prominence in last few years.Has the Indian Govt. involved itself in Open Data movement? Thankfully India in partnership with US of A has committed itself to the Open Data movement. Open Data India website was recently launched and there are few data provided by different departments .

Some of them are :

1. AICTE approved PG institutes in available in India, state wise.

2.Number of Allopathic Hospitals, dispensaries and beds in India 2001-2010

Details on other data sets can be found here. The site has also listed sample applications that is not yet working properly.

Source:Pluggd.in

Poor response to submitting data by govt departments

Even though the site is pretty much functional, there are only 4 departments that have submitted data. Also the  data set provided  is actually not helping any one because the data format that is uploaded is either  pdf or scanned document as pdf. The same data can be presented as xml or xls in consumable form so that data enthusiasts can use them easily. Currently the time that is needed to synthesize data from  scanned or pdf format is huge that there is little traction from media watch dogs or other enthusiasts to work on this data and create new interesting mash-ups.

Opening data just for the heck of it in not a consumable format  and not updating them regularly is yet another wasted opportunity on part of government to bring in transparency and accountability .

More and more departments need to come forward and upload public data into the  website. Transparent Chennai , a citizen initiative taken to address civic problems has been involved in collecting public data from various government agencies . Nithya V Raman in this article  talks about the poignant difficulties faced by their interns  in getting public data from two different government bodies .

The two examples referred : Collecting Information on Bus Routes and Public Toilets explains the most reasonable and probable reasons why government bodies are reluctant to share data in the open domain.Sharing data in the public domain leads to

1.Increase in the office’s accountability and pressure to deliver

2.Reduce or eliminate corruption at various levels

Infrastructure Challenges

There is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed : How to  enable different offices to provide with data in the right format periodically? Currently no IT systems are  in place to collect and maintain data. There are a lot of offices where in the records are maintained in register . Without any data collection and validation system in place that is easy to manage, it is really difficult to enforce rules on government offices to start sharing data .Once the systems are in place, a common standard format needs to be adhered to and followed properly. Also what is more important is the data be refreshed frequently.

Data, the Big Data

In God we Trust, all others bring data to the table

Source:ipaidbribe

Though Bribery is a well-known problem in most government departments that is well documented by the media and written extensively on newspapers , unless the magnitude, scale and context  of the problem is not known or proved , there is little chance to even start the process of introspection and identify next steps to eliminate the issue. Social initiatives like iPaidABribe.com has helped in show casing that good data could be used well to articulate the cause.Why such initiatives are needed ? Joylita explains the reason 

With ipaidabribe.com, the focus is not so much on big-ticket corruption or ‘wholesale’ corruption, but more on petty corruption – what we call ‘retail’ corruption.

Social Adoption of Open Data in India

Though government seems to be showing very little interest in Open Data Movement , the momentum is actually gained  from social enthusiasts and communities  with their various initiatives throughout India.

Comprehensive analysis on the state of Open Data in India  is excellently detailed in these series of posts by Open Knowledge Foundation(OKF)  blog explaining how the movement is spread across the country in major cities like Delhi,Bangalore , Chennai etc . The key players who are involved in the Open Data Movement is listed here , it is very inspiring to see a lot of interest being generated by self motivated individuals and groups who are actively participating in the open data movement.

It is now in the hands of the Government to harness the efforts of  these social communities. Opportunities are plenty if government can provide data in the right format with regular updates  so as to create transparency and less effort can be spent on collecting info for RTI  petitions.

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