Imagine you’ve to head out to an important appointment and you need to reach on time. You check Google Maps and it gives you an estimate of a hour to where you want to reach. Knowing that you estimated an hour and a half, the ride isn’t one riddled with anxiety. This is perhaps one of the best examples of how an average urban Indian interacts with data everyday. While they might not even know it, during the course of a day, most urban Indians act as both ‘users’ of big data as well as support aggregators in collecting their data. Yet very few of us realise just how significant a role data plays in our life.

Reassuringly, our government does. They not only understand that official data is an indispensable element of the information system of a democracy, but also, of late, have acknowledged the importance of creating a relationship between citizens and the public database system. The government on their end, have also shown a keen interest in using official statistics to drive data-backed governance schemes and initiatives.

In 2012 the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy was instituted. It called for enabling access to Government data, to all stakeholders including civil society and citizens. The Policy, cognizant of problems which impede the data infrastructure in the country, called for integration of data to avoid duplication, which would facilitate evidence based decision making. Pursuant to this policy and perhaps leading to it, the Central Government and some State Government have made numerous visible efforts to enable access to government data.

The product of this initiative is the Union Government’s Open Government Data Platform  which provides government data on schemes, allocation, beneficiaries, progress report of benefits to citizens and macro level indicators for general sectors like health, education, and demography. In some instances it also offers city specific data picked up from the Census 2011. The open data platform has also incorporated citizen engagement tools through feedback forms, data visualizations, Application Programming Interface (APIs) etc.

Thus while the Open Data platform has been built as a store house of public data, it does not meet the requirements of a data oriented economy. Issues include lack pertinent data that would aid decision making, limited real time information and gaps in available data sets. Two basic problems majorly contribute to the efficacy of the platform (i) lack of effective tools to engage citizens with the data (ii) lack of data about local administrative levels which derail granular decision making.  A few examples of the data limitations include, recent budgetary data (2016-17-2018-19) is missing and limited granularity in the available data sets at a district, Gram Panchayat and Municipality level. Perhaps this Open Data platform is emblematic of the government data infrastructure in the country.

To its credit the government has released significant amounts of data, in different types of tools and platforms. However, most of the data sets are disparate, located at multiple locations and are highly difficult to bring together for comprehensive analysis. While the different types of  dashboards can essentially be broken down into three types: Scheme dashboards, district/programme level management information systems and third party data collectors, the problems with each are quite similar. Either the data on certain metrics is not collected or it is not made public. This maybe in the form of dashboards that require ‘official’ log-ins or cases where studies are made public but the data collected is not. Many a times, data for the same metric does not match across government sources themselves, making citizens and researchers confused as to which source is correct and reliable!

The vision of the national data policy is clear, but sadly, the same cannot be said about it’s implementation. In order to encourage civic engagement, there needs to be one Central repository of data provided in an easy-to-understand format so that anyone can access the data about public goods and services. Basic requirements like a catalogue menu which succinctly captures all the various subsets of data needs to be available. Creating a central repository for all government data will also encourage more citizens to engage with the government through a more developmental approach rather than just a political one.

There is significant scope to grow our data infrastructure so that it’s more relevant to the development needs of today. This could be done by the following measures (i) Focus on updated and real-time data (ii) User friendly interface so that non-data savvy officer and citizen have a key understanding of the program, and (iii) Encouraging data collection and reporting guidelines which enable local decision making by the administration and community. This is to be done to strengthen the data collection and reporting processes but also to select  and collect data for those metrics which can utilized by the average citizen.

Data is a language which any interested citizen can understand. It can lead to powerful and purposeful engagement with the government which will increase accountability and give way to better informed policies. For that to happen, any and all government data platforms will have to become active citizen engagement tools. This would involve focused data collection on engaging metrics, easy-to-use interface and strengthened data reporting guidelines which push for updated data.

Citizen friendly platforms will give way to citizens actively engaging with data, understanding the processes and finally as a true accountability measure reporting data on their own. This will be the final test for a citizen engagement tool, whereby citizens feel comfortable enough with government data to such an extent that they take on data reporting roles for themselves. The data collected by citizens can easily be uploaded on citizen friendly platforms which will serve as counterfactual or a verifying tool to the available public data. 

Open government data has been proven to be a step towards creating smarter and more active societies, and thus, this becomes the next logical step. We’ve already seen how easy it is to interact with data and felt the impact of using platforms that collates data in our everyday lives. So what’s stopping us from implementing our learnings in the field of governance?

Aawanti Singh currently leads Swaniti’s research vertical, and works on providing knowledge products regarding key government issues to MPs. She can be reached at aawanti.s@swaniti.in.