Big Data and Governance

Big Data and Governance

Swaniti Initiative | February 17, 2017 | The Swaniti Blog

The following blog was published in Results for All. You could find it here:

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The underlying theme of this popular adage by Peter Drucker has found much resonance in today’s rapidly changing, if not always evolving, world. Be it collecting information about immigrants to ‘manage’ their activities or pushing for digital transactions in the banking and financial sectors, there is an emerging desire by governments to collect data at an increasingly more granular level. This, just to clarify, is not necessarily a bad thing. In the knowledge-based economies of the future, the more prepared governments are, the better it is for democracies. Governments across the world, much later than corporates, have begun to accept the fact that Big Data is like a tsunami waiting to envelope us. The real question or concern here is ‘Are rural economies ready to handle the shock caused by this tsunami?’

Luckily, the Government of India is one of the few governments across the world with a clear vision and policy level commitment to promote digital economies. However, there are two key shortcomings that must be addressed, if we are to create these digital economies of the future.

First – Readiness. One of the primary characteristics of a digital economy is the use of data to make responsible governance decisions. Unlike other characteristics, such as mobile banking and digital communication that can be driven by investments from private enterprises, data driven governance is the complete responsibility of the elected authority. On this front, we have collected and have access to extensive amount of data, but we are not ready to make the most of it. There is an urgent need for building skill sets that are relevant in the age of Fourth Industrial Revolution across the governance ecosystem. Two cases in point: Gram Panchayats in villages have access to huge chunks of household level data. But are they able to use it to target the most backward demographic segments for employment under MGNREGA? The government monitors data concerning prices in local vegetable mandis. Are local bodies that collect this data able to combine it with other variables such as weather conditions and previous productions, to forecast food shortages and accordingly redistribute grains under PDS? The answers to both these questions are not comforting.

The scope and impact of using data for ‘good governance’ is limitless. What is required is an effective public private partnership that ensures that digital literacy trickles down from the corridors of New Delhi, through the contours of federal structures, to finally reach the rural economies.

The other shortcoming lies in the manner in which the entire value chain is structured. There are three essential steps in this chain – data collection, data analysis and finally data driven decision-making. Concerning the first of these, in a country of more than a billion people we continue to conduct surveys on pen and paper instead of adopting new technologies. This increases the interval in which such extensive exercises can be conducted and reduces the efficacy of the entire monitoring and evaluation process. To add on to that, most of these surveys measure the status and needs of the people, but in no way account for measuring the changing aspirations of the populace. Big Data and social media can be powerful tools in the hands of the government to monitor the changing aspirations of a growing digital population and respond to them in real time. Having said that, it is absolutely essential that the privacy of the individual is maintained and respected.

While most government employees in India are part of the first step of the chain mentioned above, very few are involved in the other two. A Gram Rozgar Sewak, when assigned on election or Census duty, toils hard to collect data across her village – but does she have the tools to understand that data and make important discoveries about her village? Negative. The Soil Health Card scheme in India is a step in the right direction – but unless the local bodies and communities are provided with both ‘hardware’ as well as ‘software’ tools to make sense of the collected data, the entire exercise would be a futile effort.

All over the world, various instances have shown how technology tools such as data dashboards can improve government planning through improved targeting. For example, in a project lead by Swaniti Initiative in the remote village of Khati, Uttarakhand a Block Development Officer can now map the requirements of a school 7000 ft above sea level directly on his smartphone without having to physically spend 3 days to go there. In Tanzania a program called ’SMS for Life’, used electronic mapping technology to accurately monitor stocks of malaria drugs across key health facilities, thereby reducing facilities without stock from 78% to 26%. By providing local authorities with the correct tools and technology, we can improve the efficacy of government spending many times. As a cherry on top, data driven decision-making would also help in curbing corruption and stopping leakages across various government schemes.

Every new generation or so, there comes a new technology that disrupts and then shapes our world. The sooner one adapts to it, the better off they are. Big Data is one such disruptive technology that is going to be the engine for growth in the 21st century. It is time we fuel up this engine.

Ravish Bhatia is an Associate in the Data team at Swaniti Initiative and can be contacted at