Date of Release: May 11th, 2014
Published in: Times of India
Prem Das Rai, an MP from Sikkim, knew that development indicators from his state were exceptional. But his office didn’t know how to showcase them. He reached out to Swaniti, a Delhi-based not-for-profit organization that has been working “consulting style” with parliamentarians. Their portal called Jigyasa aims to answer questions like Rai’s.
Rwitwika Bhattacharya, Swaniti’s founder-CEO, was surprised at what they uncovered. “I always thought that the northeast states were lagging. But the data showed they have better healthcare than most others,” she says. Rai’s blog will reference these state-wise development metrics. The irony that this data is coming from an independent agency is not lost on Bhattacharya. “Jigyasa should have been a central government project,” she states.
Data, by itself, is a senseless mosaic of numbers, whether buried in pages of government reports or in drop down menus of websites. Imagine a pile of Lego bricks; data analytics is what turns that mound into discernible shapes, whether an elephant or rocket ship. Organizations like Jigyasa focus on how to make sense of India through interactive data sets that bring together development indicators and governance by mapping performance of governments on specific dimensions (agricultural growth, literacy rate, crime).
To transform numbers into metrics, they mainly bank on government reports and websites which hasn’t been easy, says Dinesh Chand, engagement lead, Swaniti. “Data is spotty and often years are missing, or it is inaccurate data. On healthcare, for instance, India indicators are much better after 2000s. But if you want to track metrics on an annual basis, that works only from 2003-04. Sometimes there are no published reports in place,” says Chand, revealing they even use Right to Information as a last resort.
Converting data available into information is another challenge, which can lead to new revelations. John Samuel Raja, co-founder of How India Lives (HIL), a company founded by journalists which seeks to increase access and search of public data in India, reveals, “Recently, a real estate company wanted city-based income comparisons but in India, we don’t measure income. In terms of expenditure, the NSSO stops at the state level.
So, you have to identify proxies — electricity consumption or asset ownership — to make an intelligent guess. And we ended up finding out that the outskirts of Chennai, 30 km away, are actually richer than the 2nd or 3rd largest city of Tamil Nadu.”
Since 2009 Swaniti, which is donor funded, has worked with about 40 parliamentarians on diverse issues such as effective utilization of MPLAD funds, healthcare in factories, agricultural unemployment and quality of schools. In the beginning, they went to legislators to ask them what they wanted to change/improve and worked with the MP/MLA to fulfill it. “But several times, they just had a vague idea about the problem. So we needed development metrics to find it,” says Bhattacharya.
A certain case around unemployment in Jamshedpur was the turning point for Swaniti when it came to assessing a constituency’s needs. The visiting team saw high unemployment in rural areas. “But the more we dug, the deeper the problem went,” says Bhattacharya. Jamshedpur was rain dependent and in the 1970s, several ponds were built as a fresh water resource but with no investment in maintenance. The answer was in desilting the ponds so the project’s focus shifted from direct job creation to a clean water initiative.
“All MPs and MLAs want to be reelected. But when it comes to showcasing what they have done, they don’t have much data support for their statements. For example, there is a lot of talk about the ‘Gujarat model’ this election but there needs to be more insight. Similarly in Delhi a constituency would want to know whether the state was mismanaged under the Congress or not. But how do you show what happened?” asks Bhattacharya.
Jigyasa has 10 metrics on key themes across all states, such as healthcare, education, agriculture, social security and social development, and makes this information available to all in a very easy-to-use form.
Translating numbers into bite-sized digestible stories is gaining traction across the world. Data-driven blogs and news sites, such as the newly-launched Vox.com, The Upshot by New York Times and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, are putting the planet’s issues in nifty graphs. Politicians are quoting statistics and often getting corrected by newspapers, and online tools and mapping software are making data look pretty. Raja says in India visualizing data is a problem.
“The Survey of India has a monopoly on all GIS maps. Last time I checked, they cost Rs 32 lakh; this is for data collected on public money.” Jigyasa is perpetually experimenting with how to keep the layman engaged with data. Says Bhattacharya, “If I see a bar graph, I will flip the page. So we are trying to put out information titbits that will tempt people to ask their government the right questions.”