Democratising data to fix accountability

Indiaspend and Mera Neta show open data can foster better governance

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Geetanjali Minhas | May 19, 2014



Promises made by political candidates before the elections serve as barometers of their performance. When the electorate puts faith in a candidate, it should also demand accountability for the performance. Reminding the winning candidates of their promises and holding them responsible for the abdication of duty is the sign of a vibrant democracy. Though political parties have their own manifestoes, none exist for the individual candidates.

“Though corruption has been part of our lives, it was never central to the way we looked at things. Anna Hazare brought that into focus. The second thing that Hazare did was to galvanise the middle class which has always been indifferent to corruption; third, it brought youth into mainstream, asking for better governance.  And [from] there on the movement progressed. It centre-staged the issue of corruption” says Govindraj Ethiraj, a former journalist  and the editor of Indiaspend, country’s first data journalism initiative that utilizes open data to analyze range of issues with the broader objective of fostering better governance, transparency and accountability in the Indian government.

“It then converged to the demand for jan lokpal Bill, perceived to be the way to curb corruption. Though everyone agreed with the problem of corruption in the country but is jan lokpal the only solution? We don’t know.  It is also when many people started diverging from what the movement was asking for,” he adds. “The movement brought out important observations: it brought people out in open, galvanised the youth; social media was very powerfully used. Another outstanding outcome was that   people were driven by intense emotion: thousands participated in rallies where otherwise they are paid to come. It is this that became the genesis of the non-profit and country’s ‘agency of record’”.

The Anna movement was his inspiration, he said, adding that it brought out the fact that in any country or economy to bring in change, mere emotions are not enough: “We realised something was missing and that was data. For example if issues like  education, health, infrastructure, women’s safety etc. are our concerns, are we asking for solutions on purely  emotional grounds or are we relying and basing them on data to ask right questions for  required answers  and necessary  actions?”

As citizens become a part of the governance process, critical data will help the country take objective views on important policies and foster data-led discussion and analysis. The agency aims to make the use of data exciting and useful for young India.

Ethiraj cites the example of healthcare: “healthcare is available in the country; the problem is most of it is privately run and there is not enough government investment in the sector: shortage of doctors in the primary healthcare centres is a key problem. People may get emotional and ask for sacking of the health minister, etc. but a data-based approach would point out to the shortage of doctors. This is because of the dearth of medical colleges in the country which are controlled by the Medical Council. As you go deeper and look at data and evidence, arguments become more reasoned.

“Same with schools and education and women’s issues. Data points out that India has almost 99 percent enrolment in primary schools – which means that almost every child born in this country is able to go to school. This was not the case a decade ago, and for this only the UPA government can take credit.

The problem lies in the quality of education where class IV student is not able to do class I-level maths. So the education problem has to be attacked for outcome and not enrolment.  Focus is required on improving the quality of education for which teachers and their training and money spent on training them has to be looked into. How are we measuring teaching standards?

“It is a common belief that Delhi is the rape capital of country whereas, proportionately speaking, even a small town like Jabalpur has more reported cases of rape than Delhi. That every woman stepping out is in danger of being molested is a common perception but the fact is that 78 percent rapes are perpetrated by a person known to the victim. It not a policing problem then and you cannot blame law and order situation as being the only reason. Here we rely on data approach.”

It is for issues such as these that Indiaspend was launched. The agency creates database for record and sets the basis for accountability. With an average of six-seven reports per week it carries out visualisation of data.

In another initiative, Mera Neta, a candidate outreach programme, was initiated to create a database of promises made by the candidates. The idea here was to take data and democratise it so people can understand and demand accountability from the candidates contesting 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
 

They can be seen on camera answering questions like: Why are you standing for elections? How will you create more jobs? How will you ensure electricity and roads for all? How will you address women’s issues? One thing about you your voters may not know? (Videos can be seen on Mera Neta.)
 

“So far more than 860 candidates have been put on camera. For the next five years you can pick this up, remind the person and hold him/her accountable: this is what you said in March 2014. How far have you achieved?” says Ethiraj.

Candidates are being added every day. With elections over, work now resumes with winning candidates speaking about their promises that will hold them accountable over the next five years.

MeraNeta video shoots started in March 2014 after election dates were announced. Many parties took time to announce candidates like in the case of Andhra where candidates were finalised barely 15 days or so before elections. Except Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu candidates from nearly all states in the country have been recorded.

A unique initiative of the Spending & Policy Research Foundation, it is supported by donors Rohini Nilekani, Vikram Lal and Pirojsha Godrej. The foundation has a resource centre for news organisations like Dow Jones, Yahoo News, HT, Hindu, Firstpost who take their stuff and collaborates with them. Only sourced data is adopted or RTIs are filed to get it . The credibility is such that prominent economists and many policymakers refer to Indiaspend material and are part of their mailing list.

The agency has done six reports on Orrisa, dealing with different social and economic indicators. “Just as we would want to study the balance-sheet of Reliance Industries we may want to study the same of Government of Maharashtra,” Ethiraj says.

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