How government can mine open data

A big source of additional revenue for the government, open data has a bright future in India

Venkatesh Hariharan | August 7, 2014


In Mumbai, where open spaces are an endangered species, citizen groups are using open data to reclaim public spaces.
In Mumbai, where open spaces are an endangered species, citizen groups are using open data to reclaim public spaces.

When BJP released its IT vision document in 2009, one of the least discussed aspects of the document was a statement that the party would change “right to information” into “duty to inform.” To my mind, that was a very perceptive attempt to change the mindset of the government from being the “owner” of citizen’s data to the custodian of data.

It is a mindset that will take years to change but the assertion that the government has a “duty to inform” shifts the onus of information access from the citizens to the government, and is a very welcome approach.

Voted in for a second time, the United Progressive Alliance government approved the national data sharing and accessibility policy (NDSAP) in 2012. The objective of NDSAP is to facilitate access to government of India-owned shareable data and information in both human-readable and machine-readable forms. “There is large quantum of data generated at the cost of public funds by various organisations and institutions in the country,” the policy acknowledged. “Most of this data is non-sensitive in nature and can be used by public for scientific, economic and developmental purposes.”

NDSAP is a progressive step in harnessing the power of Open Data. After the policy was approved, the government set up the data.gov.in portal, which now contains 9,370 resources that have been viewed 1.44 million times and downloaded 5,62,406 times. It is encouraging to note that the BJP-led NDA government, which won the 2014 elections, has pledged to promote openness in government. While the BJP’s election manifesto did not have a specific mention of open data, the party has many astute IT advisors who are well aware of the power of Open Data.

The future for open data in India is therefore very bright.

Power of open data
A McKinsey publication said that open data can generate $3 trillion in additional value across seven sectors of the global economy – education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, healthcare, and consumer finance. The study said the benefits of open data include increased efficiency, new products and services, and transparency.

According to the study, this “requires governments to play a central role by developing and implementing policies to mitigate consumer and business concerns about the misuse of open data and to help set standards that will allow the potential economic and social benefits to materialise.”

The creativity and innovation that Open Data has unleashed is fascinating. The planning commission organised a hackathon in 2013, using the open datasets, and attracted 1,900 participants who built apps ranging from healthcare, agriculture, education and other areas.
Open data hackathons and camps are springing up across the world. Domain experts, programmers and visualisers and concerned citizens gather at these events to build apps or visualisations that help them analyse civic issues better. In New York, home to more than 65 different types of trees, open data enthusiasts created a beautiful visualisation that allowed nature lovers to see what kind of trees abound in NYC and where they are located. The visualisation revealed that maple and plane tree (Sycamore) are the most common trees.
Another data visualisation in NYC showed the density of foot traffic, which helps shopkeepers identify high-potential shop locations.
In Mumbai, where open spaces are an endangered species – the city has a meagre 0.88 sq m open space per person, compared to 15 in Delhi, 6 in Tokyo, and 2.5 in New York – citizens groups are using open data to reclaim public spaces. Using maps, these groups investigated the myth that slum encroachment is the root cause of mangrove loss.

However, the data revealed that high-end development is the larger cause. In this case, Open data helped reveal patterns that might otherwise have remained hidden. This enables citizens to actively participate in shaping policies for their localities.

From RTI to NDSAP

The NDSAP is the next logical step after the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a landmark legislation that enabled citizens to access government data and fight corruption, land grabbing and many other evils. However, under RTI, the citizen is still a supplicant to the government because he has to pay an application fee and wait patiently to receive data created with his taxpaying money.
This data should be his as a matter of right, and should be accessible on his fingertips.

In fact, Section 4(2) of RTI Act says, “It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.”
In the past, the technology for making data easily accessible to citizens was not available. However, the growth of the internet in India is changing all that. With more than 200 million users, India is the third largest internet user base in the world. In the next few years more than half the population could be connected through smartphones, tablets, 4G networks and other emerging technologies, creating a tremendous user base.

To its credit, the NDSAP recognises that, “There is large quantum of data generated at the cost of public funds by various organisations and institutions in the country. Most of this data is non-sensitive in nature and can be used by public for scientific, economic and developmental purposes. The NDSAP is designed so as to apply to all non-classified data collected using public funds held by various ministries/ departments /subordinate offices.”

The NDSAP also lays emphasis on ensuring that the data can be accessed through a user-friendly site and that it can be reused.

The way forward
One fact that might easily escape attention is that almost all data sets are in English. In a multi-lingual country like India, the government must make data accessible to citizens in the language of their choice. The data.gov.in portal must aggressively leverage the language technologies developed by academic institutions and the technology development in Indian languages (TDIL) group of the department of electronics and information technology.

The portal also needs to revamp its copyright policy, which requires users to take permission for reproducing data. In the US, under section 105 of the copyright Act, “a work prepared by an officer or employee” of the federal government “as part of that person’s official duties” is not entitled to domestic copyright protection. This has created an enabling framework for open data in the US.
In the UK, the government created an open government licence that encourages reuse of data created by the public sector. The current copyright notice is a remnant of the licence-permit raj and must be modified into a much more progressive policy that respects the fact that this data ultimately belongs to India’s citizens.

Hariharan is a technology and public policy analyst with a special interest in all things open: open source, open standards and open data.

The story appeared in the August 1 to 15, 2014 issue of the magazine.

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