Being the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri, 2 October is not only an important day in Indian context, it also sits next to the Independence and Republic days in terms of announcement of new policies, programmes and schemes by governments at all levels in the country.
One among those was the news of unveiling of an Open Government Data (OGD) Portal by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), the first-of-its kind in the country by an urban local governing body.
The idea of OGD is not new, a National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) was drafted in 2012, and the idea recently got a much-needed push at the central level with launch of the revamped OGD portal (data.gov.in).
Variants of this portal have been replicated by many state governments as well. The lack of availability of hyper local level data was one of the primary reasons why evidence based policy formulation is not common at city level.
In our rapidly urbanizing country, faulty urbanization policies continue to adversely impact the lives of millions of citizens across generations. The idea of a ‘Smart City’ hinges on how real time and historic data can be utilized to deliver citizen services like clean water, public transportation, open spaces and better livelihood opportunities for migrant population. PMC’s portal is a welcome step towards this end.
RTI and Open Data
The Right to Information Act (2005) undoubtedly heralded the era of increased transparency and accountability across government machinery in the country and brought about some fundamental changes in the way citizens could interact with governments at all levels. The RTI-enabled decade saw some important reforms in governance, now the time is right to address few of the shortcomings of the Act.
Important among these are the allegations of RTI been used to slow down policy formulation and implementation by those with vested interests. Also, RTI is primarily used by organized citizen groups, activists and NGOs more than individual citizens owing to the time consuming processes and lack of awareness regarding the various formats in which information can be asked for by citizens. The average time for a RTI query to be answered is still in the 30-day bracket, this tells us that we need to move to a model that is more citizen centric in application and real time in delivery.
Open Data, which is the practice of hosting public data that is non-sensitive in nature, pertaining to a multitude of government actions that is made available for free and which can be used by citizens for social, economic and developmental purposes, presents itself as the next step after RTI. In fact, clause 4 of the RTI Act itself talks about suo moto disclosure of information and data by government departments so that when it comes to standard information availability the dependence on RTI queries can be reduced. PMC’s OGD portal same model at city level will help to channelize citizen centric transition from RTI to Open Data at a much faster pace.
Liberating Data for Citizens
The mere availability of data in public domain does not bring a transformation in governance. Citizens would need to become active stakeholders in this transformation if they wish to see their cities becoming better places to live, if not necessarily smarter. Open data is a right step in this direction. The PMC has already provided the functionality to ask for specific data sets and seek clarification or information from respective data officer on the portal.
To nudge citizen participation the PMC should first reach out to citizen groups and elucidate to them the benefits of data in public domain. As activist and citizen organization become accustomed to the change, they will pass on the message to citizens who usually do not interact with government machinery. Educational and research institutions can be taken on board as knowledge partners and specific projects can be assigned to them that mandate use of the newly available data.
Most importantly, this data can be used to prepare updated ‘Corporator Report Cards’ to assess the performance of local legislators as elections to the Corporation are due early next year. This will probably be the single most empowering aspect of this portal as it will allow individual citizens to track the work done by their representative real time. Another way in which the PMC can engage citizen is by arranging regular ‘Hackathons’ to crowd source analysis, translation or even policy research around the data sets available.
Connecting data with citizens
Credit must be given to Kunal Kumar, presently Commissioner of the PMC and Rahul Jagtap, head of PMC’s information technology department, for conceiving and successfully implementing the first stage of this project. However, in its present form, the portal, while interactive and user friendly, has a very limited number of data sets. Most of them are policy documents and performance reports that were earlier scattered across other PMC websites.
Data sets on public transport, one of the important areas that need long term policies at city level are entirely missing from the portal. Similarly not all data sets are available in vernacular language, this might hamper citizen participation as English is not the language of choice for day to day communication in the city. PMC plans to encourage development of mobile applications that link to the portal to enable tracking of PMC’s work real time, making data available on a real time basis for these applications would be a challenging ask.
The next step would be to determine the best possible way in which offline citizens can be benefitted from online data. How the PMC goes about with this objective will define the success of the initiative. Failure to use the data to engage citizens would relegate the OGD portal as yet another of those vendor driven ‘e-governance’ initiatives that had been hailed as governance reforms in the past.
We are definitely a long way from Open Government Data (OGD) taking over the mantle of transparency and accountability in governance from RTI but the transition has begun nonetheless. This beginning on 2 October makes it even more symbolic as transparency and accountability in governance will help us getting closer to realizing the fabled Ram Rajya that the father of the nation asked us to aspire for.
Ranjeet Rane leads the digital policy team at The Dialogue, an online policy analysis portal.