Empowering civil servants in using information

Empowering civil servants in using information
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First Published: Mon, May 21 2012. 09 19 PM IST

Updated: Mon, May 21 2012. 09 19 PM IST
In 2009, Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, predicted that the process of extracting value from the massive volume of available data—by analysing, visualizing, and communicating them—will be the “sexiest job” of the next decade.
It may be time to rephrase the conventional “information is power” with “appropriately rendered information is empowering”. Information becomes powerful only when it evokes an emotional resonance among its stakeholders. Data can’t substitute actionable information.
Nowhere are the low-hanging fruits from this stratagem more plentiful, more readily available, and capable of creating more value, than in public bureaucracies. If appropriately harnessed, they have the potential to dramatically increase supervisory effectiveness. It also has the potential to unsettle dormant officials and spur them into action.
Public bureaucracies in India collect huge amounts of data to help supervisors monitor implementation of government programmes. But the prevailing information reporting systems suffer from several deficiencies. Most often, the figures are outdated and the relevant information is obscured in an avalanche of statistics. Further, information is presented without any reference point leaving them mostly meaningless; the same type of information is available to functionaries at different levels; and its presentation makes it difficult for supervisors to utilize it as a user-friendly decision support. In other words, there is a last mile gap in government functionaries making effective use of the available information.
A creative integration of data analytics and data visualization techniques on a mobile phone platform can bridge this last mile gap and increase the quality of public service delivery. Unlike spreadsheets, vivid data visualization distils the essence of the massive data collected into a series of clear user-directed messages. It talks to you in a language everyone understands. It is at the same time objective without compromising on the subjectivity. It speaks to the mind as well as to the heart. It works on the widely accepted fact that human brain can more easily receive and process striking images than rows and columns of numbers.
So rendered its attractions are manifold. One, it is self-explanatory and cognitively salient. Two, it can showcase multiple dimensions of the issue being discussed within the same canvas. Three, it can generate an immediate emotional connect of the audience with the message. Four, it reveals hitherto-obscured insights. Finally, it facilitates easier comparison.
The fantastic advances in computer graphics in recent years have resulted in several strikingly intuitive data visualization techniques. A heat map—which uses colour grading to represent the full spectrum of any parameter under observation—of traffic flow on important city roads can be a powerful decision-support tool for more effective traffic management. Vivid geospatial representation of leakages and failures in water, sewerage and electricity networks can be used to effectively manage such networks and reduce maintenance expenditures.
Similarly, tree maps—which uses interlocking rectangles of different size and colours—that represent the performance of municipal tax collectors or municipal sanitation inspectors can be a hugely effective tool in improving their functional efficiency. It leverages the ease of human brain to internalize size and colour to inform the official about his or her performance in relation to colleagues and supervisors about their subordinates’ work output. Rosling bubbles—where circles of varying sizes and different colours bounce between the two axes—can enable intuitive appreciation of the changes in the learning levels of students and schools over examinations or disease incidence over time in different primary health centre (PHC) areas.
Cognitively salient data visualization techniques help compare the relative performances of officials more effectively. Subject teachers are judged more efficiently by comparing the performances of their students with those of children from neighbouring schools in the same subject. Similarly, auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) within a PHC can be evaluated by comparing the immunization coverage or institutional deliveries in their respective areas.
Comparison highlights the dark and bright spots. The former exposes and thereby shakes up complacent officials, while the latter creates competition and learning opportunities. It also makes supervision more efficient by increasing supervisors’ productivity and enabling focused inspections.
Even if the information were available in a cognitively striking manner, it still requires that it be disseminated. Internet and computers, leave aside physical registers, have their limitations for constantly mobile field functionaries. In this context, the spectacular proliferation of mobile instruments in recent times opens up exciting possibilities to both collect and disseminate information.
For example, real time, geospatially rendered information on a mobile device about tax defaulters, ante-natal visits and immunization doses due, and crimes and accidents, can transform the work of municipal tax collectors, ANMs and police patrols, respectively. They can prioritize their responsibilities and plan their work schedules optimally. The same mobile device can also be used to collect the data required to provide the decision support.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views.
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First Published: Mon, May 21 2012. 09 19 PM IST