With data policy, govt aims for an information revolution

With data policy, govt aims for an information revolution

New Delhi: The department of science and technology is framing a national data access and sharing policy that could change the way the government maintains and shares information, two government officials said.

The policy would compel departments and publicly funded bodies to scan their records, review the kind of data they maintain and release it for public consumption.

Officials involved with the initiative said that the move would, for the first time, create institutional systems to coax ministries into sharing as much information as possible, provided this does not pose a security risk.

“In the next few years, if a government department doesn’t share information, it will have to give reasons why it isn’t doing so," said one of the officials involved in framing the policy. “If it classifies some information as restricted, it will have to justify its stance. That’s an inversion of current policy." Both the officials requested anonymity.

Currently, information collected by the government is marked “restricted access", when it’s often possible to get it off the Internet anyway, researchers say.

“Take Google Earth for instance," the official said. “The Survey of India has all that and much more. So it makes sense to release that, possibly allow other end-users to make better maps and maybe charge end-users a nominal fee."

The access and sharing policy is the brainchild of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who hinted at such a policy at the Indian Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram earlier this month.

Science minister Prithviraj Chavan had, on the sidelines of a conference on 18 January, said the first draft of the policy would be ready by May.

As of now, the top officials in all Central government departments have been consulted, though the departments of space and defence are yet to give their assent, said the official cited above.

The biggest beneficiaries are likely to be researchers and the geospatial industry.

Private firms such as Google Inc. (in 2007) announced they would step up plans to map India by surveying down to the city and village block levels. The Indian geospatial research industry, pegged at Rs839 crore, is expected to treble by 2013, according to a 2008 industry report.

The policy will help standardize data, said Rajesh Kalra, managing director, Risk Management Services India Pvt. Ltd, which uses a variety of weather and geographical data to make commercial risk assessments.

“Even something as simple as an updated document on the actual number of villages in India is hard to find," Kalra said. “When we approach ministries, they rarely have fixed rates for certain kinds of data. Better data helps us make better risk assessments."

The lack of India-specific data was one of the key weaknesses of trying to gauge the impact of climate change in the country, said N.H. Ravindranath, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science.

“I’ve made several submissions to various ministries for hydrology data, soil carbon data, river flow," he said. “All of this exists. For some reason, they are deemed classified. This (the policy) should be a welcome step."

Most studies that have estimated India’s greenhouse gas inventories, or the impact of climate change over India, have relied on so-called global circulation models prepared by research centres based out of the UK or the US, largely because of the unavailability of local research and data.

Other experts see the benefits of the policy beyond map making.

P. Banerjee, director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research body, is confident of several interesting studies involving the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology if they release data.

“There may be issues of privacy, but as long as you withhold names, I don’t see why such data should be restricted in the first place," he said.

However, government departments are unlikely to begin releasing data anytime soon as they need to work on getting their data interoperable. “Lots of interesting stuff is still in the files. Those that are digitized are not flexible across operating systems," said another science ministry official. “That will take a minimum of two years."