Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Better governance, citizen engagement via open data

No Indian city, as a matter of policy and practice, makes available data on important aspects of governance

Every time you pay property tax or apply for a permit to build a house, government agencies collect data around that interaction. Now, imagine a city with 10 million people, each interacting with six departments in a municipal corporation. That’s the volume of data being collected and stored.

Why do governments store data? In addition to record-keeping, I believe, governments store data on behalf of citizens to administer better. So, when you think of government departments as custodians of data, who collect and store data on behalf of citizens, this is the next question to ask: is that data accessible to all?

Technically yes, because anyone can file a Right to Information (RTI) query and source the data. But these are individual queries. No Indian city, as a matter of policy and practice, makes available data on important aspects of governance.

For example, we don’t know the collection efficiency of property tax in various localities. Or, how many people applied for permits from different departments, who received the permit and who didn’t, and how many days it took for each application to be processed? Or, how many safety inspections were conducted in restaurants and what was the outcome of each?

This is all data stored by various departments on behalf of citizens. It should be made available to them, to be used in ways that can improve governance.

I looked up the websites of municipal corporations of the top 10 Indian cities by population. Not one provides data on its various services: data that can provide a measure of volume, access, efficiency, processes, turnaround, etc. The first step is for governments to realize that this data belongs to the people, and make it available to them.

The second step is to make data available in a machine-readable format so that software developers can make use of it. Often, we see data given in PDF documents or, even worse, scanned PDF documents. As a result, we spend a disproportionate amount of time converting data into a machine-readable format.

Cities such as London and Boston have taken major strides in making open data available. The cost of doing so was not high, as only raw data needed to be made available in a machine-readable form.

Once data is made available, there are enough data enthusiasts and researchers out there waiting to analyze it, and software developers and entrepreneurs wanting to use it to create utilitarian apps. The government could create apps, but it would struggle to match the collective imagination of the software community, besides spending taxpayers’ money.

For example, 8,500 developers have registered with Transport for London—the local government body that runs the transport system in Greater London —to use its data to build apps. They have built about 500 apps, which are used by 42% of Londoners. Like Citymapper (which helps in route planning) or Colourblind Tube Map (which helps the colour blind view the colour-coded London Tube maps correctly). Indian cities can do the same simply by making data available. Insights and solutions will follow.

More data will mean more media engagement and conversations. It will open up newer possibilities for researchers, besides reducing time taken by them to procure and clean data.

Open data can also address the grouse of government officials that answering RTI queries is time-consuming.

A simple analysis of RTI queries will reveal what type of information is being sought, and making it available under open data can reduce their workload.

In the context of governance, data is one issue in India. Another issue, with strong linkages to data, is maps.

There is a glaring lack of availability of shape-files needed to draw digital maps, as the discussion forums of DataMeet, an active forum of data enthusiasts in India, testify.

Census office gives physical maps, but not digital shape-files. The monopoly for digital shape-files is with the Survey of India, which charges a hefty sum. For example, the village boundary database per district costs 7,500 per licence for multiple users.

At 640 districts, the total cost to procure shape files to map all of India’s villages works out to around 48 lakh.

Such pricing excludes small and individual software developers. The 2012-13 annual report of Survey of India, its latest available, does not state how much it earned by selling shape files. My guess is less than 10 crore a year. Even if it was 1,000 crore, it is nothing compared to the value people can add when map files are made available free.

Survey of India could make a start by making available, at no charge, shape-files of the 505 cities with a population of above 1 lakh, along with ward-level boundaries within each city. The challenge of urbanization requires India’s cities to become better for those who inhabit them, and open data is one lever to make that happen.

John Samuel Raja D. is co-fou-nder of How India Lives, a search engine for public data on India.

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