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Photo: iStock

Opinion | We are data rich, let’s use it right

In India, social applications that build on data are limited only by imagination

When Meera Kumar travelled to London as a 19-year-old exchange student, she was amazed by the transport system. An app called Citymapper advised her about the fastest and cheapest method—whether bus, metro, walking, cycling or taxi—to go anywhere in London. She was able to track the bus and get to the bus stop on time, making her commute safe and efficient. She wondered why such apps did not exist in India.

She isn’t alone in recognizing the need for data-driven tracking of public transport. However, building consumer apps such as Citymapper by ensuring access to real-time data for entrepreneurs with appropriate safeguards is a significant challenge.

Social applications that build on data are limited only by imagination. This is true across sectors—cancer research, civic governance, urban planning, agriculture and more. After an outbreak of Ebola in Lagos, government agencies collaborated with mobile operators and healthcare organizations to share data on patients and contain the spread. Similarly, Ola Mobility Institute is using data from its rides to help the Telangana government cut accidents due to potholes.

India is rapidly becoming the largest data-rich democracy with data from government records (geographic and demographic data, municipal tax records), IoT sensors, citizen-generated data (location data from Uber, search data of Google). However, this treasure trove of data remains under-utilized for social impact.

The open data movement has not realized its full potential in India due to limited governmental execution capacity and lack of inter-departmental coordination. Therefore, solutions that have worked for London may not work in India. There is a silver lining—the new wave of mission-driven entrepreneurs working to ensure India’s rich data is responsibly harnessed. This task of harnessing economic and social value requires meaningful action at three levels—data holders, intermediaries and data users.

Firstly, at the level of data holders, entrepreneurs from academic institutions are leading the charge. A team at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, led by Pravesh Biyani, is working with the Delhi government to make real-time GPS data from public buses available to entrepreneurs. Once complete, this will enable a host of applications for journey planning in the short run and assist city planning in the long run. NITI Aayog is working to create a National Data and Analytics platform to synthesize data from different ministries and state governments. This can enable data-driven policymaking.

Secondly, at the level of intermediaries, global solutions need to be adapted for India’s unique diversity of data formats, quality and applications. There is an industry plus academia partnership at the Indian Institute of Science. Prof. Bharadwaj Amrutur and Inder Gopal, a tech industry old-timer, are leading a team of tech and data science experts to build the backbone for smart cities, the Indian Urban Data Exchange. It works like a telephone exchange, connecting data from holders with users, and standardizing data formats for usability. Picture this: Data from movement sensors in smart cities is connected with app developers, who operate an app that shows where parking spots are available.

Thirdly, at the level of data users, entrepreneurship is gaining steam. Data feeds are used to build visualization dashboards, analytics-based optimization tools and to train artificial intelligence (AI) solutions. Social enterprise SafetiPin aims to make cities safe for women and is using data to assign safety scores for localities. Data is also used by non-profits such as Wadhwani Institute for AI to solve social challenges such as pest management in cotton-farming, and improving quality of care for tuberculosis.

India is sitting on massive social and economic opportunity that can be unleashed if data entrepreneurs at all three levels are supported with resources. There is a role for investors to fund budding data entrepreneurs; for philanthropists to provide seed grants to build intermediary backbones; and for government agencies to create a supportive policy environment. In addition, data needs to be handled with appropriate safeguards through policies and responsible business practices.

Sushant Kumar is principal at Omidyar Network India. This column is part of Mint Visionaries: Conversations on new India.

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