The Beginnings of India's Open Data Movement

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  •  Dec 12, 2013
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The Planning Commission's 'Hackathon' is part of the country's tentative opening of the doors to its public datasets

In a novel initiative, the Indian Planning Commission recently announced that in conjunction with the National Innovation Council, it would be hosting a 32-hour ‘Hackathon’. The event, which will be held on April 6 and 7, 2013 invites students and professionals from all walks of life to come and aid the government in visualising India’s 12th Five Year Plan. To be held at all major universities across the country, as well as online, the hackathon is the government’s attempt to encourage citizens towards using publically-available data and information and hacking it into visualisations, apps and short films, with the aim of creating awareness on important socio-political issues in the country. 

The Planning Commission’s announcement of India’s first official hackathon comes just a month after over 120 cities around the world celebrated the second International Open Data day on February 23, 2013. Numerous cities hosted similar hackathons, inviting developers, data scientists, social entrepreneurs, and government employees as well as designers, bloggers, students, and other open data enthusiasts to take part in it.

In Toronto, Canada, hackers worked on showing how citizens' tax money is spent. The participants worked in conjunction with "Where Does My Money Go", a site that promotes transparency and citizen engagement. In Nepal, a large team of social mappers and collaborators from around the world worked on mapping Kathmandu in Open Street Map to aid emergency disaster response technicians. The “Mapathon” resulted in the mapping of more than 7,000 building footprints.

While ideas differed in each city, what remained consistent was the use of open public data to create visualisations and publish analyses to show support for the adoption of open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.

For the unacquainted, Open data refers to data being released by various agencies with a license that permits free use, and in re-usable, machine-readable format. While open data has many sources, the biggest repositories of data are governments and multilateral global agencies such as the World Bank, IMF, UNESCO, etc, which collect colossal amounts of information and data via surveys and monitoring of transactional flows.

Open data is a relatively new phenomenon, and has picked up pace in the last few years as many governments have voluntarily decided to release their data to the public. Open Data enthusiasts argue that wide and open access to such data will result in innovative applications being created. To some extent, that is already happening in countries like the United States, which was one of the first to opt for a government-run open data platform, and has since then championed the concept globally. The concept has caught on quickly and open data has become a part of open governance initiatives in many countries.

According to The Open Data Foundation, a user of an Open Data platform should be able to easily perform the following tasks:

  • a) Discover the existence of data

  • b) Access the data for research and analysis

  • c) Find detailed information describing the data and its production processes

  • d) Access the data sources and collection instruments from which, and with which, the data was collected, compiled and aggregated
  • e) Effectively communicate with the agencies involved in the production, storage and distribution of the data

  •  f) Share knowledge with other users

Open Data in the United States

On President Barack Obama's first day in office during his first term in January 2009, he signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, pledging the White House’s support for a movement that was transforming the way government and citizens communicate with one another.

Data.gov was launched the following summer, offering access to data generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. In the years that have followed, enterprising government agencies and private citizens have built on the site's hundreds of thousands of data sets to help find everything from the most on-time flight between two airports to the latest product recalls.

India

In May 2012, the governments of the United States and India launched an Open Government Platform (OGPL), an open source version of the US government’s Data.gov platform, for helping governments across the globe make data public. Teams from both countries – from the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in India, and from Data.gov in the US – collaborated over a six-month period to develop the platform.

India then launched its own open data site, Data.gov.in in September last year. The site is part of the country’s commitment to provide open and transparent access to data collected by various government departments and agencies, as outlined in the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, 2012.

The stated advantages, as envisioned by the policy, include maximisation the use of data, avoidance and minimisation of duplication of efforts on its collection, facilitating integration by leading to common standards, providing ownership information, faster and better decision making and, of course, equitable access to information by all citizens.

The data.gov.in site today has 180 datasets, provided by 17 departments. Communities have been established to focus on the three key segments of Agriculture, Health and Developers.

As part of the plan, data management offices have been created in each of the departments, which are headed by senior officials called data controllers. Most large ministries and departments have already identified their data controllers, and 66 of them have already been appointed. Departments are responsible for directly uploading the datasets, in machine readable, re-usable format. The National Informatics Centre manages the site.

Forging the Path Ahead

Globally, the set of people committed to Open Data has remained a small and selective group of government personnel, technology enthusiasts, software developers, small start-ups, and advocacy groups. The media is also becoming increasingly interested in open data because of the rise of data journalism. However, even when data is made publically available, in order to become useful for the end-user communities such as policy-makers and the public, the raw data has to go through rigorous editing, aggregation and analytics.

This is where a gap exists, not only due to a lack of understanding of end-user needs, which affects the usefulness of data and the analysis developed, but also of professionals capable of connecting different links in the information chain, which is critical in fully understanding the data. Secondly, in a time of global economic slowdown, governments have found it difficult to justify funding for Open data platforms and for hiring dedicated experts. To overcome some of these obstacles, governments have been making attempts towards promoting events and competitions in order to spread the concept and interest in Open data.

“Information is power and not many people want to share."- Sam Pitroda

Lastly, government departments and agencies are often reluctant and slow in releasing data. In India, after more than five months of its launch, data.gov.in only has added 167 datasets in over five months, averaging at just one dataset a day. Government agencies are not completely at fault either, as most of the data they have is not stored in a machine readable format and has to be converted and cleaned before uploading it on to the open data portal.

Sam Pitroda, Adviser to the Prime Minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations, is of the view that while the government hoped to release data on a wide variety of topics such as transportation, water, sanitation, railways and more; government data in India remains under copyright and it would take time for different ministries and departments to warm up to the idea of sharing their information freely with the public.

Moreover, as pointed out by Kapil Sibal, India’s Minister for Communications and IT, India faces an enormous challenge when it comes to the standardisation of government data. Land records are kept differently in each state, and First Information Reports (FIRs) are lodged differently by the police in each state. “There are technological, procedural and administrative problems,” Mr. Sibal said at the launch of the OGPL. Importantly, Mr. Sibal also pointed out several valid concerns regarding Open Data: Who owns the data? Who owns what data? What is the data that can be owned by individuals? What kind of data can be put in the public domain without compromising privacy? These remain important questions for governments to grapple with.

In the end, there remains no doubt that, if done rightly, the promotion of automated access to statistical data and information can lead to better decision-making in many fields of research and policy-making. With the world witnessing another wave of technological innovation, it appears that the Open data movement is here to stay. However, there remains important work to be done to establish the right kind of platforms for not only making the data available to a wide audience in a time-bound manner, but also for new and innovative methods for government and citizen collaboration in the Open data sphere. There remains much hope that the Open data movement will soon achieve its potential of bringing about greater transparency and in enabling a new wave of participatory government.

References:

Nikhil Pahwa, US & India Governments Launch Open Government Platform, Medianama, March 30, 2012

Shyamanuja Das, Open data nowhere near its true potential, DNA, February 25, 2013

International Open Data Day, 2013, Govtech.com, February 26, 2013

 

Shreya Singh is Sub-editor, iGovernment

The views expressed are personal. 


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