However unnerving the feeling of being surveilled is, collecting information about our interactions with the government has the potential to be immensely fruitful for journalists, researchers and the public. Whenever we fill out a government form or get our vaccinations done through public hospitals, the records we leave with them can be harnessed by those looking at it to trace back that interaction. Not only does this ensure transparency and accountability, but it can also be used to deduce important information about our economic and social reality.
Public institutions like government hospitals or the Statistical Ministry collect a massive bank of data from everyday operations and research. A new law, the Draft India Data Accessibility and Use Policy revealed on February 21 this year, has proposed to open this data to the public and controversially, put it up for sale in the private sector. Under this proposal, all data collected by every government body will be open by default unless specified otherwise and some other ‘special’ datasets will be out on the market.
This move is in line with the international Open Government Data (OGD) movement which aims to liberate non-personal data collected by public entities and use it to formulate effective policy. According to the Working Group on Open Government Data at the Open Knowledge Foundation, OGD is essential for modern, democratic societies since it ensures readability, shareability, and transparency of government activities–citizens and civil society have the ability to peruse the state’s working together.
While this sounds utopian for evidence-based policy-making, the historical records of governments generating, storing and releasing data in India have been muddy and many researchers have low levels of trust in the process. This is best illustrated by the Central Government’s ongoing fight with the WHO about the estimated pandemic deaths in the country. The WHO has estimated about four million excess covid deaths, which is in line with other scientific reports and shows staggering disparity when pitched against government data. The Center has disputed the report’s methodology and has itself come under fire for not providing coherent objections.
The story of India’s public data problem runs beyond the pandemic though, which has rightfully occupied our imagination for two years now. There are real issues with the way we collect data on the ground and they are not limited to emergencies like Covid. Long term policy goals like eradicating rabies by 2030 are getting stalled by the disaggregation of bodies responsible for collecting the relevant data and a lack of standardization. If two essential datasets generated by separate government offices do not use the same language or format, making them talk to each other and gain real insights becomes harder.
Moreover, instead of obfuscating data to fend off criticisms, the government also has the option to simply not conduct the required surveys. The Household Consumer Spending Survey is one such important data collection drive which we have not heard of since 2011, until it was finally resumed this year. The National Statistical Office (NSO) is supposed to conduct the survey every five years but in 2017, the last time it was due, the NSO spoke of “data quality” issues that had prevented them from going forward with it. Many believe, however, that the survey was withheld due to an expected decline in consumer spending which would have reflected badly on the incumbent Modi government.
The overarching goal of OGD is instrumental–it is not only that government data should be open, but it also has to be actually useful. These foundational issues in how officials deal with data can make OGD platforms seem performative at best. The UN’s E-Governance survey conducted in 2020 which measured how robust a nation’s digital governance framework is relative to others placed India at the 100th rank amongst 193 countries included in the report. Without pooling resources to centralise, organise and secure the system that will eventually generate and carry the data, OGD might prove to be fruitless.
Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.
Picture Credits: Unsplash
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