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Sunday, January 26, 2014

ECI-Google Deal Failure Points To India's Contradictory Open Data Policy

Talks of collaboration between the Election Commission of India and Google to provide voter facilitation services ahead of Lok Sabha polls have fallen through with the Election Commission declining to go ahead with the plan. Opposition to the proposal by the Congress and BJP, two parties stuck in their own time-warps is understandable but so-called cybersecurity experts raising security concerns is intriguing.  The fact that Snowden expose has been referred to as one of the arguments in the context is more than ironic. In information age, being cautious while sharing data with foreign-based companies is natural but knee-jerk reaction can be very counter-productive.

The fundamental fallacy on the part of those opposed to Google's offer seems to be inability in discerning between opening up data and digitizing public documents. Voter rolls are by nature public document as are land records and many official documents, the hard copies of which could be procured by paying a reasonable fee. However, digitization of these documents has not only made them easily accessible but also made innovative usage of these information systems possible. Electoral data including voter rolls and location of polling stations is already available on state election commission websites. Most likely, Election Commission was considering sharing a single database of voter details with Google but even after declining to collaborate with the Internet search giant, Election Commission would continue to provide the very same data in parts.

Concerns on NSA and US espionage agencies getting hold of data is equally unconvincing. If at all Edward Snowden's leak of US surveillance juggernaut  reveals something, it is the fact that if US spy agencies have such advanced mechanisms in place that they don't really need to ask Google for the database, if at all they require India's voters database, it wouldn't take much effort for them to compile them from the fragmented parts lying in public domain. Now, how the US or China or any other country can use that data against the Indian state is unclear to me but there is no ambiguity on the question of voter rolls remaining in public domain. Contrast this with India's Foreign Minister's nonchalant reaction to Snowden's revelation on US intelligence snoop India embassy in the US. Or, as for that matter, BJP's PM aspirant putting a lady and her friends and family under surveillance is much greater threat to Indian citizens rather than voter identities with Google.  In the first instance, information acquired  through espionage could well be state secret, in the other one several individuals' personal communication were intercepted, their private lives pried into and all this at the whim of a single person. Voter data have always been public, without that democracy cannot function.

All political parties in India have come to view the Internet as an integral part of democratic system but refresh their perspective. Over the last few years, noted thought-leaders/ innovators/visionaries such Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the world wide web), renowned publisher Tim O'Reilly and others are advocating a different approach to the leverage the strength of the Internet to help society. This new paradigm calls for involvement of the government and private sector players like entrepreneurs, innovators, technologists collaborating to find innovative solutions for real world problems. Open Data and Gov 2.0 are the leading movements in this domain that call for greater flexibility in government policies for  leveraging the power of Internet for general good.

The Open Data advocates maintain that opening up data or providing datasets to public not only increases the transparency but also facilitates individuals to use those data to create applications and services that are beneficial for the public. Gov 2.0 concept encapsulates the idea that government policies should be more in the direction towards using collaborative tools to include various sections of people to deliver better governance. Although both concepts are similar to the old e-governance program, there are differences. E-governance is more about replicating existing methodology on digital platforms, to minimize cost,speed up processes and make government more accessible to the people, Gov 2.0 seems to be more about developing solutions keeping the nature of the the Internet in mind and designing applications around it.  The level of interaction between people, between public and celebrities and even public and government has never been so comprehensive as it is since Web 2.0 era, governments providing data in open data terms is winning situation for all stake-holders.

This picture is not part of the
 case-study given on the right
Here is a five year old case study that employed GIS mapping technology to determine how ethnic minority community settlements were being denied equal state services such as water and sanitation. The figures may have been there on paper but statistics remain statistics, they seldom stir human emotion as graphical representation does. In this instance, mapping geographical data, access to resources, settlements by minority communities painted a startling picture of discrimination against them. GIS technology along with datasets provided by governments can help get comprehensive insight into a great deal of issues, from environmental protection,social justice programmes, healthcare, building infrastructure etc. This was five years back, Open Data, Gov 2.0 movement have come quite a distance now especially after the launch of US government's website Data.gov (largely credited to PIO Vivek Kundra, the first CIO of US) in 2009. This was  followed up by UK government's Data.gov.uk and European Union's EU Open Data Portal.

Ironically, India figures in the short list of countries that provide open datasets to the public through its website Data.gov.in but it the datasets availabe seem to be more for academic researchers rather than innovators, entrepreuner interested in creating app for public good. Lack of equitable development and growth in rural India especially is always attributed to absence of infrastructure and facilities, lack of connectivity for transportation and communication, corruption in almost all government departments and lack of political will. Each of these can be effectively countered by Gov 2.0 paradigm. We have already seen how mobile phone penetration has brought with it a mini-revolution among the middle and specifically, lower middle class, there is no reason why penetration of Internet along with meaningful Open Data availability would not prove beneficial and even miraculously so. Roads, bridges, railway tracks require lot more funds and time, but if mobile phone became the enabler of lower middle class to conduct business better.why can't the Internet turnout more successful than mobiles among the rural poor ?

From the very little feedback I get on my blog, my posts being lengthy is given as the most important reason why I don't get much feedback ! Anyway, I will wrap this up here and continue in the next post.

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