Economic Survey 2019: Understanding Government’s Big Push For Data As A Public Good
The goal behind using data is to ensure the benefit to the public and not any particular group or individual.
It is time for a more personalised system of governance — one that transcends geographies and bureaucratic hurdles and enables India to become a $5 trillion economy.
The government, in its pursuit of making India a $5 trillion economy, has woken up to the potential that data holds for governance in India. The Economic Survey 2019 makes a big push towards using data “of, by, and for the people” and its role as a public commodity.
With the advancement of information technology across the globe, the marginal cost of data has declined while its benefit to society has grown exponentially. Today, the Indian government holds a rich repository of data pertaining to the administration, surveys, institutions, and finances. However, much of this data is scattered across ministries without any integration at the central level.
The survey proposes an idea where integrated data — as a public good and within the purview of data protection and privacy law — can be used to ensure greater accountability in public services, engage citizens for a more personalised governance mechanism, curb the monetary leakages and eliminate redundancy within the system.
Data Economics Meets Social Welfare
The last two decades saw the rapid expansion of peripheral devices, mainly mobile phones. Since 2016, especially in India, a telecom revolution of unprecedented proportions was witnessed, leading to an information explosion.
The information explosion has resulted in the creation of data at a minimal cost. However, the same data, if used in an integrated manner, can result in benefits for the society.
While the urban people are leaving their digital footprints daily via the activities they pursue online, it’s the rural population that needs to be brought on board the digital train. Going forward, all data collection must be moved to a digital mechanism against the conventional paper one as it not only ensures accuracy of data but is also cost-effective too.
The emergence of data economics is also fuelled by the reduced storage costs, which have gone down from more than Rs 60,000 in 1981 to merely Rs 3.50 in 2019. Also, the evolution of data science as a study offers enough social incentive for efficient use of data in governance.
While social welfare via data economics opens up an array of opportunities for the government, it also warrants strict data laws and ensuring that no macro-data sets can be used to track or profile an individual.
The social welfare can work on multiple fronts. For instance, a district officer may use the data available to monitor the performance of students in public schools or use the inventory data from a local government hospital to evaluate the investments required there.
The goal behind using data in any of these scenarios is to ensure the benefit to the public, and not any particular group or individual. This opens up doors for a personalised system of governance at a local level, and makes it possible to see the bigger picture.
Data As A Public Good: The Role Of The Government
As per a study by Forbes magazine, for over 53 per cent of the companies, data economics drives major policy decisions. The emergence of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) in the past decade and their application of user data to generate revenue streams offers enough incentive for the government to think on the same lines.
However, the government will be required to look beyond the ways of the private sector. While the latter may concern itself only with areas where it sees a revenue opportunity, the government may have to invest in data intelligence for sectors like farming, agro-markets, rural healthcare and so on. Also, government investment will be required in areas — both rural and urban — where private investments are missing for data garnering and storage.
The decisions of any private company with respect to big data are driven by economic benefits but those of the government will have to be driven by larger social benefits.
Data Generation: An Array Of Opportunities
Firstly, when viewed as a scattered piece of a puzzle, an isolated data set offers only limited insights. However, when many such pieces come together, the collective benefit from the integration of these data sets must be far greater than that of isolated data sets.
Secondly, the data sets must encompass a significant number of people, groups, firms, or organisations for correlations and conclusions to be drawn.
In a country where 800 million people reside in villages, a data set pertaining to rural healthcare must warrant at least 40 to 60 per cent of the people for effective policymaking. Also, the heterogeneous nature of the Indian social setup warrants coverage of a greater number of people.
Lastly, data must offer long enough time-series for observations be drawn before and after a policy is implemented or withdrawn. Real-time data updates must enable greater insights into the macro and micro trends across sectors and states.
Clearly, curating a data set this big at a national level would not attract any private capital, given the costs, and thus, this is where the government must step in. The data garnered by the government must also be open for public consumption, especially the one that relates to research and policy making.
Putting Pieces Of The Puzzle Together
Data in India is collected at the administrative level (birth and death records, marriage and tax records, etc.), from surveys (census, national sample survey), through transactions (e-NAM, UPI, etc.), and via institutions (public healthcare, school, colleges, etc.).
Now, this is where the individual ministries for data must come together and create an integrated data set. For instance, an institutional data set merged with that of surveys may offer a better insight into what is working and not working for the education system of a particular district.
Further, the ministries accessing this integrated data framework or a central welfare database of citizens (figure below) must ensure that they inculcate adequate privacy and protection standards.
A Data Access Fiduciary must grant access to Data Requestors, based on the user consent available with the latter. Data encryption within the integrated central framework should ensure that the data is not visible to the fiduciaries themselves.
To ensure privacy and consistency of data, three functions must be implemented. First, while any ministry may be able to view the complete database, they must only be able to update data for fields pertaining to their ministries. Second, the updating of data by one ministry must not interfere with the access of other ministries. And third, there should be no room for data tampering for that will render the framework useless.
The concerns pertaining to profiling should be addressed. While some may confuse the central database of citizens as some sort of a surveillance system, the truth is that the central database only ensures the utilisation of the data, already available with the government, in a far more effective manner.
Also, people should be free to withdraw their consent for certain sections of data. However, when it comes to data like vehicle registration numbers, licenses, property rights, and so on, there cannot be an option to opt out.
The Basic Need: A Robust Infrastructure
For the above ideas to be implemented, a robust data infrastructure is indispensable. Ideally, data infrastructure is required to work on four fronts.
First, gathering the data. India, going forward, must discard the conventional ways of data collection. Data collected on paper or data collected via scanning paper records have limited utility. Thus, a robust infrastructure warrants the need of digitally collected data in a machine-readable format.
Second, storing the data. For policy making and delivery of public services to work effectively, data storage will have to be in real-time. While real-time updates may not be necessary in all sectors, the government will have to invest in certain areas where real-time data offers significant advantages, like farming, healthcare, education, and so on. Given the data explosion in India, trends from data can soon become obsolete, and therefore, real-time storage and sharing is needed.
Third, processing the data. Officers at district, city, and state level must be acquainted with the art of data science in order for them to understand the trends, use them in policy making, and ensure effective delivery of services.
Some processing may be outsourced to the private sector — assuming they meet the standards of privacy and protection under the data law — but the major onus lies with the public servants.
Fourth, communicating the data. Today, a lot of private companies collect data for a number of industries but this data can only be accessed at a hefty cost. The government, to encourage better citizen governance and policies, may choose to communicate data pertaining to welfare schemes and other sectors as it deems fit.
Final Word: The Beneficiaries
One, the biggest beneficiary of an exercise of this scale and magnitude shall be the government itself, for it will be able to usher in better governance, accountability, timely delivery of welfare services, and investments that ensure maximum results.
Two, the government may choose to share or sell certain data sets with the private sector, especially the ones dealing in real estate, healthcare, farming, e-commerce, and so forth. While the private organisations may choose to employ these data sets to further their interests, the revenue from such sales could sponsor the maintenance of the data infrastructure.
Three, and most importantly, passing on the benefits to the citizens. Given that the citizens are at the nucleus of policy making, welfare schemes, and other government initiatives, using data as a public good will not only add to their benefits — as we saw with the JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhar-Mobile) trinity and Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) — but make them recipients of good governance in the longer run.
On a parallel track, the government must also work on a strict data protection law that inspires confidence amongst the citizens and ensures their digital engagement. Given that there is scope for a public-private partnership in some areas, data localisation must also be debated strongly to complement data laws.
We have been witness to the concepts of good and honest governance, maximum governance, central and state governance, but now, with using data for public good, it is time for a more personalised system of governance — one that transcends geographies and bureaucratic hurdles and enables India to become a $5 trillion economy.
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