In the elaborate budget speech, the national data governance policy finds a fleeting mention.
Enabling access to anonymised data sets to usher innovation by startups and academia, the government will embark on a new data policy.
Anonymised data sets were a contentious issue for the government, given it had to roll back its plan to monetise data from the IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) as criticism against privacy issues mounted. Aadhaar, as a programme, had to go through the same hurdles of needless over-intellectualisation.
Simply put, anonymised or non-personal data (NPD) includes all those data sets with knowledge and information that cannot be narrowed down to an individual or be used for individual profiling. The examples are many.
Think credit expansion linked to deposits in Jan Dhan accounts, region wise, or diseases and treatments being registered under Ayushman Bharat with welfare policies like gas cylinders, toilets, piped water connections and so forth. It could also be about using regional GST (goods and services tax) data being to evaluate the success of the MUDRA programme after a decade.
Eventually, any anonymised data set can be used to map the progress of any district or even locality, but without profiling any individual.
The NPD sets can aid young businesses and other entrepreneurs, and in a market of 1.3 billion people steadily moving to 5G and metaverse in the future, it is as good as a mine of gold.
However, the new policy must focus on two things. One, the government should consider making it mandatory for any company operating in India to share NPD sets or anonymised data sets to curate evidence-based policies.
Two, the government must not, at any cost, club the data governance policy with the data protection bill. The two must remain mutually exclusive.
Ideally, NPD sets’ governance must be done through a separate law, given the difference in personal and non-personal data sets and the concerns around them.
However, the government must also not be bogged down by frivolous protests around NPDs.
Expect the usual suspects to make the data governance policy about profiling citizens and all that, as they did with Aadhaar. The government, however, must march on.
The golden goose here is the data that can be extracted from hundreds of government schemes by the Centre and then the private sector.
Another category of NPD is data collected from machines, for instance, on climate, agriculture, industrial machines, and so on. In both cases, relevant data is anonymised to ensure no individual can be tracked down or identified.
Already, the government has expressed its intent to aid the cause of agri-startups. From an agricultural perspective, data governance can be a critical tool in tackling climate change, improvisation in farming patterns, and so on. Bottomline: the opportunities, in the long-term, are plentiful.
NPD sets have great economic value, both for existing and upcoming businesses. In India, the scale of business in terms of people, socio-economic variations, and regional and geographic variations enable the production of precise data sets with multiple perspectives and use-cases, and this is where this policy will help.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the anonymised data sets would be the MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises), willing to take on the likes of Amazon and Walmart. Think of the anonymised data sets that can be generated by ONDC.
Other economic regions, globally, have been working on anonymised data sets already.
In November 2018, the European Union introduced a new regulation that went into force in May 2019. The aim of the regulation was to eliminate the obstacles in the storage of NPD by allowing companies to store data anywhere in the EU, enabling cross-border transfer and exchange. Seeing the entire EU as a single digital economy, the regulation allowed the use of NPD for business development.
In 2017, a telecom paper in India proposed the creation of a ‘sandbox’ that would gather anonymised data that can be used for the development of new products.
In 2018, government think-tank NITI Aayog argued, in a paper, in favour of sharing NPD sets of good governance and planning. The committee under Justice Srikrishna also highlighted the importance of NPD sets.
While it took some time for the Narendra Modi administration to get here, it would be in the best interest of the government to usher this data policy and aid the cause of both policymakers and entrepreneurs.
Make no mistake, this announcement is one of the biggest takeaways from the budget.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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