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Civic hackers seek to find their feet in India

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 04, 2011 06:45 AM
In 2006, when Sushant Sinha,who holds a doctorate in Internet security from the University of Michigan, tried to use the Indian government’s judicial rulings website, Judis.nic.in, he found it difficult to get the data he was looking for. “Judis.nic.in didn’t have a good text search or ability to sort results by relevance,” Sinha said. The lack of these two critical functions rendered the wealth of data on the site largely unusable.

Sinha, who currently works at Yahoo India, set about creating the legal search engine Indiankanoon. org, which now has a database of more than 1.4 million judgements. It tries to overcome the deficiencies of the government’s effort, indexing judgements by the Supreme Court, the high courts and various tribunals, and linking them to the underlying Acts.

In November, the portal saw around one million unique visits. Sinha is a “civic hacker”, a programmer driven by the urge to create applications that will allow fellow citizens to help themselves and further the democratic process by using information, often from freely available government databases. (A “cracker”, on the other hand, uses similar tools to break into secure systems with malicious intent.)

Nishant Shah, director, research, at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Bangalore, offers a wider definition for civic hackers.

“In a Web 2.0 world, you needn’t have programming skills to be a civic hacker. When people have access to digital technologies, they are potentially civic hackers, because they have learned how to negotiate with oppression and injustice. In the West, the ubiquitousness of digital technologies has enabled a lot of people to engage with civic hacking—from subversive documentaries by the Yes Men group to parodic YouTube videos that critique state-market policies— all these qualify as civic hacking.”

WikiLeaks, said Shah, is the biggest example of such a civic hacker in recent times. “Civic hackers are always in grey territory,” he said. “Their legality is always being questioned, depending on how far they go. Remember, WikiLeaks was around for five years before they began talking about banning it.” 

Much of the online Indian information in the open domain, from the government or autonomous bodies such as the Election Commission (EC), isn’t always served up such that it can be sliced and diced in ways that citizens can digest, making the civic hacker a critical part of the democratic process in the digital age.

A larger presence in the West, they are thin on the ground in the country. “Civic hackers, while present (in India), are not numerous, and it’s unclear to what extent they are conscious of the work that others are doing, although this could be easily remedied through networking efforts both online and offline,” according to a report by CIS.

One of the reasons for their sparse numbers CIS suggests is that the Indian government doesn’t engage yet with the hacking community,

unlike countries such as the US. New York, Washington DC and San Francisco, for instance, have portals that share data with the intention of encouraging application development.

The NYC BigApps competition has a cash prize of $20,000 (nearly `9 lakh) for the best application using the City of New York’s NYC.gov data mine. Around 350 data sets including public safety data, buildings complaints, and real-time traffic numbers are thrown open to participants. In 2009, an application to let New Yorkers findmass transit routes, public school information, etc., based on their location won the prize.

Despite the lack of incentives, some hackers are still mushrooming in the Indian space. In 2009, just ahead of the April-May general election, 25-year-old Akshay Surve, the founder of a think tank for social change called SocialSync.org Labs, was building a Web application to profile members of Parliament.

The application was aimed at generating a snapshot of each legislator based on the debates they participated in, the number of Parliament sessions attended, and other such information that could help voters make an informed choice.

The websites of the EC and the Lok Sabha had much of this data in Excel and Adobe PDF documents, but that didn’t necessarily make it usable. The formats changed every year, and some files didn’t allow text and numbers to be extracted. To build the mashup—an application that throws together data from more than one source, mashing everything up to create a new service—Surve had to parse and standardize the data.

Realizing that the problem he faced was not an isolated one, Surve and his friend, Pavan Mishra, launched OpenCivic.in this year, a set of standards and APIs (application programming interface) that sift data from government websites and make them available in a machine-readable, remixable format.

Surve’s API is the primary engine for Askneta.com and Gov-Check.net, which track the performance of elected representatives and use OpenCivic’s feed. He plans to keep the API free for non-commercial use. Now his team is at work to develop a mobile version of the API. Another example is RTINation. com, built in August 2009 by a group of graduates from the Kanpur and Delhi Indian Institutes of Technology.

RTINation.com enables the online filing of Right to Information (RTI) applications. A 2009 PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimated that more than a quarter of those who file RTI applications have to visit a government office over three times to do so. RTINation.com generates its revenue by charging each user `125 for an application. It is now building a backoffice to handle marketing and promotion.

“Since we launched, we have seen 200,000 unique visitors,” said Rahul Gupta, a cofounder of RTINation.com. Most civic hackers in India entered the field through work related to various e-governance initiatives and the RTI Act, which has put more government data in the public domain than ever before. This data, though, is dumped in a format that makes it difficult for citizens to use or understand. “Few of the publicly accessible databases are open in terms of data reusability (in terms of machine-readability and openness of formats), data reusability (legally), easily accessible (via search engines, for persons with disabilities, etc.), understandable (marked up with annotations  and  etadata),” according to CIS. Here is where civic hackers such as Sinha and Surve come in.

CIS suggests that networking across civic hacking teams could strengthen this effort. OpenCivic.in has been proactive in its tie-ups. In February, it joined hands with Yes To Politics, a civic participation endeavour by Texas-based software engineer Murali M. Launched in 2009, Yes To Politics offers tools to help communities work on causes. Among these are analytics of previous elections and a tracker of ongoing campaigns. During its peak usage in the four weeks leading up to the 2009 assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, the website had on an average 43,000 visitors a day, with a oneday surge of 97,457 visitors on 9 April that year. Yes To Politics, inactive since last year’s polls, is going to launch a new version in January. “Once we do that, we contribute our own data feeds to OpenCivic,” said Murali.

Talking about the challenges, Murali said, “The data sets from the Election Commission’s site were raw and not directly presentable to users. So we had to iteratively transform it and correct (it) on the way and make meaningful sets. It took me almost three-and-a-half weeks to get it ready. And when the EC releases any new data, they always release in PDF files that are hard to retrieve and mashup. So I wrote special apps (applications) to scan files, transform data, and automatically correct spelling mistakes in names.” The 36-year-old software engineer works full-time for Alcatel-Lucent and develops the applications when he’s free. Yes To Politics has been steadily adding bells and whistles to its portal. Recently, it integrated Google Maps into an application called Vote2009, layering it with information such as when a constituency is scheduled to have elections. “Another example is, due to delimitation, about 77 assembly and eight parliamentary constituencies in AP (Andhra Pradesh) have been reorganized. We set up a section where users can look at what has changed and find their constituency based on mandal and district information,” Murali said.

Read the original article in Livemint here

Read it in IndiaInfoline here

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