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Public data on the Web leaves much to be desired

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 30, 2011 07:38 AM
Making government data accessible to all is a vital challenge, says Deepa Kurup in her article published in the Hindu on May 28, 2011.
Public data on the Web leaves much to be desired

Several merits:Researchers believe open data could not only aid governance and public planning, but also increase citizen engagement in public processes.— Photo: T. VIJAYA KUMAR

Tim Berners-Lee, chief architect and inventor of the World Wide Web and an ardent advocate of open data, said, earlier this year, that countries should be judged on their willingness to open up public data to their citizens. This, along with 'network neutrality', he considered as important as free speech, he had emphasised, adding that this was particularly critical for developing nations.

In January 2011, the British Government, led by Mr. Berners-Lee, launched www.data.gov.uk, a site aimed at creating a platform for disclosing data to citizens, civil society organisations and even private institutions from a wide range of government departments and processes.

In India, while ‘civic hackers' and non-governmental organisations are coming up with interesting initiatives that attempt to put government data in the form of mash-ups and easily readable content online, government data on the Web leaves much to be desired. Half a decade after the powerful and progressive Right to Information Act was implemented, accessing government data online is still a challenge. Given the huge amount of public information that has been generated this year through Census 2011, and some sections of these even being GIS mapped, it is imperative that government data be ‘set free', researchers say. They believe that this could not only aid governance and public planning but also increase citizen engagement in public processes.

Technology aid

A recent study by a research team at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based research organisation, finds that despite challenges, the Government and bureaucrats in India are receptive to using technology to open up more data to the public. Speaking to policymakers across the country, the report records various impediments and accessibility barriers, and surveys existing open data initiatives in the Government.

Drawing from these, the report presents a set of recommendations to help the Government move towards an open data ecosystem. These include re-examining the end goals and the end users of this data, involving volunteers and citizens in putting out the data in accessible forms, and seeking support from pre-existing ‘open content' communities such as Wikipedia editors or open street mappers, to name a few.

For a start

Nishant Shah, researcher at CIS, says it is heartening to see that governments, and policymakers, are already thinking along the lines of open government data. There are several initiatives, such as the Bhoomi project or Nemmadi of the Karnataka Government, that may not look at themselves as open data initiatives, but are certainly going that way, Mr. Shah points out. There are several critical infrastructure changes that are happening such as the use of computers at different levels of governance, setting up of community Internet centres in villages and various e-governance programmes; so there is a lot of hope that data will be accessible to more people, he adds.

Challenges

However, Mr. Shah points out that while there is talk about taking government data into the public domain, the larger ecosystem for this has not been worked out. The report points out that there is insufficient standardisation, while e-governance, to a large degree, has been far from perfect. System interoperability issues and the larger issues of privacy (in the absence of any existing law) are both challenges.

Speaking to The Hindu, a senior official from the department of e-governance said it was indeed on the Government's agenda to open up more data, and offer it in more accessible formats. He pointed out that interoperability of formats is a huge problem, one that he hopes the recently enforced National Policy on Open Standards will accurately address.

"However, it is a gargantuan process to get departments across the country, at different levels of governance, to comply. This may take time and effort. Another problem is that the input formats are not standardised, which means a lot of vital data is being offered in cumbersome formats that are barely useable," he says. However, a bigger concern is to provide the information ecosystem to take this to the millions that are left out of the Internet loop. That is a greater challenge, he points out.

Read the original story published by the Hindu here

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