Open Data and its use in Open Governance [Part 2]

In part 1 of this series, we looked at what open data is and how progressive governments are seeking citizens to involve themselves in improving the social condition.  In this part we look at some possibilities and some issues.

Most data by itself is inert.  But life is breathed into it when you connect it with people who need it in ways that it can be easily consumed.  For example, does it matter to anybody that the government has heaps upon heaps of data on the spread of infectious diseases during certain seasons including specific areas where it is most harmful?  Or is it more useful that a social services group working in the area is able to view it as charts and flows in addition to specific locations being pinned on Google Maps?  The proliferation of mobile devices in India also signifies that meaning can get into the hands of people – meaning being the transformation of raw data into a coherent, actionable piece – as quickly as data is updated which gives them the power to take the most effective actions appropriate for the time and event.  

One of my greatest quibbles with various Indian cities is its public transportation.  Indeed, India has much investment in public transit, and yet we are overloaded with volumes of personal transport that defy any reasonable intention of getting from one place to another in a reasonable amount of time.  Or effectively.  Riding the public transport in many countries has actually saved me considerable time and is an active part of my life as I read many books, listen to audio books, have conversations with loved ones, or just note down ideas and tasks for myself.  I’ve never been able to do that driving myself anywhere.  Is it that we cannot do it in India?  Is it a lack of incentive?  Even when I want to go somewhere it becomes so much more convenient to take an auto rickshaw rather than the bus because we have no idea of transit timings.  What if people could have an app based on available public data on the routes that the bus takes, lay it out on a map, and have  people find the most convenient ways to get around.  Paris has a very effective application provided by the RATP that integrates their bus, metro, RER, SNCF modes of transport along with walking that charts out within a second the most efficient way to get between places, all the while taking into consideration the state of immediate traffic.  It is such a simple effective application.  If something like that proved useful, could the government automatically report the position via GPS and available capacity in buses that are plying?  And then can we use it to provide more detailed, up to date, and useful info for the passengers.  It is possible.

Along with the possibilities that open data presents is also the inclusive suspicion about what and how much is opened out.  Understandably, none of us want our personal information out for public scrutiny – like our personal taxes, our personal health records, our family tree, etc.  These, of course, are not the kind of data that is opened out to the public.  Governments that have open data initiatives usually scrutinize the personal sensitivity of such data before making it publicly accessible.  In many cases such as this metadata is what is made available – like the total number of people who are affected by malaria by district as opposed to the list of people affected by malaria.  Another example would be the large amount of census data that is available to the government which could give much aggregated demographic information without giving us any personal details about the individual.  Apart from transportation, geography, business, sociology, ecology, environment, economy, and legal data, government also has access to a lot of research data from either government research institutions or government funded research.  This wealth of information could be invaluable for the enterprising as much as for the curious.

If knowledge is power we only need reflect a moment to realize that each person today is many times more powerful than the most powerful kings and emperors that graced a throne or traveled continents.  Whereas it took them many days to obtain information in their kingdom we can now have it almost instantly.  It is for us then to make best use of such open data to serve the public and drive positive progress.

[The author, Sathish VJ is an independent technology enthusiast with a keen interest in everything technology. He is currently rediscovering the web, mobile, newer programming languages, and businesses around it. You can discover more about him at sathishvj.com.]