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Mediating Access and Use of Open Data in India: Reformulating the Research Plan

Original Formulation of the Study

In early 2012, Government of India approved the first policy in the country governing proactive disclosure of government data, and especially of born-digital and digitised data. This National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) extends the mandate of the Right to Information (RTI) Act to establish policy and administrative support to enable informed citizenship, better decision-making and heightened transparency and accountability.

The proposed project originally planned to locate these policy documents, especially NDSAP, in the context of their actual implications and uses for non-government data practitioners. We wanted to focus on non-government advocacy and research organisations working in the area of urban development across five cities in India – Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and Pune – to map their practices of collecting, accessing, sharing and using government and self-generated urban data, such as those related to property records, geospatial data, sanitation and public health, elected representatives etc. The two key questions for the study were:

  • How RTI and NDSAP have transformed approaches and processes of data practices, and
  • Can the grounded experience of advocacy and research organisations inform shaping of a more effective open data policy for India?

Reasons for Rethinking the Original Formulation

There are two principal reasons for rethinking the formulation of the study.

First: our initial discussions with policy researchers, RTI activists, and open data advocates revealed curious disjunction between the open data and the RTI movements in India. Some of the major differences are:

  • Attitudes towards technology
  • Relevance of data and the uses of data
  • Relationship with the state (and dependence on the state)

These differences in ideology and approaches of RTI activists and open data advocates are especially important in our specific policy context because NDSAP claims to be developed as an extension of the RTI act. Given these early findings, we are keen to revisit our first research question – how RTI and NDSAP have transformed approaches and processes of data practices – and to categorically explore the differences and dynamics between the RTI and open data communities and the implications of this on the present and future of NDSAP.

Second: the focus on ‘urban development’ was originally chosen to systematically tighten the scope of the study as well as to chose a specific governance context to gather more precise insights. During the ODDC Network Meeting in London, we realised that the urban development framing for narrowing the scope of the project was proving to be a distraction.

Instead, we need to look at key organisations across India (and from different sectors of operation) that are gathering, using, and sharing government data either using provisions of RTI act, or NDSAP, or other procedures. We identify these organisations as data intermediaries that are serving certain data needs of the society at large. It is important to us that the activities of these data/information intermediary organisations be understood within their extended ecologies of inter-organisational collaborations and conflicts, instead of having a sector or issue-specific focus (such as urban data, legal data, budget data etc.).

We are keenly interested in studying how they respond to and utilise RTI and NDSAP for their works with government data; whether RTI and NDSAP respond to the challenges faced by data intermediaries, or the data intermediaries face a challenge to work with data opened up by NDSAP. Further we want to study the factors that determined how these organizations accessed, used and opened government data in different ways, and whether (and why) some of the organisations continue to function in the RTI domain while open data remains peripheral to their everyday work.

The New Research Brief and Objectives

The proposed study attempts to map the actual practices around government data by various (non-governmental) data/information intermediary organisations on one hand, and implementation challenges faced by and usage scenarios imagined by the policy-makers and data portal implementors on the other, to identify possible areas of policy modification, capacity building, community organisation, and alignment of efforts.

Further, the issue of the different (and fairly disparate) communities of RTI activists and open data advocates bring in a very country-specific concern about the challenges of organising activism around government data/information. We expect that exploring the differences and commonalities among the two groups will throw a critical perspective on the open data movement in India.

The proposed study aims to achieve the following goals:

  • Inducing collaborative efforts within data/information intermediary ecologies by identifying and highlighting the potentials within the existing network, as well as the specific needs for capacity development and resource sharing;
  • Enriching government data/information policy discussion in India by gathering evidence and grounded experience of (non-governmental) data/information intermediaries about their actual practices of accessing and using government data, and their utilisation of the provisions of NDSAP and RTI act; and
  • Critically reflecting on the nature of open data movement and policy-making in India.

We will soon share our reformulated study plan and survey questionnaire draft. So stay tuned.