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Research Notes from the Asian Regional Meeting of ODDC Network, New Delhi, 16-18 July 2013

In the study plan reformulation brief, we have already discussed why we decided to shift away from a sectoral focus (that on organisations engaging with issues of urban development) to a more wider perspective of data/information intermediary organisations. In the South and South-East Asian Regional Meeting of the ODDC network held in New Delhi, 16-18 July 2013, we had the opportunity to further discuss the various implications of and methodological challenges generated by this shift of focus. We are very grateful to our mentor Michael Gurstein, Tim Davies and fellow researchers associated with the ODDC network for their critical inputs and insights.

The following notes on our research plan taken from the discussions at the Regional Meeting is structured through a series of questions and answers to reflect the conversations that took place.

What is a 'data intermediary organisation'?

We identify a data intermediary organisation as one that shares data for access, consumption and re-usage (including re-sharing) of the shared data by other organisations and individuals. Three further clarifications are needed here:
• sharing of data by such organisations can either be done on a commercial or a non-commercial basis,
• shared data can either be sourced from an external creator and publisher of data (either government or private agencies), or be created by the data intermediary organisation itself, and
• the data intermediary organisation may or may not add (or reduce) value of the data before sharing it further, that is it may or may not modify the data received by them (by cleaning up, re-organising, re-formatting, aggregating, etc. ) before sharing it.

Can an organisation be categorised as purely a 'data intermediary organisation'? What if the organisation performs multiple data-related tasks, such as creation, sharing and usage?

Instead of categorising organisations that we will study as 'data creating and publishing organisation', 'data intermediary organisation' and so on, we will identify the functions performed by the organisation concerned. We will study various (but surely not all) organisations that mediate access to and use of government data in India. Many of these organisations are expected to perform multiple data-related functions such as creating data, directly using data to inform organisational activities, sharing the data with other organisations and citizens in general, training other organisations and individuals to use (collect, analyse, etc.) data, etc. Though our
primary objective is to study how these organisations undertake their 'data intermediation' function, what social and technical capabilities and decisions are involved, what challenges and opportunities they experience and so on, we will also briefly document the other functions performed by these organisations.

Then, how is a 'data intermediary organisation' identified in this study?

In the context of this study, we consider an organisation to be a 'data intermediary organisation' if the organisation considers (and its activities reveal) 'data intermediation' as its primary (or co-primary) function. Since a direct understanding of the primary function(s) of an organisation is often difficult to obtain, we plan to approach this problem through various questions (in our conversation with the organisation concerned) and triangulate towards the identification of its various functions. Along with asking the organisation about its different activities, (what it considers to be) achievements, and self-description of the functions it performs, we will specifically explore the 'theory of change' that (explicitly or implicitly) informs the activities of the organisation concerned.

Is a 'data intermediary organisation' same as an an 'intermediary organisation'?

No, the former is a subset of the latter. An 'intermediary organisation' is one that mediates activities between government and government-facing non-governmental organisations (or civil society organisations) on one hand, and the people-facing non-governmental organisations working with grass root organisations on the other. 'Data intermediary organisations' are those 'intermediary organisations' whose dominant or primary mode of mediation involves sharing of data (created by the government and/or non-government agencies).

Will the study only engage with Indian 'data intermediary organisations'? Will that be sufficient to understand and map the ecology of government data access and usage in India?

The study attempts to explore and map the organisations in India that perform 'data intermediation' as a primary or co-primary organisational function, and their interconnections with various other (government and non-government) organisations related to creation, sharing and use of data, as well as for creation of capacity (social, technical, legal, etc.) for data-related activities. We understand that given the lack of (hierarchical) depth of the (government and non-government) data access and usage ecology in India, often the same organisation (especially the smaller organisations) are compelled to undertake multiple data-related functions internally. In
this study, we will not limit our exploration only to organisations that purely function as 'data intermediaries' but will converse with a wider range of organisations that perform that task of mediating data, created by government and non-government agencies, and enable the usage of such data by other organisations.

How will the study identify 'data intermediary organisations' in India and their linkages with the larger ecology of (government and non-government) data access and usage?

We do not begin with a fixed pre-defined list of Indian 'data intermediary organisations'. Part of the study is to explore the (government and non-government) data access and usage ecology in India. As mentioned above, we will converse with a wide range of organisations, selected on the basis of our previous knowledge of their work involving data, created by government and non-government agencies. We will depend on both the 'snowballing' and the 'follow the data' methods to identify further organisations, either through direct suggestions from the first set of organisations we converse with, or by tracing the trajectories of data accessed and used by them. The latter method will also help us to map out parts of the (government and non-government) data access and usage ecology in India.

Will the chosen research method lead to specific biases (such as, towards technically sophisticated and larger organisations based in urban areas) in the map of the data access and usage ecology in India?

Given the scope of the study, both in terms of time and resources, we had a choice between either focussing on a particular sector and engage with organisations working at various layers in the (government and non-government) data access and usage ecology, or focussing on a particular stratum (or layer) of the same ecology, that is focussing on organisations that perform an approximately similar set of functions. While the former approach looks at a vertical slice of the ecology, the latter studies a horizontal slice of the same. As we were interested in studying the (potential) impact of the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy and the Right to Information Act upon the (government and non-government) data access and usage ecology in India, we decided to take the latter approach and focus on the stratum of 'data intermediary organisations'. These organisations are closest to the sources of data created and published by governmental and non-governmental organisations, and thus are first in the line to be affected in the government's policies and practices of giving access to (government) data. We are sincerely aware of the fact that this decision to focus on the 'data intermediary organisations' will create a distorted view of the data access and usage ecology of India, with potential biases towards technically sophisticated and larger organisations based in urban areas. However, we undertake this study not with the intention of producing a complete account of the ecology concerned, but to begin its exploration, with a specific interest in understanding the impact(s) of government's data and information policies upon this ecology. Further, we will openly share primary findings from our explorations, as much as possible, so as to be utilised in further studies of the ecology and for usage of the findings internally within the ecology.