“India is data-starved”, is a favourite remark of DataMeet organizer and our research partner Nisha Thompson. The UK has plenty of data, despite the fact that some of the open variety is about plankton levels in the Irish Sea in 2011. Therefore, it was all the more remarkable that the majority of the data issues that arose in our India workshop were similar to those we found in the UK. One of those issues was around the fact that our civic organisations in both the UK and India were dealing with people and this naturally emerged a lot of concerns about the intersection of personal and open data. The National Sample Survey of India actually makes data at person level available, but removes state and city information in order to anonymise it (and consequently renders it useless for anything but that which it purports to be, a sample survey of the whole nation.) Under these conditions, where individual privacy issues are paramount, creating a way to make a link without people but with locations through postcodes, mapping and GIS is vital.
In India, however, Survey of India, has control all over all maps, and what can be mapped. This monopoly allows the Indian government remarkable control over what maps universities, organizations and citizens have access to, and we heard stories of maps being released to town planners without topographical lines, rendering them disastrously useless. Despite the fact that Survey of India has clashed with Google in 2013 and 2014, our experience in Ahmedabad has shown us Googlemaps is still used vigorously and enthusiastically. Transparent Chennai has a great interactive map based on Googlemaps that brings together government open data, RTI (FOI) data and crowd-sourced data to show the locations, sizes and other pertinent attributes of all kinds of Chennai facilities and areas, among them schools, toilets and slums. (Given the penetration of smart phones in Indian cities, crowd-sourced data is not as difficult to acquire as it might at first appear.)
Allowing open map data is not only more or less giving in to the inevitable but will also greatly assist with public concerns over accountability and credibility. (Gigler, B.S., Tanner, B.and Kiess, J. . "Enhanced Social Accountability through Open Access to Data: Geomapping World Bank Projects." Development Outreach (2011). http://wbi.worldbank.org/wbi/Data/wbi/wbicms/files/drupal-acquia/wbi/gigler_tanner_kiess.pdf )
Although a level of healthy suspicion of government statistics exists in many societies, amongst our Indian workshop participants the stated attitude was that government data was often simply not to be trusted. This lack of credibility took several different forms. One was consistency - if two different departments were collecting data on the same thing, they were likely to have different results. A second was collection methods. Census data on water sources met with skepticism, based on an understanding that the primary job of census collectors was to enumerate the population, and that their enthusiasm for accurately recording water sources would be somewhat tempered. Yet another source of lack of credibility was the perceived lack of incentive for government to be accurate. One of our groups worked with slum dwellers and experienced challenges rehoming people who were being moved out of the slums. Apart from the fact that many slum dwellers were required to make a match payment of Rs. 60,000 (approximately £550) to be rehoused, this opportunity was not even offered to people moved out of slum areas that the government had not formally stipulated as such. Many of our participants believe that in deliberately not identifying slums, for instance on the census or maps, the government is saving money on match funding for rehoming and time on eviction notices.
Even on the Transparent Chennai maps, where the open slum data is over 10 years out of date, the evidence of crowd-sourced areas of slum clearances that don’t match the survey locations suggests either that an alarming new number of slums has arisen in the past decade or that these areas are that most contentious of areas, the unrecognized slum. If citizens and government can agree on these areas – and despite the Slum Free Cities initiative they certainly still exist today – this will be a step towards transparency and trust in India.