Using data for better governance


Think about how India gets its census numbers, the only source of primary data from villages, towns and wards and the first picture that comes to mind is men and women knocking at your doors, asking for information and painstakingly filling in the data by hand.

The data governance team at Tata Trusts, headed by chairman Ratan Tata, has found a better way to conduct such surveys and derive deeper insights for the state governments it works with. Over the last one year, it has trained over 3,000 volunteers in using tablets to collect data, conduct rural appraisal processes and make village development plans.

These volunteers participate in group discussions, facilitated by Tata Trusts, to understand data-driven governance and its role in creating Adarsh Grams or model villages.

The idea is to create an open data platform to help promote data-driven governance, and this approach is “a key step in achieving the goal of Digital India”, according to Sanjiv Phansalkar, program director, Tata Trusts.

The plan appears to be bearing fruit. Tata Trusts has already concluded village development plans for 264 gram panchayats and handed them over to the administration in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. It has also achieved “tangible progress” in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra; West Singhbhum in Jharkhand; and Balasore in Odisha, according to Poornima Dore, senior manager (programmes) at Tata Trusts.

Tata Trusts uses Gram Panchayat-level dashboards that use data triangulation—so that the information is cross-verified from multiple sources before it is analysed for decision making—and pull in information from across diverse departments under the digital governance agenda of the state it is working with.

Dashboards to track demographics, economics, administrative indicators, infrastructure, education and health-related indicators are in the process of being finalised, according to each department’s specific requirements. “We would have completed this process across the board for around 1,248 villages and would have collected data points for about 17 lakh households by now,” Dore pointed out.

Tata Trusts is implementing this programme with the help of a couple of technology partners.

Swaniti Initiative, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and a technology partner of Tata Trusts, uses proprietary Massive Organized Volunteer Exercise Data (MOVED) and Data Generating Research and Administrative Mechanism (DATAGRAM) tools to sync, search and maintain data. Live field data is synced dynamically to a database that resides on the cloud. Field users upload thousands of new surveys onto the database and can also edit and update old surveys online. In each instance, the username, survey details and the collected data is recorded and synced. Further, the system also allows field users to collect data on their tablets even if there is no network connection.

The data is used to generate a number of reporting tools via web apps for several use cases. For example, village-by-village reporting tools allow a village development plan to be drawn out of the data aggregated from the server. Similarly, Panchayat and block-level data can be aggregated and used to develop detailed plans for the region.

Digitizing data “is one step closer to enable us to minimize data duplication and redundancy for better decision-making”, according to Rwitwika Bhattacharya, CEO of Swaniti Initiative.

SocialCops, also a Tata Trusts’ technology partner, provides three products built atop its proprietary SocialCops Collect mobile application and SocialCops insights platform.

The SocialCops Collect mobile application creates a survey on a mobile app that allows organizations to collect quality data from remote areas with the help of low-cost Android phones. The web dashboard allows creation of exhaustive questions besides viewing and editing of these questions on the fly. The advantage of the app is that it can collect data offline, track the time and validate and capture information in multiple formats such as text, photos, audio and video.

The SocialCops insights platform has an integrated collect and search option so that the data collected can be easily searched across large datasets. The search platform allows for any type of query, has powerful indexing, easy data filtering, a one-click export option and provides analytics on-the-go, i.e. visualisations.

According to Prukalpa Sankar, co-founder of SocialCops, visualisation allows analysis and leveraging the data in a user-friendly and interactive way, converting raw data into meaningful stories. The platform allows making maps of any kind and lets multi-dimensional mapping i.e., bubble map to represent multiple data layers on one map.

Data-driven governance is being touted globally as a new approach to governance, one where data is used to drive policy decisions, set goals, measure performance, and increase government transparency.

Consider the case of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) which is New York City’s civic intelligence centre, which aggregates and analyses data from across city agencies, to more effectively address crime, public safety, and quality of life issues. MODA has access to data-savvy agencies such as the Center for Economic Opportunity that uses metrics to strengthen the city’s anti-poverty initiatives and NYC Open Data that makes data from various city agencies available to the public.

On its part, Tata Trusts which is currently focused on creating platforms for village-level and household profiles, may even consider using data analytics to build predictive models for different scenarios that can help state governments allocate resources efficiently in the future, Dore said.

The idea is that if you have data on, say, Chandrapur which reveals that access to sanitation there is poor, authorities there could use the insights to discuss how the Swachh Bharat funds could be appropriately used in those villages.

Tata Trusts, Dore added, has also been working closely with the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) under the Ministry of Rural Development to create the “saanjhi” portal.

The portal will allow visualisation of village development plans and help track and update key indicators of the region. A beta version of the portal is ready and it will be launched soon, once the ministry gives the go-ahead.