In our ongoing study on the quality of civic data in Chennai and the implications on the push for open data, the team has been speaking with Corporation of Chennai’s officers to understand data for three civic services: water and sewerage, public toilets and public health. The study will document what kinds of data are collected, how they are used for planning and policymaking and their accuracy with the aim to understand what the implications of the quality of data are on residents, particularly the urban poor.
Among the conversations I’ve had recently has been one with a senior officer at the Corporation of Chennai. While several issues highlighted were intuitive, there are others that were counter-intuitive. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
What data and information would you need?
Ideally, I would need all the data that is required to plan and monitor civic services well. This would include not just numbers and locations of infrastructure but also when they were built, renovated, by whom, for how much, etc. All of these should be linked to budget information so that one can see how funds are being used.
How do you think it should be collected, organised, stored and shared?
Unfortunately, the different departments are responsible for creating their own data. In the absence of a central database, the data is housed in those departments. They do not want to share it with each other.
What data and information exists in the CoC?
I have only recently taken up this position and I am yet to understand what data exists. As of now, it is data on demand – I get what I ask for or am told whether it is available or not.
What data and information could citizens create to fill the gap?
Citizens can create information that can be used to monitor the performance of the service provider, be it the government or a private contractor.
What role do you think CSOs can play in your area of work?
CSOs/ NGOs can help the government monitor service provision and suggest ways to improve them. They can also provide expert advice for generalists like me, who are needed to keep the overall objective in focus.
How do you currently monitor performance?
Currently, the government monitors itself. The JEs and other zone staff cannot be expected to provide unbiased opinions of the quality of the service that they themselves are responsible for. The CoC’s public grievance redressal system is static and only collects the total number of complaints at an aggregate level. There is no way to evaluate on a more granular level, nor is there a way to do qualitative analysis of these complaints. For instance, how much time does it take to address complaints, does it have to be escalated to higher authorities, etc.
How can grievance redressal be made public?
We need to have a third party to monitor CoC services. A group of citizens and NGOs can be made responsible for monitoring service providers and their sign off would be needed to process payments.
What research support do you think you would need from outside the CoC?
I need expert opinions on different issue areas in order to make a balanced and informed decision. How can we plan better? How can infrastructure be maintained? How can new infrastructure be financed, what revenue models are appropriate? This expertise cannot be available at a single source and what I need to do is to bring them together to ensure that the Corporation can deliver and monitor better.
RTI versus Open data, Open data and privacy tensions
There is a huge cost to processing RTI requests which can easily be avoided. Data that is authorised for release under RTI should be disclosed proactively, with the exception of those that have implications on the privacy of individuals. Much of the data can be carefully anonymised so that it can be shared and re-used.
Besides, this is public information that should ideally be in the public domain. There should ideally be a central place where all the data is housed and made available to all departments. Any officer should be able to ask for reports that use data from different departments as the issue demands.
Written by Satyarupa Shekhar, researcher, Transparent Chennai