One of the basic premises of Transparent Chennai’s work is that data and information is needed to improve urban governance in Chennai. The ODDC project is one project in which we look at the state of existing municipal data and identify ways to unlock its true potential. In the course of our research, we have observed several problems with the way government data is stored and shared with citizens. First, municipal datasets in India, especially those having to do with the poor and their access to basic services, are of poor quality or are completely missing. Second, municipal data is stored poorly, in unusable formats and often accessible to the public only through cumbersome Right to Information (RTI) requests. As a result, poor citizens are unable to participate either in planning processes or in the monitoring of service providers. Third, officials admit to being overwhelmed by RTI requests for government data. Last, agencies responsible for service provision find it time-consuming and politically difficult to get information from one another – even information that could help them to do their work better.
The role of a data intermediary is important, especially in contexts where governments are either unwilling or incapable of providing data that match open data standards, to improve citizens’ access to better and more data. Our research and experience illustrates this statement.
Access data from government and provide no-cost access to citizens
One of the most important aspects of our work is to obtain data from various government departments and agencies and share them with citizens. The Corporation of Chennai (CoC), the local government, is yet to disclose its data proactively but Transparent Chennai, and other organisations and individuals, has been able to access data through RTI requests. It has also been able to access government data through formal and informal requests to officials, often leveraging relationships it has established in the course of its research. Transparent Chennai makes much of the data available for download on its website, and also conducts several public events to disseminate this data and information to citizens. The aim of enabling access to data by citizens is to keep them informed of the functioning of the government, thereby reducing the barriers to their participation in policy and decision making.
Improve the quality of government data
The poor quality of government data limits its usefulness. Transparent Chennai has obtained data that do not have geospatial information, timelines, and administrative and sectoral boundaries, all of which have proved to be barriers to their use. Consequently, Transparent Chennai has collected different datasets with each of these aspects and processed them to improve their quality. For instance, it obtained lists of public toilets and mapped their physical locations. Its researchers also collected data on whether these toilets were functional according to some simple parameters: whether there was water, lights, doors and if they were clean. It then made interactive maps which overlay administrative boundaries with a layer of the location of public toilets and information on whether they are usable.
Invest in capacity to use data
Transparent Chennai also works with citizens and government officials to improve their capacity to use data. Recently, it worked closely with CoC officials planning for new public toilets to help them collect geospatial data and use it along with data on availability of land, and water and sewerage connections to identify feasible locations for the proposed toilets. Transparent Chennai created a mobile application that simplified the process of collecting data and used CartoDB, an open source tool, to visualise it. The data, maps and methodology were useful for the tender we helped write, and provided simple practical tools that the city’s de facto planners can use to improve project creation and implementation.
Often policy and decision makers do not have access to high quality data; often they do not have the time to digest the information. Correspondingly, citizens often do not have access to government data nor to avenues to participate in governance. As a data intermediary, Transparent Chennai adopts a range of strategies to meet these data needs and to create forums for data-driven interaction between different stakeholders.
Written by Satyarupa Shekhar, researcher, Transparent Chennai