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The bathwater and the baby

Data regulation must balance the need for privacy and gains from open data. The state must embrace its role as a data generator and disseminator.

To their credit, policymakers have realised the importance of providing data for promoting innovation and improving the delivery of services.

By Harsh Vardhan Pachisia

The government’s approach to data regulation needs an overhaul. Future legislation—including the Data Protection Bill—needs to account for not only concerns regarding data privacy but the benefits of open data too. The collection and sharing of data, with the necessary privacy protection protocols in place, holds immense societal and economic value—worth 172.30 billion euros across the EU27 in 2019. While these benefits have been universally acknowledged, efforts to improve open data in India have been stymied for two key reasons. First, officials are yet to see the value public data generates beyond reducing corruption and enhancing transparency. Second, there has been too much focus on privacy in policy debate, leading to a more cautious approach to data-sharing efforts. To overcome these, the state must institutionalise its role of generator and disseminator, and the policy debate must consider privacy alongside open data’s potential benefits.

One of the essential roadblocks to efforts to put out more data by the state has been how government officials approach the concept of ‘open data’. In a recent report on Open Government Data in India, for example, a common refrain cited while interviewing bureaucrats was that the government has already made the necessary data available. Officials routinely view data requested by citizens as burdensome and adding to their workload. It has become a compliance-driven task and is primarily viewed as a potential opportunity for officials to be scrutinised and penalised.

To ensure this change in mindset, the state has to embrace its role in the data pipeline as a data generator and disseminator. Institutionalising best practices in the dissemination of government data will be key to this shift. Such an effort would also require the redesign of open government data platforms in India. At present, most local-level information is aggregated to the state and national level. Instead, non-personal datasets containing information on the economy and specific sectors should be publicly available at granular levels. Communicating such data in machine-friendly formats in addition to applying privacy-protecting techniques is key to their ultimate usability. If such efforts are implemented, researchers and civil society at large can complement them by linking, studying and providing insights to improve service-delivery based on the data provided. Moreover, it can help encourage reuse of such datasets by start-ups and other companies, promoting innovation in the wider economy, as it has in Europe.

The second major hurdle to open data initiatives is the all-encompassing focus on privacy in the debate around policy. Privacy of our citizens should come first, but there are ways to pursue open data initiatives that promote innovation while minimising privacy-related risks. Protecting privacy should not be used as the sole reason for not putting out datasets, especially those in which no personal information is present. In essence, the benefits of collecting and sharing data are numerous, and privacy as a risk must be weighed correctly against the value of the state harnessing data for service delivery. While numerous studies show the poor in India do rightly place a value on privacy, our argument is that not enough of these studies actually measure this value against the benefits of the state harnessing data. There are only indicative studies, such as the State of Adhaar 2019. It reported that 72% of those surveyed cited use of Aadhaar as a convenience and 90% believed their data would not be misused. The privacy trade-off with welfare delivery is not a binary argument as there is also enough scope for the government to employ technology that adequately protects privacy as well as strengthen the overall checks and balances mechanism. Here, fast tracking the Data Protection Bill would be a major step in having the right safeguards in place.

To their credit, policymakers have realised the importance of providing data for promoting innovation and improving the delivery of services. The DataSmart Cities programme led by the ministry of housing and urban affairs has illustrated that building data capacity within ULBs can benefit governance via the publication and innovative use of data. Surat has benefited, having been able to deploy newly developed data skills in its response to COVID-19.

Going forward, the data policy community and the government need to take a fresh look at what government data can do for society. Open data initiatives must be encouraged within government, and officials in particular need to be assured that such efforts are not to enhance scrutiny over their work. Second, given valid concerns of privacy and surveillance, the government must fast-track data protection legislation. The civil society must engage constructively with the role data can play in improving outcomes for society and have pragmatic conversations about the balance between these and privacy.

The author is Senior associate, IDFC Institute

Co-authored with Sharmadha Srinivasan, senior associate, and Shaina Patel, associate, IDFC Institute

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