Technology and Open Data in India

Recently I had the great honor to join a number of other distinguished Civic Hall members in meeting with a delegation of five digital infrastructure professionals visiting from India as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. The title of the study tour is “Showcasing the American Technological Experience.” The group included a policy analyst, a working research scientist using technology to study ecosystems, a serial entrepreneur helping build an infrastructure to support technology startups in India, a civic innovation advocate, and a civil servant in the Indian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

Almost from the beginning, they were interested in the idea of how government responds to the disruption caused by technology companies like Airbnb and Uber, something that had come up frequently in their talks with other groups around the country but had no clear resolution. As the group of us made clear, it’s not a settled issue here either

What followed was a productive discussion on how nuanced this discussion becomes, particularly in less economically developed parts of the world. According to the group, having Uber come into India has brought a number of taxi drivers, who would otherwise labor in the informal economy, into the formal economy. Uber provides them with bank accounts, guarantees loans, and helps them access a number of other services they would otherwise go without. They also earn on average 3 times what a non-Uber taxi driver earns.

This obviously is beneficial to both the government and the society at large. As was pointed out, the march of technology is unstoppable and these disruptions will occur. It is incumbent on government to manage these disruptions and shape the outcome in the best possible outcome for citizens. As Mark Headd points out in a recent post in the Civicist, government needs to adapt itself to the new technology environment of APIs and web services. I often get questions in my data analytics classes with NYC employees that show how city employees are struggling to understand open data and open source technology in the new world Uber and other technology companies have created. It’s hard to regulate what you don’t fully understand, which is one reason government needs to stay on top of changes in technology. It’s not just to meet their own technology needs but to fulfill their role as guardians of the public interest. 

The Indian Government, through it’s new multipurpose national identity card has taken seriously the challenge of collecting and storing sensitive personal biometric information as part of the program. This was an instance of “technology answering the problems of technology” with security and tracking technology to secure the information and prevent unauthorized access. Like its neighbor Pakistan, India is also exploring how to use technology to meet the critical needs of its population in the areas of poverty reduction, healthcare, anti-corruption, and other basic necessities.

While in the US we may talk about using open data to provide greater transparency to our fundamental democratic practices, such as elections, in other parts of the world, this isn’t just an exercise to increase convenience, but to build trust and confidence in the institutions of government where little has existed before, as well as provide basic services that may otherwise go unmet. I came away impressed with the work being done in India to use technology in more and better ways to improve the lives of citizens. I hope to educate myself about these efforts and include case studies in my classes. I hope this helps bridge the economic, social, and cultural divide to bring valuable lessons in what works to those on the front lines of meeting the challenges of governing in the 21st century.


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