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We are trying to make a case for open data

We are trying to make a case for open data

India is currently operating in an environment where calls on infrastructure are being taken without all the relevant metrics in place, says Poornima Dore, Senior Manager, Programs on Data Driven Governance, Tata Trusts.

How did the association with WCCD and Tata Trusts happen?
I think you are familiar with the work that Tata Trusts does and as you said, development and development issues are a priority. In the last few years, the efforts have been to look at what are those path-breaking innovative ways in which system strengthening can also happen. One is to support projects on the ground, which give you immediate benefits in terms of improvement of the lives of people. The other is what kind of systematic changes can happen in partnership with the government for the processes which are meant to work in a particular way, and how can that be strengthened. As part of data driven governance, this is something which the Trust has started focusing on, to see how data and technology can be used by the government departments and by the decision makers.

What WCCD does, they have developed a set of ISO standards for cities and the data capabilities of cities. So when we got to know about them, that they have already developed a set of indicators and they were also interested in seeing what can be done with Indian cities, we started this conversation on getting interested in standardised data for city planning and design. Last December, we had an initial round of discussions with some of the think-tanks in India, with some of the policymakers. We started talking in December 2015 and it’s been a year since we have been working on this. We decided to do a pilot. (We decided to) identify a few cities which have data capabilities, and we thought of bringing in WCCD, which already has the set of defined standards. We are now not spending time trying to define what should be reported. There is a set of globally benchmarked data points. That’s how the partnership started and then we decided that we will look at a set of a few cities in India which will have those data capabilities…

So do these cities fit the paradigm of sustainable Smart Cities?
We have utilised the last several months to identify which cities will have the data, zeroing in on three cities, entering into a partnership agreement with those cities, getting the municipal commissioners and the administration to buy into this process, getting them to share the data which fits into these indicators, and the audit and verification process which has happened. That entire process has got completed, and we are now at a stage where the announcement for the certification of the three cities has happened.

Were there any pain areas that you needed to get these cities to overcome as far as ISO compliance levels are concerned?
The good thing about the ISO indicators is that they have done a lot of work to identify what could be the common minimum parameters which cities can report on, which could be the percentage of slum population in the city, or percentage of publicly available open spaces. These are data sets of the kind which ideally a city should be able to report on.

We roped in PwC as our knowledge partner. PwC had done some interesting work on cities in India and was the first to do a recce of Indian cities. We looked at what data cities have reported on, which cities are interested in having this conversation about data and technology and we reached out to an initial set of 10 cities and then further fine-tuned that list to three cities who we felt were ready for the next stage.

Which were the 10 cities with whom you had done the interactions before?
We did it with all the metros; we did it with some of the other cities. For example, we did reach out to Bengaluru, Chennai, Jaipur and Udaipur.

The three that were shortlisted, met those stringent ISO certification conditions whereas the others are en-route. Am I correct?
Let me clarify that. What we did is we did our own internal recce of which cities are likely to have data based on what they have put out in the public domain. Then we reached out to their municipal commissioners. There were some who immediately said that yes, we want to do this, and there were some who may have been busy, or who did not respond, or might have been through such standardisation processes before. We went by who was responsive and willing.

So it wouldn’t be fair to say that these are the only 3 of 10 cities…
We did our external recce, we reached out to the cities and then some of the municipal commissioners or their heads showed a lot of interest in getting into this process. Then we decided that as a pilot it makes sense to go with them, let’s us see if this works.

I am sure there must have been other cities that may have learnt about it and probably started enquiring…
So many cities and municipal commissioners are reaching out to us and are interested in doing it because the trick of this is that there is a good pilot that works and you can see that it can happen, then many people want to do it.

The BMC had taken some steps so that the World Bank realises that we are doing something on the ease of doing business front…
It is exactly like that… I think we are seeing a lot of interest from cities now; there are many more cities in India that will probably be able to have that kind of information, because this process has also really made us feel very confident that cities do have that kind of data.

Everybody is wondering how the money is going to come for all these infrastructure projects. Banks are being very clear that they have a lot of sticky funds.
I think the ability of cities to be able to build that infrastructure, and service providers to be able to earn revenue from those investments, is critical. In a lot of cases, investments have happened, but they have not seen the throughput coming the way they have planned. Or it has happened that approvals have taken a lot of time which is why many players have also felt a little disinterested or disenchanted after waiting for some time for all the approvals to come through.

I think it is a mix of financing being available, and our system moving much faster. Data and technology can be used to even track how much money has come in and where it has been used. Power is a sector which you look at, the number of outages, the kind of transmission distribution layout, etc. So I think data can make a good case for identifying the gaps and creating a case for investment. Creating that confidence in the investor is very critical for fundraising.

On the fundamental question of profits, toll projects like DND have had issues of contractual violations. The courts have yanked their revenue streams on the premise that they have already made reasonable profits. Can you cap profits?
I honestly find it very difficult to respond to this particular case or this particular question because there is a trade-off sometimes between growth and equity. Sometimes policymakers as well as the administration have to take a realistic call about whether it is going to be growth at any cost, or if we need to balance the needs of different stakeholders. I think we need to be very realistic about these trade-offs, and I also think we should build it into other contracting processes which is where all these factors come into play at the time of the design and the award of the contract.

Like you said, these contracts have to be done in a very clear and transparent manner…
That is the ideal case. But as a country – and that is true even in the international context – there are issues of environment versus growth which have delicate balances.

Essentially infrastructure projects are also based on other estimations…
Which is why we feel that having data (is important). For a proper infrastructure estimation to happen, you need to have real time data. An infrastructure player will be able to make a much more realistic estimate of what profits they will get, the government will also be able to take a call on how far they want this project to go. We are today operating in an environment where we are taking those calls without all the metrics in place. We still have some distance to go, but I think as a country, we have to make this effort as scientific as possible. When we use projections to arrive at these things then, those projections would be at least close to where you may be able to go.

But currently, the government has its own estimates. Private sector players say the government estimates are going to be way off the mark.
You have rightly hit the nail on the head of the problem. Different entities are using different data points to draw their estimates, which is why they are at times in conflict with each other because of the outcome that is coming. Power companies and distribution companies will have their own data on power, the power corporation will have its own data, the department will have some data, the municipal commissioner or the guy who is taking the decision on the bids may not have all the data. We are trying to make a case for open data, all data coming onto one common platform so that the decision makers have the information together at one place. Tomorrow if that data can be available to the citizens, to the private sector players, to the government, it will address the economic problem of information asymmetry.

I am completely cognizant of the fact that this is a futuristic situation. But I think it has something which all of us who are trying to put systems in place need to work towards. We need to have very clear standards so that all players put their information together.

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