When Worlds Collide #99: South Asia: In Search of Open Data

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 7 March 2014


“When you’re trying to reach a goal, data not only tells you if you’re succeeding, but it also suggests which activities you should do more of in order to improve your results,” says Bill Gates.

He should know. As one of the world’s top computer geeks, he built up Microsoft and has now turned his data crunching and analytical skills to supporting social development – especially public health and agriculture.

“Ultimately, the better the data available in the development field, the higher the quality of people’s lives in poor countries,” he wrote in a recent op-ed essay for an Asian Development Bank publication.

Calls for a development sector “data revolution” have been made by the United Nations and others in recent months. But what does it mean in practice?

Bill Gates, image courtesy Wikipedia

Bill Gates, image courtesy Wikipedia

As Gates suggests: “Now that there’s excitement about the idea, the next step is a conversation about specifics that can lead to a concrete strategy for improving the way we collect and use data for global development.”

Such a conversation took place among participants at the South Asia Convention on Coastal Management, held in Pondicherry, India, on 19 – 21 January 2014. I was among 70 senior government officials, researchers, civil society activists and journalists from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

We noted how ever increasing volumes of data are being collected by public agencies. Yet, many independent researchers and advocacy groups struggle to get hold of this information.

South Asian countries clearly need more inclusive policies and practices for public sharing of scientific data. Public data custodians must place all scientific information and maps in the public domain – ideally in digital formats.

Right now, many such data resources are trapped within state agencies or research institutes across South Asia with unclear or no sharing policies. There are quality issues, too, of data not having been generated or stored under a standardised format. Often users face problems of inter-operability and comparability.

Current difficulties are illustrated by coastal data in India, which accounts for more than half of South Asia’s combined coastline of 11,240 km.

Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain

“Coastal resources and activity data has been mapped by various governmental agencies and private parties on different scales using different methodologies. They are simply not comparable,” noted Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that convened the Pondicherry meeting.

Narain, who recently served on a high level Indian government committee on coastal matters, insists that all technical reports and maps produced by public agencies with taxpayer funds need to be in the public domain.

One major constraint that participants highlighted is the lack of maps in fine resolution necessary for decision making, resource management and environmental monitoring.

Technical and procedural bottlenecks impede public data access and sharing in other South Asian countries too. These stand in the way of knowledge based advocacy and participatory resource management.

In case of the region’s overcrowded coasts, such gaps hinder countries from adopting integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), a scientific methodology to balance competing demands. Ibrahim Naeem, Director of the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in the Maldives, says only such an approach can reconcile the many pressures faced by South Asia’s maritime countries.

tropical cyclone activity report in Indian Ocean, 12 Oct 2012

tropical cyclone activity report in Indian Ocean, 12 Oct 2012

Turning to Google

Failing to find adequate national geospatial data, some South Asians are turning to globally available resources like Google Earth’s vast collection of free access satellite imagery.

An inspiring example is how the Pondicherry-based citizen group PondyCAN conducted a ‘virtual survey’ in 2009-2011 to assess coastal development activities along the entire Indian coast. Using Google Earth and volunteer assistance, they counted coastal structures, ports, power plants, human settlements and other commercial or conservation activities in the littoral zone and within 500 metres landward of India’s long shoreline.

Citizens map of Indian coastline, prepared for the 2012 report- The Challenged Coast of India

Citizens map of Indian coastline, prepared for the 2012 report- The Challenged Coast of India

This survey fed a key citizens’ report titled The Challenged Coast of India published in 2012. A collaboration involving PondyCAN, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the report stressed the need for timely, accessible and digitised coastal information on a national scale.

The compilers see this report as the first step in sharing coastal data for participatory resource management and transparent governance.

“We need to democratise maps everywhere in South Asia. For too long, maps have been produced and distributed by a few and among a few,” says Sudarshan Rodriguez, a programme manager at TISS, and one of its authors.

Meanwhile, some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data only in hard copy form. Example: India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010, conducted by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. Its results — running into thousands of pages of data tables – were only released on paper. This prompted a fisher collective to create spreadsheet databases, re-doing the data entry on their own to make it user-friendly.

Some countries have a better track record in sharing geospatial data. Bangladesh has placed most coastal zone maps in this deltaic nation in the public domain. Researchers can use historical data to study coastal dynamics over time.

Public data must be affordable as well. In Sri Lanka, for example, historical weather data going back decades is available to researchers from the Department of Meteorology. But the high user fee takes it beyond the reach of many.

Breaching barriers

The good news: bureaucratic barriers blocking the free flow of data are being breached, slowly but surely.

Open DataIn 2012, India’s Department of Science and Technology issued the National Policy on Data Sharing and Accessibility (NPDSA) to “increase the accessibility and easier sharing of non-sensitive data amongst the registered users and their availability for scientific, economic and social developmental purposes”.

Under this policy, the government of India requires all governmental agencies — including public universities – to share data generated using public funds with the public in specified digital formats.

Some barriers are harder to overcome. One activist at Pondicherry meeting pointed out how most maps and other scientific data are only available in English. Even when these are placed in the public domain, many local communities cannot understand or use them.

Thus, in a highly multicultural region like South Asia, the very definition of ‘public domain’ needs rethinking.

The proliferation of digital tools and growth of web-based data storage (the cloud) brings the technology within reach of many. But South Asian societies still need to tackle institutional and cultural factors before democratised and digital data can really transform governance and development.

[Note: A version of this column was published by SciDev.Net on 24 Feb 2014.]

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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