The importance of ‘open data’ was discussed at a recent meet in the Capital

Even as Snowden awaits his fate at Sheremetyevo airport and Manning prepares himself for court martial, there is no dearth of people campaigning for free flow of information. Four such activists came together recently at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre for an interaction with academics, fellow activists and research organisations from India, Nepal, Indonesia, The Philippines and the U.K., on the emerging impact of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC).

Tim-Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web , was the first to come up with the term ‘open data’. It has since become a major issue concerning civil society, entrepreneurs, media and independent citizens. The availability of open data, it is believed, will transform governance and major policy decisions by incentivising community participation. So crucial is the issue that this year’s G8 Summit at Lough Erne even came up with an Open Data Charter that aims to ensure increased transparency about what the government and businesses are doing and how natural resources are being allocated.

Shedding light on this topic were Michael Gurstein from the Centre for Community Information Research, Development and Training, Vancouver; Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist and former Information Commissioner; Nisha Thompson from India Water Portal and Timothy Davies, Research Coordinator, Open Data Research Network, World Wide Web Foundation.

Being accessible, manipulable, machine readable and reusable are essential criteria that open data must fulfil. The movement was started by technologists and still very much rests with them, this being a major drawback as more than half of the world’s population does not have access to the Internet. It is evident by the fact that this movement is mostly clustered in North America and Europe, with few hubs in South America, Africa and South Asia, with none in the Middle East. In Africa, Kenya was the first to establish an open data hub and is showing tremendous results. “The people in Nairobi were very enthusiastic,” Davies said, “and wanted access to information that enabled them to be decision makers.” Researchers and activists want to take this concept to a new level and are even developing an Open Data Barometer.

Gandhi was of the belief that open data “enables people to see [information] from different perspectives. Usually, information is available only from the official perspective.” Open data, thus, wonderfully supplements the Right to Information Act, even going to the extent of making citizens of “individual cells of bureaucracy.” Gandhi termed the present democratic structure of India as a ‘defective-elective’ one, in that it is yet to learn to respect the individual citizen.

Stressing on the importance of open data, Thompson gave the example of Nirmal Bharat Campaign which aimed at providing a toilet facility to all the people of the country. The Government website claimed having achieved 70 per cent coverage, as against the figure of 30 per cent given by Census 2011. Such discrepancies occur quite often, rendering information futile.

To a question about sensitive data and withholding it for security purposes, Gandhi asserted that many such cases were “bogus”. Section 890 of the RTI Act, which allows the prevention of dissemination of information to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, was being misused, he said.

To another question from a participant on ensuring that data is available, Thompson said that it was really important for data to cross socio-economic boundaries. Bridging the digital divide is as important. “Intermediaries like radio and newspapers,” added Davies, “can prove to be extremely important in this regard.”

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