When Sam Pitroda, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations, opted for Twitter to outline his vision for a democratised information system, the response was naturally overwhelming. As all such interactions go, there were more questions posed than answered. That is understandable, given that a large, horizontal network on social media can produce a deluge of questions and opinion in real time. What makes the initiative significant is that it directly addressed those sections of the online community that can actively collaborate in advancing India’s digital initiatives. Arguably, the most significant challenge in this area is to quickly complete the task of building good information infrastructure leading to better service delivery. Another major task is to usefully deploy the National Knowledge Network, a gigabit-speed Information Technology backbone that is scheduled to connect all public universities and research laboratories by the end of 2012. It aims to link libraries, health and agricultural institutions too. Equally important is India’s Open Data project, which can potentially bring a large volume of government statistics to the public realm. With useful applications built around the data, the objective of ensuring the right to information will be greatly strengthened.
The ‘thumbs down’ sentiments expressed by some on the Twitter interaction should be viewed as a signal that such events must become more frequent, rather than less. It is also natural for Twitter users to expect sharp technical answers from a technology expert. As Mr. Pitroda himself notes, Twitter attracts those who are really interested, does not allow participants to ramble on, and demands that they focus on a point. That characteristic of targeting information can be effectively used to flag key messages. A few of these did come across during the chat, such as the suggestion that State governments show greater interest to leverage the capacity of the National Knowledge Network, which is now available up to the block level. That is the crux of the issue. Even with a strong infrastructure backbone, much will depend on the response of government departments. Would they be ready to give up their monopoly on general data, and enable a reengineering of processes to strengthen e-governance? A transformation would depend on whether they are open to new measures that eliminate fragmentation and duplication, increase transparency, modernise procedures and bring about greater accountability to the citizen. These are urgent tasks and they are vital to remove some of the bottlenecks that impede development.