Harnessing Data for Public Good

By Sahil Deo & Sanjana Krishnan, CPC Analytics

Pune, India, Mar 05, 2018

Data is generated as a by-product of every activity we do. It always has and will continue to. The difference now is that we have the ability to capture and store a sizable chunk of it. What is even more revolutionary is that we now have the means to wrangle, process, calculate, aggregate, analyze, summarize and visualize it in ways previously unknown.

From the dawn of civilization to the year 2003, five Exabyte (5 * 10^18) of data were created. The same amount is now being created every two days! Big data allows us to see new, better and different.

Back in the 1800s, Maxwell and Boltzmann, both being physicists, added significantly to our understanding of Statistical Physics, discovering that the average behavior of large systems is wildly different from the individual particles, which have huge uncertainties at the micro level. While we are much more than the stardust that is governed by these laws, the whole is different from and bigger than the parts. While individual data points are rich in detail, we are moving beyond looking at data from a case by case or a cluster of cases, to a higher level of abstraction. When quadrillions of individual data points come together, it gives us surprisingly insightful trends and beautiful patterns. Our fascination and curiosity to see things at a macro level have enabled us to creatively apply big data to things we never imagined before.

Social scientists increasingly have access to data sets of unparalleled scope and complexity. Good data helps us build an understanding of social issues and developing appropriate solutions. A person in Delhi may update their status to complain about how sick they feel. Another might google home remedies for a rash. But what if it were just a handful today, 500 people tomorrow and 2000 the day after? What seems like a few standalone cases of a simple rash and flu might be early signs of an epidemic or a disease outbreak. Cities around the world, from Abidjan to Los Angeles, are experimenting with bulk, anonymized cell phone data to understand how, when and to where people travel, and the changes in commuting pattern with time, in order to plan their public transport network. More accurate than sample surveys and quicker than a census, big data is gaining the ability to tackle a myriad of issues around us- to reduce wastage of resources, prioritize action, prevent crime and accidents, understand climate change and outbreaks of severe weather, the movement of immigrants- and a lot more.

Just as data has allowed the citizens and the governments to collaboratively address issues, it is also changing the nature of citizen relation with the government. Consider the efforts in Kerala to publically track and present how much and where the local governments spend their money. Or the visualization we did for the Pune Municipal Corporation’s city budget to make it citizen friendly.

In the age where information is power and data is the new oil, a simple visualization can go a long way in bringing the citizens closer to the government. By better understanding the complexity of the immense volumes of data, citizens are empowered to raise more questions, find shortcomings, keep checks and be more involved. Open data is as necessary for efficient and effective governance as is free media for healthy democracy. Open data has the ability to make the functioning of the government more transparent. To truly devolve power to the citizen, decentralization of funds, functions and functionaries- along with that of figures and facts- would go a long way in enabling the citizens to ask, act and hold our governments and policymakers accountable.

Data by itself is just a collection of numbers. But when it interacts with society, is humanized by our understanding and is used to complement and supplement our qualitative knowledge, we are able to see more and see better, and come a little closer to understanding our society better. 



CPC Analytics is supporting the LOGIN Secretariat in developing a visual analytics dashboard.

CPC Analytics (www.cpc-analytics.com) is a data-driven policy analysis firm that combines technology with domain expertise in the field of public policy providing services across policy consulting, research, and training. CPC has offices in Berlin & Pune. Previous clients include the WHO, UNAIDS, GIZ, GOAL, Accountable Now, LOGIN Asia, SIDBI, Public Affairs Center, The Graduate Institute in Geneva, and the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building (ERCAS).

TAGS: Access to Information Accountability Citizen Engagement Civic Engagement Data Devolution Governance ICT for Development Information Knowledge Sharing Monitoring and Evaluation Open Data Social Accountability Transparency


 kasty |  Mar 15, 2018

Insigting into Big data as a civic engagement can lead to a superior governance system, This is a Heads-up in the direction !

 Rupesh R |  Mar 05, 2018

Very insightful, thanks for writing on this very pertinent topic!

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