Invasion of the info age Indiana


Invasion of the info age Indiana

Ishan Srivastava

They in­cess­antly talk about min­ing and scrap­ing and dig­ging out. An in­no­cent bystand­er might mis­take the dis­cus­sion to be con­nec­ted to geo­lo­gic­al activ­ity. But this is a crowd made up of people pas­sion­ate about only one thing data. Loads and loads of it. From geeks wear­ing t-shirts with Hacker writ­ten over them to so­cial sci­ent­ists and NGO act­iv­ists in kur­tas. From 14-year-old hack­ers to grey­haired poli­cy re­search­ers. They usu­ally meet over mail­ing lists, Google groups and video calls. But now the move­ment is get­ting more vis­ible with events in Gurgaon, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.

And if you sit through these dis­cus­sions, you will be sur­prised at whats thrown up. You will, for in­stance, find out that when it rains ground wa­ter level ac­tu­ally goes down in Orissa even as it goes up in Rajasthan (as ex­pec­ted). That stu­dents born in August and September, on an av­er­age, do bet­ter than oth­er stu­dents in 10th and 12th ex­ams in India, while those born in June score the lowest on av­er­age. It is the ex­cite­ment of find­ing such counter-intuitive facts that brings en­thu­si­asts to­geth­er. Some just work to­wards pro­cur­ing this in­form­a­tion while oth­ers work to de­rive mean­ing­ful trends from it. Earlier if you wanted to find such trends, you would have to go join a re­search firm and work with data provided by them. Today, avail­ab­il­ity of such in­form­a­tion has con­ver­ted every in­quis­it­ive per­son in­to a sci­ent­ist and every com­puter in­to a labor­at­ory, says S Anand, chief data sci­ent­ist at star­tup Gramener. com and a key per­son be­hind the move­ment. Official re­ports don’t al­ways ad­dress your ques­tions. Working with data al­lows you to ask ques­tions which mat­ter to you and find your own an­swers.

Some are also driv­en by gaps in in­form­a­tion that ex­ist in our so­ci­ety. Many large cit­ies in India, in­clud­ing met­ros like Chennai, dont even have an up­dated list of bus stops or bus routes. Some people in data meets em­bark on doc­u­ment­ing this in­form­a­tion and mak­ing it avail­able to the pub­lic in a us­able form for free.

It all star­ted in January last year when Anand was at Infosys along with his col­league and friend Thejesh G N. The duo dabbled in data ana­lys­is and visu­al­isa­tion tech­niques be­fore get­ting in touch with oth­er like-minded people. The in­ter­ac­tions star­ted with mail­ing lists and soon led to Skype ses­sions. A com­mon theme was where do we get more data. We were of the view that in India if we looked hard enough for data we would find it, he says.

Data is ob­tained through vari­ous means. It can be pub­lic­ally avail­able in­form­a­tion or in­form­a­tion ac­cessed by mak­ing use of the RTI Act. Other sources in­clude re­search from books and out­reach pro­grammes, i. e. col­lect­ing data from the field.

Beginning October last year, the group also star­ted hold­ing small meet­ings with about 10-20 par­ti­cipants at the first few ses­sions. Its first form­al event, the Open Data Camp (ODC), was held at Googles of­fice in Bangalore on March 24 this year. Around 250 re­gistered, of which about 150 at­ten­ded. Another one took place at Hyderabad on June 23 at the Indian School of Business cam­pus. The group has been grow­ing on­line, too, with 2-3 re­gis­tra­tions on its mail­ing list every day. The com­munity is ex­pand­ing mainly through word of mouth, says Nisha Thompson, pro­ject man­ager at India Water Portal and a key fig­ure be­hind the or­gan­isa­tion of data meets.

Data meets in vari­ous cit­ies are in­de­pend­ent of each oth­er, have dif­fer­ent or­gan­isers and have their own fo­cus, based on mem­bers in­terests and back­grounds. While people in­ter­ested in the tech as­pects dom­in­ate the Pune and Gurgaon ses­sions, people in Bangalore fo­cus more on find­ing sources of data and their ap­plic­a­tion. In Hyderabad, they fo­cus on cor­por­ate data while the Chennai crowd is pre­dom­in­antly drawn from the so­cial sec­tor. The com­mon thread that binds the com­munity, al­beit loosely, is shared in­terests without a lar­ger defined agenda.

In terms of fo­cus, August last year was a turn­ing point for most such groups. It was the first time they were ap­proached by NGOs who needed data as well as ana­lys­is on the in­form­a­tion they had. This was the per­fect col­lab­or­a­tion. It went from a geek for­um to geek plus NGO for­um, says Anand.

Soon, in­di­vidu­als with a strong back­ground in tech­no­logy and who ex­celled in tech­niques like scrap­ing (pulling data from web pages and oth­er forms of read­able formats like PDF) were joined by so­cial re­search­ers and act­iv­ists who saw this ex­er­cise as an ef­fect­ive tool to cre­ate more trans­par­ency and ac­count­ab­il­ity in gov­ernance. Transparent Chennai, a non-profit or­gan­isa­tion that takes up ped­es­tri­ans prob­lems, slum is­sues, ac­count­ab­il­ity of coun­cil­lors and pub­lic toi­lets, was one such or­gan­isa­tion. Data about the poor is simply not col­lec­ted and most of what is provided to us can just be a bundle of pa­pers, says Nithya Raman, founder of Transparent Chennai and also a speak­er at a re­cent data meet in Bangalore.

The NGO has been work­ing with data meets to cre­ate sets of data like meas­ur­ing ac­cess to wa­ter and map­ping out people liv­ing in re­cog­nised and un­re­cog­nised slums. More of­ten than not, the res­ult is an im­prove­ment upon ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment data, which is re­fined fur­ther to make it rel­ev­ant for more users. In case of slums, for in­stance, their data sug­gests that more people live in un­re­cog­nised slums, with no clear rights, than in the of­fi­cial data­base. We are also in­vit­ing mu­ni­cip­al cor­por­a­tion of­fi­cials to at­tend data meets from now on, says Raman. From re­search to ac­tion, this is how we are try­ing to close the loop.

However, it doesn’t mean that this is the only path that the data com­munity will take. We have de­lib­er­ately kept the com­munity loose. We dont want to set dir­ec­tions. Even if we try to, it wont work, says Anand. It is primar­ily a know­ledge shar­ing plat­form driv­en by people’s in­terests.

Along with lar­ger events, there are a num­ber of smal­ler events, too, which provide a plat­form for fo­cused dis­cus­sion as well as take in­ter­ested data novices in­to the fold. They may go by vari­ous names hack­a­thons, scrapa­thons, designjams, data­jams aimed at dif­fer­ent groups of people but the primary thing which brings them all to­geth­er is the un­re­lent­ing love for data.

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