Today we carried out Workshop 1, identifying organisations’ problems and information that might help resolve them, with a group in Ahmedabad. Our participants came from groups addressing homelessness and housing issues and work with slum dwellers, homeless migrants and the deprived in organizational, advocacy and support ways. Our participants were very data-literate and data-conscious, perhaps even more so than our UK ones, and that brought its own challenges for our methodology, as they were already thinking about what information they might need before we’d specified the problem. This raises the question, so what’s so important about considering the problem if you already know what information you need? Firstly, there are considerations of methodological consistency – if this is to be used with multiple groups it has to be as thorough as possible, even if some groups can create ‘short cuts’. But secondly, and especially while only a small percentage of data is available, it’s important to go back to the problem in order to widen the potential pool of information that one might be able to use to solve it. Again, this brings us to the ‘reverse-hackathon’ basis of the methodology – in a hackathon the problems that can be solved are constrained by the data, but this is not possible in the user-led methodology, and therefore it’s vital to be really clear on the specifics of the problems.
Focusing on the problems rather than the data, the commonalities our two groups in the UK and India shared surprised me more than in the ways they differed. Both, for instance, faced challenges trying to identify which benefits people were entitled to, and ensuring they received them. Both in the UK and India benefits are associated with a particular address for a recipient and changing address often means they stop. I personally fell foul of this when I moved house with a young baby and failed to inform the appropriate government department, who promptly stopped my Child Benefit. I was simply busy with other things and unaware this would happen; I was able to resume my benefits relatively quickly once I noticed it hadn’t been paid. Imagine how many times worse the situation is for someone who has been evicted, has mental or physical illness, has alcoholism, is illiterate, is forced to travel to seek work or simply doesn’t know why their benefits have stopped or how to resolve the problem. It’s not hard to see that this would be a genuine problem for society in many more countries. Opening this kind of personal information is always a tricky area, but the DCLG is piloting an interesting scheme for simplying supplying ‘yes/no’ answers to specific benefit and service queries. http://www.localdirect.gov.uk/product-incubator/local-central-attribute-...
Even in a perfect world, the sheer size of the task of gathering, organizing and releasing data in India is always going to be somewhat awe-inspiring. Not only is it many times larger than the UK geographically and population-wise, it is also federated, with different laws, regulations and regimes pertaining across the 29 states.
Compared to the UK, which is ranked number 1 on the Open Data Barometer (http://opendatabarometer.org) India is ranked number 39. It has a Right to Information policy, so freedom of information requests can be made, and a nascent National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (http://www.dst.gov.in/nsdi.html) but overall the open data agenda is not very advanced. After our challenging experience of searching for data in the UK, I’m incredibly nervous about what we might be able to find in India. However, our local researcher Nisha Thompson is finding some great examples of data that has been requested, combined with proprietary and crowd-sourced information and made open by other groups, such as Transparent Chennai, so perhaps we will have something to work with in the second workshop after all.