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November 01, 2021

Civil society should complement, not become a substitute for the state’s lack of data capacity

covid19india.org, a volunteer-driven data portal, ceased operations at the end of October 2021. The impact of the initiative that filled the vacuum left by the Indian state should not be understated. With over 1060 mentions on Google Scholar, the platform has become the de-facto authority on Indian COVID-19 statistics during the pandemic. The need for such a portal highlights a structural issue within the pipeline of dissemination and use of government data in India. The eventual shutdown of the portal has also showcased the unsuitability of civil society to serve as a substitute for missing capacity within the state to communicate information quickly. Nor should it be asked to again. As a lesson from this pandemic, efforts need to be undertaken by the government to strengthen its primary role in the data pipeline— proper and timely distribution of data. 


During COVID-19, governments globally used statistics on caseload to communicate the gravity of the situation and support citizens with the information they needed to protect themselves and their livelihoods. Public health experts espoused the importance of data-driven evidence in combating potentially deadly misinformation and ignorance. However, the Indian state was not able to keep up. When successive waves of the pandemic hit its public health infrastructure with grave consequences, public authorities poorly communicated life-saving information like hospital beds, oxygen and medicine availability. Such data needs to be provided by the organisation that collects them. Doing so avoids miscommunication. Apart from addressing concerns of primacy and authenticity, this prevents duplication of efforts by those who try to fill the vacuum left by the government, without the full context only it can see. Reliable data for even basic metrics such as tests and cases were difficult to find in early 2020.

 

Source: The Hindu (26 June 2020) 

 

covid19India.org helped fill this vacuum left by the state. An army of volunteers toiled to ensure real-time access to granular data on variables such as testing, vaccination, cases at the district level. The significance of the portal to research, debunking misinformation and policy measures were evident with every news publication in India and abroad using the platform to get reliable, updated COVID-19 data. 


On a smaller scale, at IDFC Institute, we made an effort to improve the availability of usable data for the megacity of Mumbai, home to over 20 million residents. By compiling information released by the city municipal corporation, we created a public-facing database that tracks the nearly two-year journey with COVID-19. The database tracks daily metrics like testing and contact tracing, quarantine and containment measures, mortality trends, occupancy in hospitals, and vaccination. 

 


Developing this database was no cakewalk. First, the municipal corporation seemed to have made an internal decision not to maintain an archive with a historical record of all reports released. Second, while PDFs (the format of these reports) are a popular solution for sharing information on the web, extracting information from such documents is a time-intensive effort. The process became more challenging when the report format briefly changed, into a series of images rather than PDFs, which increased the difficulty of extracting information. Ultimately, the very need for building this database would have been removed if the government had disseminated information as spreadsheets and kept them on the portal for public access. 


While it has been a commendable effort by Mumbai's municipal officials to provide such a detailed daily report on the COVID-19 situation, the issues we faced highlighted the inability of the state to disseminate critical information correctly. The lack of attention to the proper dissemination of data collected has to change. The state needs to embrace its role in the data pipeline as a data generator and disseminator. To its credit, glimpses of this culture shift are already visible in many levels of government. Initiatives by Urban Local Bodies to create analytics teams and nominate City Data Officers as part of the Smart Cities Mission are encouraging. Moreover, the data-driven approach in the Integrated Command and Control Centres to tackle COVID-19 in cities is promising. 


As a lesson from the pandemic, state governments need to formulate and institutionalise long-term data policies. These policies must cover the collection, analysis, and dissemination of government information. At the same time, these policies need to ensure they are consistent with data governance architectures like the Personal Data Protection Bill that may change the landscape of the Indian data economy. 


The world will be feeling the effects of COVID-19 for a long time. The data of this trying period of human history will be utilised by researchers for decades to come, if not longer. In the future, improving the government's ability to disseminate data will be critical. Doing so can yield society many benefits, including readying the country for the next pandemic, and sidestep the structural issue of civil society acting as an unsustainable substitute for the government.

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