Open Data. India. What?
If you asked me a week back, I’d say those two words don’t fit in the same sentence. I realize I was terribly mistaken. Its hard to talk about data and the likes with people in design school. For someone who’s been dabbling with data and trying to make sense of stuff that goes on in this country, it’s quite surprising that I did not even know that such a community of open data enthusiasts existed. The Open Data Camp happened, and I was pleasantly amazed to see a gathering of about 120-130 people at the venue. I even met a couple of classmates from JIIT. Although, it would appear as if nobody in India is keen on working with available data, or making data available, the truth is that there is an extremely enthusiastic community of hackers, social scientists, policy researchers and a few designers among others, pushing for the same–so that questions can be raised, patterns identified and socio-political phenomenon understood.
The two day camp laid the foundation for dialog between the open data community and the Government who have recently set up a national data portal, by the looks of which is a potential goldmine for data enthusiasts. The positive aspect being that the National Data Sharing & Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) Ecosystem takes into consideration citizens, civil society and data evangelists. The datasets are steadily pouring in on the website, and the hope is there will be an abundance of good quality data soon enough.
It was quite encouraging to see that a lot of discussion was centered around public interest issues and the ways in which open data can be used to shape civil society. As a designer/visualizer, I’ve mostly been concerned with what happens after one has the data in place. The camp provided an insight into the process of data collection and cleaning, to make it usable. Mostly comprised of techies and hackers, the community has been doing some amazing work. That being said, not a lot of emphasis has been laid on making the visualizations understandable or user-friendly. They provide insight, but you need to look hard. Work on visualizing elections by S. Anand was fantastic. A lot of it is direct representation of hard numbers but the analysis and insights were very interesting. I actually felt quite stupid raising a question about the usage of form and colour in a particular visualization that depicted state election results from 2004. Clarity of representation and re-usability is the next step that needs to be taken.
If data is going to be open, then what we do with that data needs to be understood by the general public as well. Not everyone understands or responds to numbers and representation of facts. Stories need to be weaved from the data, that can then be told and understood and re-told. Two talks focussed on this–encouraged data enthusiasts to start crafting narratives out of data, one from a business management background and the other from a designer. Although both the talks seemed like they were quite out of place and the response wasn’t that great, it feels good to see the community realizing the need to make data usable to the general public. Its one thing to be able to write python scripts and another to make the output understandable and useful. But then again, I guess that’s our job. Its something we, as information designers should contribute to.
An interesting discussion on the controversial UIDAI, brought up some thought provoking insights.
There is nothing like inaccurate data. If you can’t manage it, you don’t want to count it.
Privacy Protection needs to be inversely proportional to Power.
All in all, the experience was pretty amazing. It was great to have plain rice and sabzi (served at the venue in contrast with the fancy design festivals) with a bunch of like minded people, striving to do some good. I personally feel its time for some reflection. If the gates are going to open, we need to be able to take the load and hopefully harness it. Set a platform to enable citizens to ask more questions, perhaps.