Make public sector data accessible

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By Kamesh Shekar

The draft Data Access and Use Policy recognizes the value of data collected by government agencies and makes it accessible to the larger ecosystem for economic and social benefits. This will also help start-ups, the research community and companies unlock the value of data. While there are some key elements of the policy that allow access to public sector data, some of the provisions, if expanded, could be used to unlock the maximum potential and purpose of the policy.

The policy proposes to monetize detailed datasets that have undergone value creation or transformation, while leaving the minimally processed datasets accessible for free. The directive also proposes to incentivize data sharing by establishing a licensing framework and enabling pricing using novel monetization models. To realize the true value of the data, pricing models must be context specific, rather than having a fixed price for all datasets. It is important to understand that datasets cannot be priced uniformly and the value of a given dataset will vary depending on the context in which it is used. For example, health data from healthcare providers may be evaluated differently by the government, public health research institutes, and pharmaceutical companies.

The policy provides for the establishment of an Indian Data Council, composed of the Indian Data Commissioner and the Chief Data Commissioners from the central and various state governments. The Council is then tasked with defining quality datasets, facilitating sharing, and acting as an institutional body that encourages data sharing and creates policies. While this is a welcome step, there are two key elements to note here.

First, there are various sectoral regulators and future DPAs (once a new data protection law is introduced and passed) to govern and regulate data in India. As the India Data Council will establish guidelines for data sharing, this could conflict with the jurisprudence of the other existing and future regulators. Therefore, the India Data Council needs to find ways to coordinate with other relevant regulators to ensure consistent implementation. Second, policy must ensure that the India Data Council is financially sustainable and has sufficient capacity to fulfill its mandate by including technical and legal experts as part of the council.

While consolidating databases and giving government access to easily find, share and use data is a welcome step, the Data Sharing Toolkit, which helps departments and government agencies best manage the risk of data sharing, needs transparency and transparency provide accountability from acquiring organizations or individuals to ensure the shared data is not misused. In addition, the toolkit must establish data request procedures in which the acquiring organization or individuals state the purpose of the data collected. The toolkit must help ministries ensure that data is only processed for the stated purpose, nothing incompatible with the stated purpose.

Because this policy also applies to non-personal data, the toolkit needs to discuss the harms associated with non-personal data to help departments guide surveillance through the rift. For example, the linking of non-personally identifiable (anonymized) datasets can reveal the identities of individuals due to triangulation and also cause collective data breaches.

While the directive talks about data standards, on the way to opening up the data, it is also important that the India Data Council reports standards that would ensure the integrity and cleanliness of public sector data. This becomes crucial as state and non-state actors use the public sector data for real-world interventions and applications. Besides, it is also important that the future India Data Council develops mechanisms through which government agencies can access the public sector data and regularly audit it for quality in terms of integrity and cleanliness.

As India’s digitization trend grows exponentially, the government’s move to open up public sector data to unlock social and economic benefits is a step in the right direction. Going further, the government needs to implement the India Data Accessibility and Use Policy by improving the draft version by including some of them to unlock the maximum potential.

—The author leads privacy and data governance at Dialogue, a research and public policy think tank

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