Dear govt, open up governance data, we need informed debates

It's time for open data on Karnataka assembly to analyse MLA performances. The government needs to digitise the data and put it in the public domain, to trigger informed debates. Else, public discourse will cover flags, religion and communal issues during elections, neglecting performances of elected representatives.

The recent issues hitting headlines in Karnataka have already signaled the arrival of election season, with elections due in April-May 2018. Lingayats are demanding they be recognised as followers of a separate religion. Many activist organisations are demanding that the yellow-red Kannada flag be recognised as a flag for the state. The Congress government at the state has constituted committees to look at both the possibilities.

In effect, every political party is trying to make the most of the sentiments of the public, to grab their emotions and convert it into votes. It appears that the election campaign has already begun, and agendas are already being set.

But are these the real agenda that matter to the electorate of the state? Is this the way it should be? How should people decide their choice? How do you know what your MLA did in Vidhana Soudha? Did he represent you accurately in the matters that need discussions? Did he spent his discretionary fund in transparent manner? How do you decide who you should vote for in next election, based on what parameters?

Information has to go online

The current practice among the electorate is to look at generic media reports and public perceptions to decide on electoral choices. But then publicly available online information helps people search and find what they want and come to their own conclusions.  

Every assembly session sees many important issues being debated, bills passed, questions asked, and attention sought on important issues. Your representative Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) is supposed to participate in all of this. Knowing about what your MLA did in the assembly helps you decide whether he/she represented your interest in the assembly or not, on issues that matter to you.

If you check the Parliament of India website, you can actually see what every Member of Parliament has spoken in the parliament, the debates they participated in, the questions they asked, replies etc online, anytime. This data is available online for both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. This is very useful because not everything said by everyone in the parliament can be covered by media.

Unfortunately this level of data is currently not available online, for Karnataka assembly. No information is available online on what is happening at the assembly at a microlevel, though every day’s procedure in Assembly is documented diligently on paper by the Council Secretariat staff.

Too much information, too little avenues to cover

Currently some of this information is available online, at kla.kar.nic.in. While there is not much about the debates happening in legislative council, the legislative assembly section has uncorrected versions of debates uploaded in Portable Document Format (PDF).

A warning that it is not to be used as official version as it is uncorrected, accompanies the files. It means that whatever is online now cannot be used for anything official. The final corrected version with objectionable remarks expunged is not online.

The website also lists starred and unstarred questions asked by MLAs. But the answers are not online. When an MLA asks a question, the Government Department which the question is addressed to works overnight to dig out the information and come up with the answers. The answers are printed, xeroxed and circulated to media covering the assembly.

However, few are used in news items on any given day, given the nature of mainstream media. Everyday there is something new to cover, so many of the stories hidden in the documents remain hidden forever. So putting out the answers to the question will lead to more official public data and informed debates.

Many governments have mooted the idea of a dedicated TV channel to cover house proceedings. Most recently a 400 crore plan was proposed. While a TV channel to cover the government among the herd of TV channels vying for market share with commercial content absolutely makes sense, that is a long shot and will take time to come through.

A better use of taxpayers’ money will be to have a multicamera set up in assembly sessions and livestream the proceedings, and put it online for people to see, like Loksabha TV and Rajyasabha TV do.

Encoding problem traps usable data

Another problem is that the data, in its current format, that is ASCII, typed using softwares like Nudi or Baraha, is trapped with no use. The current pdfs uploaded are not based on Unicode, and hence not data-analysis friendly.

For example, if one were to see the debate archive for June 21, and do an analysis of the things that the Chief Minister spoke on, the normal way to do it manually is to search the name in the PDF. Chief Minister’s name ಸಿದ್ದರಾಮಯ್ಯ, when copied and pasted from this debate archive, becomes Ë·Ðì¤ÑÀÐԁ¦ÐÔô – which does not make sense at all. The search results you get for this text string are absurd, and not accurate.

Thus the format fails the basic test of copy-paste-search, let alone being able to be understood by a computer. This also makes it incompatible for publishing directly on the web, and forces one to use the pdf format, thereby making data analysis difficult.

This problem is seen across the data uploaded by the government on kla.kar.nic.in, right from the gazette documents to questions to debate data. While some files can be copied, converting them to unicode to make it usable becomes yet another herculean task. Then there are files that just have hard-embedded text, and can’t be copied at all, thus making it strictly read-only.

A person sitting in a particular assembly constituency in Bengaluru can use meaningful data from the assembly to see what her MLA has done in the assembly. But currently the raw format in which the data is published makes it difficult to analyse the data. It is a time-consuming task to analyse the work of an MLA just by reading through all the files.

If one were to do a data analysis, the data needs to be in a friendly format, preferably Unicode that is accessible in all operating systems and is web-compatible. It should also translation friendly, so that even non-Kannadiga voters can make use of the data.

The website also doesn’t feature answers to the starred and unstarred questions. So one is left with only the questions, and no way to know the answers for them if they have not been reported in the media. The minutes of cabinet meetings, various committee meetings etc are the other things that can be uploaded, to see what is going in our democracy.

Information gaps in the IT society

Bengaluru and Karnataka have been known for Information Technology for a decade and half now. The government is also using the power of IT for communication and information dissemination on social media, through numerous Twitter and Facebook handles.

But that is the most basic use of IT. No one in the government seems to have gotten into the next levels like data analysis, performance analysis etc. These can be presented to citizens by the government itself, and by the media or by citizens directly, once accurate data is available publicly.

There is so much of government data out there hidden mostly in files and ledgers, sometimes in government computers, or with consultants working for the government, waiting to see the light. Fund utilisation by MLAs, money spent on various programmes, various government schemes for people, various bills under discussion, public interest subjects, infrastructure projects and more—all of these need to come out in public, if the government actually needs an informed debate in the society.

Will the government liberate this trapped data? Can people see and analyse what’s happening in assembly, and use factual information to decide who should represent them and how? Can the media go through the factual data to work on stories that matter to the public? Can we really become an information society and knowledge society, at least now?

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