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<nettime> Two Worlds of Open Government Data: Getting the Lowdown on Pub
michael gurstein on Fri, 13 Apr 2012 14:27:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Two Worlds of Open Government Data: Getting the Lowdown on Public Toilets in Chennai and Other Matters

Two Worlds of Open Government Data: Getting the Lowdown on Public Toilets in
Chennai and Other Matters 

For links etc.

TinyURL http://wp.me/pJQl5-98

Posted on April 10, 2012

On the face of it (so to speak) locating public toilets would appear to be a
natural for Open Government Data (OGD). Most cities have such
toilets-maintained at public expense for the use of residents with an urgent
need. Data on such facilities should be relatively accessible from municipal
government offices and making that information available to the general
public as a service via a mobile app is an obviously useful application and
seemingly win-win-win. A win for municipal government-they get to appear
public-spirited and supportive of citizens/tourists; a win for app maker and
the platform providing the app-what better application for a globally
accessible smart phone than a map of facilities for folks on the run; and a
natural for private sector sponsorship particularly as in the case of a
leading provider of info and apps on public toilets,
http://www.SitOrSquat.com who are sponsored by Proctor and Gamble (the
"leading toilet tissue" brand); and of course a win for the user
whoever/wherever they may be.

Good news for OGD all round and the folks at SitOrSquat.com (SOS) have quite
naturally seen the marketing potential and have their marketing information
and campaign laid out foursquare on the website. A
public-private-partnership at its best and a potential sponsor's dream!

Sitorsquat.Com Demographics

Affluent . $49,000 average

High Income>$100,000: 33%

Demographics . Female: 60% . Male: 40%

Age Range: 20 - 60

College/Post grad: 67%

.and so they have plans for going global by providing to their top drawer
"demographics" a database of, and access to one million public toilets
globally. And good luck to them!

In a Developed Country (global North?) context this information, once having
been made available through municipal goodwill, efficiency and OGD spirit;
and combined and compiled with sponsor-supported entrepreneurial zeal, would
immediately be added to the global database and become another "app"
available to smart phone users if/when they ever have the need, on a visit
to San Francisco, Vancouver, Chennai or Timbucto.

However, as a bit of a caution, it might be well to take a look at the
experience of Nithya Raman and her colleagues in Chennai, India; who,
perhaps responding to the urgent exhortations made by the SOS folks to
globalize the opportunities for responding effectively to nature's calls,
undertook to get access to the equivalent OGD on public toilets available in

A paper in the current special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics
on Community Informatics and Open Government Data http://ci-journal.net
gives a quite dramatic account of their efforts to obtain information
concerning the number and location of public toilets in Chennai City, a
subject of considerable interest to a rather different 'demographic" from
that of the SOS group-

.(those living in) "slum areas, . street vendors., those (at) bus stops and
bus depots, (workers in the) clusters of informal sector industry, (those
in) waiting areas for daily laborers and so on".

"We first decided to get an accurate count of public toilets in the city.
One afternoon, I called the Chennai Corporation and asked for the department
that took care of public toilets. After many long holds, phones being hung
up, and failed attempts to transfer my call to the correct department,
someone finally connected me to the Buildings Department that managed all
Corporation owned structures. The man on the other end of the phone chuckled
when he heard that I was interested in public toilets, and then told me that
although the Buildings department was responsible for the construction and
maintenance of public toilet structures in the city, they maintained no
central register of toilets at the Chennai Corporation's main office. To get
information about the number and locations of toilets, he told me that I
would have to approach each of the Zonal offices individually.

"At the time, there were ten Zonal offices in Chennai, and I asked Meryl to
visit each office to get the total number and locations of all the public
toilets. The process we followed was the same for each Zone, but the offices
responded with varying levels of cooperation. For one Zone, Meryl left our
office armed with a letter of introduction specifying the information she
required and a vague address taken from the Corporation website, and
searched for the zonal office with an increasingly irritable auto-rickshaw
driver. When she finally arrived at the office, neither the Assistant
Commissioner nor the Executive Engineer was available, so the personal
assistant to the Assistant Commissioner sent her to the Letters department.
There, she was asked to make a photocopy of her request letter. The original
was kept with them, and the copy was given to her, both stamped with the
date of her visit, and she was asked to come back after two days. Two days
later, the Executive Engineer was there, and like many of the other officers
we interacted with on this issue, he seemed both confused and amused by her
interest in toilets. He chided her for coming in the afternoon, because the
work would have been completed more quickly in the morning, but immediately
put two engineers to the task of preparing a list for her. After another
hour of waiting, she had a hand-written list of toilets and toilet addresses
in her hand, and she returned to the office triumphantly to type it up.

"Other zones were not so easy..In this way, zone by zone, with multiple
visits, many letters of introduction, and much careful coaxing, Meryl slowly
put together a list of toilets and their addresses in the city. Only one
zone provided her with a map of local infrastructure, the rest gave her
lists of toilets and addresses."

In this instance Ms. Raman and her colleagues, armed as they were with the
very strong Indian Right to Information (RTI) legislation were able to
insist on gaining access to the information. It should be noted however,
that the "data" being provided through OGD means was, it appears, largely
spurious and reflected what the local officials wanted their higher-ups and
others such as the media to believe (and accept without further question).

"From our local interviews, it appeared that zonal level bureaucrats had
good reasons for keeping the number of toilets unclear. Contracts for toilet
maintenance were a source of income for many ward councilors, and
lower-level bureaucrats were paid off to ensure that the contracts went to
the right people. Although we do not have proof that this is what happened,
people we interviewed in the field told us that non-existent toilets were
being used for creating fictional maintenance contracts so that councilors
could benefit from them."

In the Indian context, the compilation of this type of information is by no
means straightforward and in this instance became a quest requiring numerous
queries, recalibrations of data requests and ultimately site visits to
authenticate information being provided. The reason of course, being that
public toilets are provided and maintained through public funds. In many
instances those toilets do not exist and may not have ever existed or at
least not existed in recent times and yet contracts are being regularly
awarded (evidently to local politicians) for the maintenance of these
toilets. In this way was revealed a small and localized form of corruption
but one that is of considerable significance not only from a financial
accountability perspective but also for the poor for whom these toilets have
been paid but not provided and for whom no other equivalent public facility
may be available.

In this context as well, I should also mention the nuanced and sophisticated
analysis of this (type of) phenomenon by Bhuvanaswari Raman  and Zainab Bawa
who, while recognizing these types of lower level issues put them in a
broader context of "structural conditions" and "underlying dynamics"
specific in some sense to the Indian environment, but also more generally
applicable in LDC contexts . Their analysis is that while these phenomena
are occurring at the local level, their real cause and ultimate resolution
only happens as a result of much higher level reform, structural change and
political resolve.

Along these latter lines, on my way to Brasilia for a research meeting
associated with Open Government Partnership annual event I had the
opportunity to present a short course on Community Informatics to a group of
Information Science graduate students at UNESP in Marilia, Sao Paulo
Province, Brazil. Most particularly though, I had a chance to interact with
them and with one of their Professors, Ricardo Santana who, with his
students is doing some very interesting work in the area of OGD.

In the interactions with Ricardo and the students I began to realize that
his approach to OGD and what I understood as being the "conventional"
approach to OGD were in fact, quite different or at least they were starting
from quite different assumptions. Ricardo and his students were focusing
their work on government transparency and transparency of a particular
kind-i.e. financial and programmatic (operational) transparency. They were
concerned to examine budgets, to observe transactions, to get data on
logistics. The type of observational, behavioural, factoidal data that is
the current stock in trade of much Developed Country OGD-the voting
behaviour of elected members, the routes and timings of government service
workers (garbage pick-up, bus timings) , the location of public toilets of
interest to upscale "demographics" and so on were of significantly less

What I began to understand was that most of OGD colleagues from
Developed/OECD countries, are starting from a default position that their
governments' probity, honesty, and at least a degree of financial
transparency, could be for the most part assumed. On the other hand, Ricardo
and his students (as with Nithya Raman and Bhuvanaswari Raman and Zainab
Bawa and their colleagues) - were of necessity starting from a default
position where government administrators could not be assumed to be acting
in the public interest. Not that they were necessarily all involved in
mal-administration or more seriously in self-dealing, or misdirection of
funds; but rather that given historical evidence means were not now
currently in place to ensure transparency of operations and decision-making
and that these needed to be implemented and including providing
opportunities for crowd-sourced processes of accountability.

Thus, they were starting from a situation where OGD was not a neutral output
to be reconfigured, managed, analysed and displayed. Rather OGD was an
artifact in itself to be analysed, accredited, authenticated and ultimately
something to be created as an output of a significant process requiring
legal support (as for example through RTI legislation), technical and
forensic skill, persistence and ultimately courage. This latter since in
certain instances very significant and powerful interests might be at work
and obtaining illicit benefits and willing to go to very considerable
lengths to maintain these interests (including as in the Indian RTI instance
murdering individual RTI activists!)

What this meant for these researchers was that rather than focusing on
"apps" and OGD uses that might provide additional "convenience" for the
end-user, they were using official formal government commitments to OGD as
the fulcrum through which they could get the information/data tools to
expose mal-administration and even in certain instances, corruption,
self-dealing, insider theft and so on.

The OGD "game" that they are playing is for them and for their country a
very powerful one since it is going to the very root of how government is
practiced and held accountable and (hopefully) precipitating long term
change in public service management, policy and structure. This means among
other things that the connection between OGD and Right to Information (RTI)
in the Developing Country context is a necessary and symbiotic one. RTI
gives researchers the legal right to access certain information that
otherwise would not be available, while OGD provides the methods, formats
and methodologies by which (some of) this information can be made most
useful and usable as a means for introducing and enforcing government
financial and operational transparency.

As well, it means that programs such as that of the World Bank's providing
OGD consultants and app developers from Developed Countries to Less
Developed Countries as a form of Technical Assistance may be inappropriate
since the areas of their experience will be of much less interest than for
example, might be the skills of a public administration management expert, a
forensic auditor or a specialist in procurement fraud.

OGD however, may in the LDC context be among the most practical and
significant developments ever initiated through ICT initiatives since it
goes to the very heart of governance structures and accountability and
moreover not simply at the more public national levels but equally at the
local, regional and specialist levels such as Education financing. As an
example, one of Santana's students in Brazil is looking at the gap between
the ostensible procurement of food for school lunches (a very significant
social measure instituted under Lula's government) and the shortfall in
actual quality and quantity of lunches served to students. Having access to
the procurement data, the budget information, and information concerning the
lunches actually served (including their contents) will give Ricardo and his
student some very substantive and potentially quite explosive insight into
possible mal-administration in procurement. As well, it is part of their
research program to develop tools for making this type of information
available for "crowd-sourcing" review and comment and thus ultimately
providing parents with the ammunition they would need to actively intervene
into the situation if and as problems are identified.

In the Developed Country context one can (and does) for the most part begin
with the assumption that there are significant checks and balances in place
to ensure probity in these processes-audits, oversight committees of elected
officials, publicly accessible budgets, an information tool enabled public
and so on. In many LDC contexts many or even most of these accountability
mechanisms may be lacking and it is into this breach that OGD and its
proponents may now be allowed to step and among other outputs to develop the
methodology for crowd-sourced (enforced) accountability, transparency and
information access. Thus one of the mechanisms that Ricardo Santana and his
students are building into their OGD designs is the means for
"crowd-sourcing" of observation and review of budgetary and procurement
processes and through these public actions providing reinforcement,
"bureaucratic space" and support for those public officials who are striving
to act in the public interest but who in Developing and Emerging countries
may need to have their efforts towards administrative reform and
modernization amplified and reinforced.

The challenge (and opportunity) thus is to see OGD not as is often the case
in DC contexts, as simply a means to provide business with additional
resources for consumer services or as a support to commercial enterprise or
as a basis for additional citizen as consumer convenience, but rather as one
of the fundamental building blocks for the promotion and maintenance of
structures of good, effective, transparent and accountable governance.
Moreover, these differences in starting points for OGD in DC's and in LDC's
should inform the design of OGD programmes and not incidentally software

There is it appears, two possible worlds of "Open Government Data"-one the
world of smart phones, and Ipads, of apps and upscale "demographics" of
interest to sponsors like Proctor and Gamble; and the contrasting world of
slum dwellers without access to sanitation, of populations subject to
systematic mal-and even corrupt administration -worlds where app providers
and the folks who make the OGD available to them go public with
multi-million dollar IPO's and ones where those with the courage to pursue
public information may be putting their lives at risk.

Data as with information is power and this power may be of even greater
significance when its benefits accrue to the powerless rather than to the
already empowered.

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