Use data for 'public good': Economic Survey

A file photo of the Indian parliament. Photo credit: Reuters

The Economic Survey on Thursday exhorted the government to create and use its rich repository of data for "public good" and benefit of citizens, especially the poor, but within the legal framework of data privacy.

Seeking to establish a strong link between public data and social welfare, the Economic Survey for 2018-19 asserted that since data of societal interest is generated by the people, it should be "of the people, by the people, for the people" and the same should be the mantra for the government.

"In thinking about data as a public good, care must also be taken to not impose the elite’s preference of privacy on the poor, who care for a better quality of living the most," it said.

The Survey noted that governments, already hold a rich repository of administrative, survey, institutional and transactions data about citizens, although such data mostly remains scattered across government bodies.

Much of the data is dispersed across different registries maintained by different ministries, and the government can deliver a better experience to the citizen by bringing together disparate datasets scattered across various ministries.

"Merging these distinct datasets would generate multiple benefits with the applications being limitless," the Survey said seeking to allay concerns over pooling of such information.

"The prospect of empowering the government with such comprehensive, exhaustive information about every citizen may sound alarming at first. However, this is far from the truth. First, large quantities of data already exist in government records, and the objective is only to use this data in a more efficient way," it said.

As sophisticated technologies already exist to protect and share confidential information, data can be created as a public good within the legal framework of data privacy, it added.

It emphasised that the data - which is being generated at an unprecedented scale - and information highway must be viewed as equally important infrastructure as the physical highways.

"Such a stance can help India leapfrog to utilise the benefits of technological advances for the welfare of its people," it said.

Interestingly, the Survey mentions the idea of a `National Health Registry' that maintains health records of citizens with all the necessary privacy safeguards.

Such a national health register can be identified using a citizen’s Aadhaar, it added. It goes on to add that anonymised data from the register can be sold to private parties for analytics, which would then enhance prevention by offering predictive and prescriptive knowledge.

The Survey demonstrated various scenarios where harnessing data could lead to notable improvements in public welfare. Data with government bodies can enable the decision-makers to improve the living standards of the people, it has pointed out.

"While the private sector has done an impressive job of harnessing some kinds of data – the kind that can be converted into a private profit – government intervention is required in other areas where private investment in data remains inadequate," the Survey said.

As private sector has the potential to reap massive dividends from data, "it is only fair to charge them for its use", it said arguing that private sector could be granted access to select databases for commercial use. 

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