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How Can We Leverage Technology For Economic Development?

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Incorporating technology and scientific developments to improve the robust economic shape of India is more pertinent than ever. With the rise in significance of data in economic growth, diplomacy, and governance, India must advance its technological tools to stay relevant in the international arena.

To share ideas on this subject, the Genalpha Data CenterImpact and Policy Research Organisation, organized a webinar on “An Experiment with Open Science in India: Machine Age Tools for Understanding Economic Development,” as part of the #DataDiscourses series.

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director of IMPRI, introduced to the speaker of this webinar, Ms Aditi Bhowmick, Director (India) of the Development Data Lab (DDL), an organization committed to transforming the depth of open data in developing countries. Ms Bhowmick, a Princeton graduate, is working towards forging partnerships between the government and civil society on behalf of her organization.

Significance Of Open-access Data

Ms Aditi Bhowmick began by stating the objective of her presentation, which is to discuss the best policy approaches to design, use, and manage large-scale administrative data.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the acute need to have free-flowing, reliable information for better governance,” said Ms. Bhowmick.

A common geographical frame is the single most important aspect to focus on when approaching India’s data ecosystem. This involves data sets for the economic and population census, which have limited usability when unlinked. Open data access has high potential, as DDL has found.

Ms. Bhowmick says that the DDL repository has a vast amount of data relevant to policymakers at all levels, which they could greatly benefit from if availed.

The Development Data Lab’s aim as it stands is to unlock all the benefits that could be reaped from collaborative work involving policymakers, government representatives, social scientists, civil society, and even the private sector. The organization hopes to encourage collaboration through The SHRUG, Socioeconomic High-resolution Rural-Urban Geographic Data Platform for India, an open-access dataset, and a research platform.

The theory through which open data science works is that researchers who create data and publish results could share it for public use onto a platform, which could then be used by other researchers to replicate the findings and emulate them in other contexts, or use them to justify and answer other phenomena.

‘Water everywhere but not a drop to drink’ is a fitting way to describe India’s data ecosystem, Ms. Bhowmick believes.

A lot of excellent research work is conducted but is limited to silos, as Indian social scientists do not have access to the resources or investment to make them public or to invite collaborators. Institutional incentives to aid this process are also lacking.

Governmental departments also produce vast amounts of data, but again, are limited to silos. These data sets do not interact with each other, reducing their usability. As keeping data private takes less effort, public data becomes redundant as it does not have supporting comments and work.

This limits the use of available data. DDL believes that data must be a non-rivalled public good for maximum benefit.

Currently, the SHRUG is the largest open-access socioeconomic geocoded data set in the developing world. It covers over 500,000 towns and villages, covering a vast variety of socioeconomic, industrial, agricultural, and political data. The Unique Selling Point of the SHRUG is its linkability across data sets and its linkability over time. This produces a rich understanding of socioeconomic phenomena that could greatly benefit social scientists and policymakers.

Having open access, high-quality, immediately usable data is very useful for accountability to both the government and citizens to study the impact of large-scale government schemes,” Ms. Bhowmick stated.

A very important contribution of having access to this kind of data at the village level is that it makes the targeting of government welfare programs much more effective. The advantage of the availability of ready-to-use data for journalists, policymakers, social scientists, and others is unmatched.

One pertinent use case of the SHRUG was for the evaluation of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), under which 1,00,000 new roads were built in villages across India over fifteen years from 2000 to 2015.

To study the impact of this scheme on local economies, one would need to link data sets of the population census, economic census, socio-economic caste census, satellite imagery, and administrative data produced by the PMGSY.

Without the SHRUG, a common geographic framework linking all of these data sets would have been the barrier, but since the SHRUG fills the gaps, the researchers studying this scheme were able to answer policy-relevant questions in their paper, which was published in the American Economic Review in 2020.

Their study found that construction of the new roads did not affect consumption, local entrepreneurship, or agricultural productivity but it did help mobilize people to find new jobs outside their villages.

The SHRUG also provides tools to improve access to healthcare facilities. Civil servants tasked with identifying Primary Healthcare Centres that require the most help would be able to identify districts that are in need using dataset maps that provide granular data.

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a huge amount of data which is much needed. While this data is plentiful, it is not adequately utilized because government officials do not invest time or resources to harvest this data, and because the different research and policy teams using or producing this kind of data do not have resources to combine them, they become redundant, Ms Bhowmick concluded.

Developing Analytical Data For The Indian Scenario

The first question as part of the Q&A session initiated by Dr Kumar was regarding the documentation for how the geographic indicators were created for the SHRUG dataset. Ms Bhowmick answered that it does exist and was published in the World Bank Economic Review. The second pertained to the kind of ground-level study that the process required and whether the team faced cooperation issues.

To this, Ms Bhowmick answered that their process required no reinvention as the Indian government already has collected a vast amount of data that was required. Owing to this, they did not need to collect data on their own.

However, the data needed to be validated across data sets and needed to be reconfigured to be ready to use. “The Development Data Lab is in conversation with several state government departments and policymakers to figure out how we can use open-data products that we have created to democratise data, and if it is possible to use this to empower representatives at the village level,” Ms Aditi Bhowmick stated.

Sharing her opinion on whether a central data agency should be set up, Ms Bhowmick said she believed that the Ministry of Statistics of the Indian Government already does do a pretty good job.

While capacity issues do exist due to the scale of challenges to governance in India, there have been steps taken in the right direction, such as the implementation of the National Data Analytics Portal, which could be a great resource to have access to.

Dr Kumar posed a question to Ms Bhowmick regarding the kind of skills that must be garnered by data enthusiasts to apply analytical data, and how discrepancies can be avoided regarding data credibility.

Ms Bhowmick answered that applying data must be question-based. Being driven by the goal of the project for which data analysis is being undertaken is crucial, and viewing data empirically is a skill that is required to develop quality data.

For the Indian context, introducing technologically advancing tools without having the capacity on the ground to manage it may be a mistake, and relying on traditional surveying methods is still the way to go, Ms Bhowmick believes.

While incremental improvement is happening, we are many years away from having completely digitized data records, and this has been proven by the COVID-19 pandemic. There already exists a ton of data that still has not been leveraged and a lot of material to work with, which needs to be focused on before thinking about new ways of data collection and digitizing everything using MIS, Ms. Bhowmick said.

Sharing her thoughts on what the limitations are for a heterogeneous country like India for spatial and visualization exercises, Ms Bhowmick shed light on how the frequent changing of geographical units are obstacles for time-series analyses.

Names of villages and the districts they come under are subject to change. While some tools are employed to configure Indian phonetics, they are not easily accessible which leads to challenges for data mapping. The Centre’s Local Government Directory, which is a tool to update names of villages or the ways they are written, in order to ensure uniformity, is a step in the right direction.

Regarding the work being taken up using Niti Aayog’s National Data Analytics Platform and how the future trajectory looks, things seem to be advancing very fast, Ms Bhowmick stated.

Governmental data platforms are a step in the right direction and will greatly ease the possibility of public-private partnerships for making data transparent, developing incentives, and the positive externalities that can be created. Investors must be brought on to improve data infrastructures in the country.

Expressing her opinion on the role of blockchain and AI to enable data analytics and where machine learning will be of use for the development sector, Ms Bhowmick said that machine learning is already being used in developed countries to solve public policy challenges, by way of using the technology to allocate staff to government departments, to estimate need in real-time, and machine learning algorithms in the criminal justice system.

While this is an excellent development, we should also be very cautious of biases that could be integrated into automated programs. Data skills in India are very rich but they must be employed and harvested properly by marrying these skills with social justice and a deep socioeconomic understanding, Ms Bhowmick concluded.

Dr Arjun Kumar wrapped up the discussion by thanking Ms Aditi Bhowmick for a lively and informative discussion.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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