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South Asia Analysis: South Asia needs a data revolution
  • South Asia Analysis: South Asia needs a data revolution

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  • Democratic access to digitised data is key to poverty reduction in South Asia

  • Independent researchers and advocacy groups struggle to get hold of public information

  • Bureaucratic barriers to the free flow of data are slowly but surely being breached

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South Asian countries need inclusive policies and practices for public sharing of scientific data, says Nalaka Gunawardene.
 
Three 'D's must align to reduce poverty, enhance living conditions and manage natural resources. Digitisation of data, combined with greater Democratisation of access to better serve the Development process.
 
Ever increasing volumes of data are being collected by public agencies through automated and human-mediated methods. Yet, many independent researchers and advocacy groups struggle to get hold of this information.
 
Participants at the South Asia Convention on Coastal Management, held last month (19—21 January) in Pondicherry, India, emphasised the urgent need for placing all scientific information and maps in the public domain — ideally in digital formats. The meet brought together 70 senior government officials, researchers, civil society activists and journalists from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
 
Right now, many such resources are trapped within state agencies or research institutes across South Asia with unclear or no sharing policies.
 
There are quality issues, too, of not having been generated or stored under a standardised format. Often users face problems of inter-operability and comparability.
 
These challenges are particularly acute in India, which accounts for more than half of South Asia’s combined coastline of 11,240 km.
 
“Coastal resources and activity data has been mapped by various governmental agencies and private parties on different scales using different methodologies. They are simply not comparable,” noted Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that convened the Pondicherry meeting.
 
Narain, who recently served on a high level Indian government committee on coastal matters, insists that all technical reports and maps produced by public agencies with taxpayer funds need to be in the public domain.
 
One major constraint that participants highlighted is the lack of maps in fine resolution necessary for decision making, resource management and environmental monitoring. For example, India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification in 1991 (revised in 2011) had used 1:25,000 scale maps to demarcate coastal zones. However, project level clearance is being granted using 1:4,000 scale maps.
 
Technical and procedural bottlenecks impede public data access and sharing in other South Asian countries too. These stand in the way of knowledge based advocacy and participatory resource management.
 
In case of the region’s overcrowded coasts, such gaps hinder countries from adopting integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), a scientific methodology to balance competing demands. Ibrahim Naeem, Director of the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in the Maldives, says only such an approach can reconcile the many pressures faced by South Asia’s maritime countries.
 
Turning to Google
 
Failing to find adequate national geospatial data, some South Asians are turning to globally available resources like Google Earth’s vast collection of free access satellite imagery.
 
An inspiring example is how the Pondicherry-based citizen group PondyCAN conducted a ‘virtual survey’ in 2009-2011 to assess coastal development activities along the entire Indian coast. Using Google Earth and volunteer assistance, they counted coastal structures, ports, power plants, human settlements and other commercial or conservation activities in the littoral zone and within 500 metres landward of India’s long shoreline.
 
This survey fed a key citizens’ report titled The Challenged Coast of India published in 2012. A collaboration involving PondyCAN, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the report stressed the need for timely, accessible and digitised coastal information on a national scale.
 
The compilers see this report as the first step in sharing coastal data for participatory resource management and transparent governance.
 
“We need to democratise maps everywhere in South Asia. For too long, maps have been produced and distributed by a few and among a few,” says Sudarshan Rodriguez, a programme manager at TISS, and one of its authors.
 
Meanwhile, some public data custodians in South Asia still release vast amounts of data only in hard copy form. PondyCAN cites the example of India’s Marine Fisherfolk Census of 2010, conducted by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. Its results — running into thousands of pages of data tables — were only released on paper. This prompted a fisher collective to create spreadsheet databases, re-doing the data entry on their own to make it user-friendly.
 
Some countries have a better track record in sharing geospatial data. Maminul Haque Sarker, deputy executive director of Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) in Bangladesh, says most coastal zone maps in his deltaic nation are in the public domain. Researchers can use historical data to study coastal dynamics over time.
 
Public data must be affordable as well. In Sri Lanka, for example, historical weather data going back decades is available to researchers from the Department of Meteorology. But the high user fee takes it beyond the reach of many.
 
Breaching barriers
 
The good news: bureaucratic barriers blocking the free flow of data are being breached, slowly but surely.
 
In 2012, India’s Department of Science and Technology issued the National Policy on Data Sharing and Accessibility (NPDSA) to “increase the accessibility and easier sharing of non-sensitive data amongst the registered users and their availability for scientific, economic and social developmental purposes”.
 
Under this policy, the government of India requires all governmental agencies — including public universities —to share data generated using public funds with the public in specified digital formats.
 
Some barriers are harder to overcome. One activist at the Pondicherry meeting pointed out how most maps and other scientific data are only available in English. Even when these are placed in the public domain, many local communities cannot understand or use them.
 
Thus, in a highly multicultural region like South Asia, the very definition of ‘public domain’ needs rethinking.
 
The proliferation of digital tools and growth of web-based data storage (the cloud) brings the technology within reach of many. But South Asian societies still need to tackle institutional and cultural factors before democratised and digital data can really transform governance and development.
 
Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

References

1. South Asia Convention on Coastal Management

2. PondyCAN website
 
3. The Challenged Coast of India Report (TISS, NCPC, PondyCAN & BNHS, 2012)
 
4. Integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) 
 
5. SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre, Maldives 
 
6. India’s National Policy on Data Sharing and Accessibility (NPDSA), Department of Science and Technology, India
 
7. Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), Bangladesh 
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