Where is the data?

Decision making is a critical aspect of governance. Similar to an organization, a government’s impact is determined by the speed and effectiveness of its decision. Decision making is a skill that makes or breaks leaders in organizations and governments.

Given the plethora of variables that government, even at a city level, has to consider while making decisions, it is an extremely difficult task. It is for this reason that decision making is distributed among different departments and sub departments in the government. Decentralization reduces the number of variables that each person has to consider and hence has a higher probability to lead to better results in most circumstances. Ofcourse there are times when centralizing decision making is more beneficial – especially in situation where there is need to take a holistic view of the situation before a decision is taken. There are various approaches to decision making but none of them are effective without availability of reliable data.

Data helps understand current reality. It guides us in identifying priorities and deciding strategies. It helps us set goals and assess progress to those goals. It helps us see what is working and what needs to be tweaked. Finally, data helps us share and explain the progress that’s made – adding to the momentum towards more progress.

If data is such an enabler, it is important for the government to ask : Do we have data about the things that matter? Is the data comprehensive, reliable, and updated frequently? Is the data in a format that aids decision making?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, data availability, reliability, and format came into focus. Citizens were running pillar to post for medicines, hospital beds, and vaccinations. There were a lot of questions raised around the available data and whether it represented the current reality [1]. There were/are a lot of dashboards for hospital bed availability, data around current cases, recovery, vaccine numbers and availability, around processes, and also for availability of medicines.

One thing that stood out? Most of this was crowd-sourced data and was also complied by volunteers. It meant that the system either did not have the capacity or the intent to make this data available. It raises questions whether the decision makers in the government offices even had access to this information.

What was the level of data that was available? On what basis were decisions made around opening up cities post lock-down or announcing lock-downs in the first place? If data beyond what was shared on sloppily scanned PDFs was available, why was it not shared with citizens when they ran pillar to post for life saving information? It is scary to think that the publicly maintained dashboards were as good as maybe even better in terms of data availability or reliability than government dashboards.

Even when data is available, it is not easy to read let alone easy to interpret. Take for example the only verified source of information around bed availability on the AHNA website (Ahmedabad Hospitals and Nursing Homes Association). This website was updated every few hours. The problem is, sometimes by the time the website was updated, the information had become stale. Another example of data being available but not being useful in any meaningful way is AMC School Board’s School List. It is basically a data dump rather than a dashboard. This is not an exception but the norm for most of our government websites or government databases.

If the end goal of the government was to ensure that all citizens of the city have a few ‘basics‘ in place, what all data questions would come up?

Who and how many people in the city currently don’t have these? Where do they live? Are some areas significantly better off than others? Are there certain type of people who do not have access to certain basics? Have things improved over the last few months/years? If yes, what has improved and where have they improved? Which of the basics is the highest priority?

Once we have the data, we can ask the more difficult questions:

Why are we where we are? What are certain basics that actually quicken the pace of getting the other basics? What are some interventions that are giving us highest bang for the buck? What are interventions that are making negligible, if any, impact? What can we learn from other cities/states/countries that have fixed this challenge already? What should government’s role be in solving this and what role should civil society organizations play?

Until we fix the primary problem of data collection and data reliability, we are always going to be a few steps behind in making effective data backed decisions. Data systems and dashboards make it easier not just for the government to make decisions but also for citizens to have a more nuanced understanding of current reality and progress. It can make civil society participation more targeted and hence more effective. It can give hope that progress is possible and that is happening every single day.

If there was ever an example of a data dashboard that could be called world class, it would be ‘Our World In Data‘. My hope is to one day have a ‘Our City In Data’ dashboard for each of our cities and I hope that Ahmedabad starts this trend.

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