Policy-making potential of open digital ecosystems

Anand Trivedi & Aishwarya Viswanathan | 2 November 2022

Covid-19 has ushered in fundamental changes in the citizen-state relationship. First, the state’s role in providing common goods has come under increased public scrutiny across countries.

Public debates on the efficacy of vaccine mandates and the successes of social protection programmes, among others testify to this.

Second, the Covid crisis has necessitated that the state shifts from ‘physical’ to ‘digital’ modes of operation for providing services.

Both these developments have warranted the need to hasten the use of technology , while building systems for tighter delivery and collective accountability.

In India, such adaptation has taken on an ‘Open Digital Ecosystem’ (ODE) approach – where ‘open’ technologies break down ‘data-silos’ to give the wider community the access and ability to come together, innovate, and help solve problems.

With the ODE approach being mainstreamed, new streams of data are being unlocked via its implementation, and traditional Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) systems are set to undergo a paradigm shift. This shift will lead to evidence-based policymaking.

Typically, monitoring relies on monolithic administrative systems. The Centre alone has more than 350 such systems and States could potentially have over 2,000! These siloed systems often lead to field functionaries complaining about feeding the same data on multiple portals.

The details

These systems are also supplemented with evaluations that capture scheme impacts on end beneficiaries through large-scale surveys. In the Indian education sector, for instance, while monitoring of school management happens through UDISE+ and that of digital teaching-learning engagement through DIKSHA, actual learning levels of students are measured through a centralised National Achievement Survey (NAS).

However, data collected by large surveys are time consuming, costly to implement and often not fully integrated. They have also been criticised for not providing ‘timely’ evidence for decision-making.

Here the ODE approach can bring in a paradigm shift. An ODE’s inherent structure preferences the use of open technologies, including open APIs and open data that allows disparate systems to ‘talk to each other’, and allow for ‘real-time’ information exchange to unlock the combinatorial value of data.

For instance, a student with a unique digital ID once enrolled in a school can be tracked despite transfers across school systems. Estimates of drop-out ratios, transition, and retention rates can be auto-generated through analytics without requiring any school functionary to feed the aggregates. Further, UDISE+ could seamlessly talk to the DIKSHA administered teaching-learning experiences to update the student’s learning passbook automatically. This can be supplemented through standardised, periodic assessments on a universal basis.

With wider adoption, real network effects can kick in — i.e., when digital ecosystems start ‘talking to each other’ to address the most challenging MEL issues. Just as this student transitions from her schooling to keep threading her newly acquired skills in her evolved learning-cum-skilling passbook. This would enable on-the-go evaluation and a real assessment of the long-term impact of education and skilling.

Similarly, cross-sectoral ODEs also hold immense potential for furthering evidence-based policymaking. For instance, NITI Aayog’s National Data Analytics Platform (NDAP) which seeks to democratise access to public data sources by creating a ‘single point for accessing data’ across all Ministries, can unlock several new use cases.

A district administrator who wants to decide where to place the next Common Service Centre can be presented with suitable options by combining data of census, UDISE, land use etc. The intuitive visualisation and self-service analytics of NDAP can also reduce repetitive data entry tasks, and improve efficiency.

With ODEs answering the ‘how’ through real time estimates of performance indicators, various large-scale surveys will see significant repurposing to uncover the ‘whys’ underneath, i.e., attitudes impacting performance. However, it is imperative that strong data governance with adequate data privacy and security safeguards underscore ODE design and implementation at every stage.

This op-ed was originally published in the Hindu BusinessLine on 31st October, 2022