Two Worlds of Open Government Data: Getting the Lowdown on Public Toilets in Chennai and Other Matters

Posted on April 10, 2012


On the face of it (so to speak) locating public toilets would appear to be a natural for Open Government Data (OGD). Most cities have such toilets–maintained at public expense for the use of residents with an urgent need. Data on such facilities should be relatively accessible from municipal government offices and making that information available to the general public as a service via a mobile app is an obviously useful application and seemingly win-win-win… A win for municipal government–they get to appear public-spirited and supportive of citizens/tourists; a win for app maker and the platform providing the app–what better application for a globally accessible smart phone than a map of facilities for folks on the run; and a natural for private sector sponsorship particularly as in the case of a leading provider of info and apps on public toilets, who are sponsored by Proctor and Gamble (the “leading toilet tissue” brand); and of course a win for the user whoever/wherever they may be.

Good news for OGD all round and the folks at (SOS) have quite naturally seen the marketing potential and have their marketing information and campaign laid out foursquare on the website. A public-private-partnership at its best and a potential sponsor’s dream!

Sitorsquat.Com Demographics

Affluent • $49,000 average

High Income>$100,000: 33%

Demographics • Female: 60% • Male: 40%

Age Range: 20 – 60

College/Post grad: 67%

…and so they have plans for going global by providing to their top drawer “demographics” a database of, and access to one million public toilets globally. And good luck to them!

In a Developed Country (global North?) context this information, once having been made available through municipal goodwill, efficiency and OGD spirit; and combined and compiled with sponsor-supported entrepreneurial zeal, would immediately be added to the global database and become another “app” available to smart phone users if/when they ever have the need, on a visit to San Francisco, Vancouver, Chennai or Timbucto.

However, as a bit of a caution, it might be well to take a look at the experience of Nithya Raman and her colleagues in Chennai, India; who, perhaps responding to the urgent exhortations made by the SOS folks to globalize the opportunities for responding effectively to nature’s calls, undertook to get access to the equivalent OGD on public toilets available in Chennai.

A paper in the current special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics on Community Informatics and Open Government Data gives a quite dramatic account of their efforts to obtain information concerning the number and location of public toilets in Chennai City, a subject of considerable interest to a rather different ‘demographic” from that of the SOS group–

…(those living in) “slum areas, … street vendors…, those (at) bus stops and bus depots, (workers in the) clusters of informal sector industry, (those in) waiting areas for daily laborers and so on”…

We first decided to get an accurate count of public toilets in the city. One afternoon, I called the Chennai Corporation and asked for the department that took care of public toilets. After many long holds, phones being hung up, and failed attempts to transfer my call to the correct department, someone finally connected me to the Buildings Department that managed all Corporation owned structures. The man on the other end of the phone chuckled when he heard that I was interested in public toilets, and then told me that although the Buildings department was responsible for the construction and maintenance of public toilet structures in the city, they maintained no central register of toilets at the Chennai Corporation’s main office. To get information about the number and locations of toilets, he told me that I would have to approach each of the Zonal offices individually.

At the time, there were ten Zonal offices in Chennai, and I asked Meryl to visit each office to get the total number and locations of all the public toilets. The process we followed was the same for each Zone, but the offices responded with varying levels of cooperation. For one Zone, Meryl left our office armed with a letter of introduction specifying the information she required and a vague address taken from the Corporation website, and searched for the zonal office with an increasingly irritable auto-rickshaw driver. When she finally arrived at the office, neither the Assistant Commissioner nor the Executive Engineer was available, so the personal assistant to the Assistant Commissioner sent her to the Letters department. There, she was asked to make a photocopy of her request letter. The original was kept with them, and the copy was given to her, both stamped with the date of her visit, and she was asked to come back after two days. Two days later, the Executive Engineer was there, and like many of the other officers we interacted with on this issue, he seemed both confused and amused by her interest in toilets. He chided her for coming in the afternoon, because the work would have been completed more quickly in the morning, but immediately put two engineers to the task of preparing a list for her. After another hour of waiting, she had a hand-written list of toilets and toilet addresses in her hand, and she returned to the office triumphantly to type it up.

Other zones were not so easy….In this way, zone by zone, with multiple visits, many letters of introduction, and much careful coaxing, Meryl slowly put together a list of toilets and their addresses in the city. Only one zone provided her with a map of local infrastructure, the rest gave her lists of toilets and addresses.

In this instance Ms. Raman and her colleagues, armed as they were with the very strong Indian Right to Information (RTI) legislation were able to insist on gaining access to the information. It should be noted however, that the “data” being provided through OGD means was, it appears, largely spurious and reflected what the local officials wanted their higher-ups and others such as the media to believe (and accept without further question).

From our local interviews, it appeared that zonal level bureaucrats had good reasons for keeping the number of toilets unclear. Contracts for toilet maintenance were a source of income for many ward councilors, and lower-level bureaucrats were paid off to ensure that the contracts went to the right people. Although we do not have proof that this is what happened, people we interviewed in the field told us that non-existent toilets were being used for creating fictional maintenance contracts so that councilors could benefit from them.

In the Indian context, the compilation of this type of information is by no means straightforward and in this instance became a quest requiring numerous queries, recalibrations of data requests and ultimately site visits to authenticate information being provided. The reason of course, being that public toilets are provided and maintained through public funds. In many instances those toilets do not exist and may not have ever existed or at least not existed in recent times and yet contracts are being regularly awarded (evidently to local politicians) for the maintenance of these toilets. In this way was revealed a small and localized form of corruption but one that is of considerable significance not only from a financial accountability perspective but also for the poor for whom these toilets have been paid but not provided and for whom no other equivalent public facility may be available.

In this context as well, I should also mention the nuanced and sophisticated analysis of this (type of) phenomenon by Bhuvanaswari Raman  and Zainab Bawa who, while recognizing these types of lower level issues put them in a broader context of “structural conditions” and “underlying dynamics” specific in some sense to the Indian environment, but also more generally applicable in LDC contexts . Their analysis is that while these phenomena are occurring at the local level, their real cause and ultimate resolution only happens as a result of much higher level reform, structural change and political resolve.

Along these latter lines, on my way to Brasilia for a research meeting associated with Open Government Partnership annual event I had the opportunity to present a short course on Community Informatics to a group of Information Science graduate students at UNESP in Marilia, Sao Paulo Province, Brazil. Most particularly though, I had a chance to interact with them and with one of their Professors, Ricardo Santana who, with his students is doing some very interesting work in the area of OGD.

In the interactions with Ricardo and the students I began to realize that his approach to OGD and what I understood as being the “conventional” approach to OGD were in fact, quite different or at least they were starting from quite different assumptions. Ricardo and his students were focusing their work on government transparency and transparency of a particular kind–i.e. financial and programmatic (operational) transparency. They were concerned to examine budgets, to observe transactions, to get data on logistics. The type of observational, behavioural, factoidal data that is the current stock in trade of much Developed Country OGD–the voting behaviour of elected members, the routes and timings of government service workers (garbage pick-up, bus timings) , the location of public toilets of interest to upscale “demographics” and so on were of significantly less interest.

What I began to understand was that most of OGD colleagues from Developed/OECD countries, are starting from a default position that their governments’ probity, honesty, and at least a degree of financial transparency, could be for the most part assumed. On the other hand, Ricardo and his students (as with Nithya Raman and Bhuvanaswari Raman and Zainab Bawa and their colleagues) — were of necessity starting from a default position where government administrators could not be assumed to be acting in the public interest. Not that they were necessarily all involved in mal-administration or more seriously in self-dealing, or misdirection of funds; but rather that given historical evidence means were not now currently in place to ensure transparency of operations and decision-making and that these needed to be implemented and including providing opportunities for crowd-sourced processes of accountability.

Thus, they were starting from a situation where OGD was not a neutral output to be reconfigured, managed, analysed and displayed. Rather OGD was an artifact in itself to be analysed, accredited, authenticated and ultimately something to be created as an output of a significant process requiring legal support (as for example through RTI legislation), technical and forensic skill, persistence and ultimately courage. This latter since in certain instances very significant and powerful interests might be at work and obtaining illicit benefits and willing to go to very considerable lengths to maintain these interests (including as in the Indian RTI instance murdering individual RTI activists!)

What this meant for these researchers was that rather than focusing on “apps” and OGD uses that might provide additional “convenience” for the end-user, they were using official formal government commitments to OGD as the fulcrum through which they could get the information/data tools to expose mal-administration and even in certain instances, corruption, self-dealing, insider theft and so on.

The OGD “game” that they are playing is for them and for their country a very powerful one since it is going to the very root of how government is practiced and held accountable and (hopefully) precipitating long term change in public service management, policy and structure. This means among other things that the connection between OGD and Right to Information (RTI) in the Developing Country context is a necessary and symbiotic one. RTI gives researchers the legal right to access certain information that otherwise would not be available, while OGD provides the methods, formats and methodologies by which (some of) this information can be made most useful and usable as a means for introducing and enforcing government financial and operational transparency.

As well, it means that programs such as that of the World Bank’s providing OGD consultants and app developers from Developed Countries to Less Developed Countries as a form of Technical Assistance may be inappropriate since the areas of their experience will be of much less interest than for example, might be the skills of a public administration management expert, a forensic auditor or a specialist in procurement fraud.

OGD however, may in the LDC context be among the most practical and significant developments ever initiated through ICT initiatives since it goes to the very heart of governance structures and accountability and moreover not simply at the more public national levels but equally at the local, regional and specialist levels such as Education financing. As an example, one of Santana’s students in Brazil is looking at the gap between the ostensible procurement of food for school lunches (a very significant social measure instituted under Lula’s government) and the shortfall in actual quality and quantity of lunches served to students. Having access to the procurement data, the budget information, and information concerning the lunches actually served (including their contents) will give Ricardo and his student some very substantive and potentially quite explosive insight into possible mal-administration in procurement. As well, it is part of their research program to develop tools for making this type of information available for “crowd-sourcing” review and comment and thus ultimately providing parents with the ammunition they would need to actively intervene into the situation if and as problems are identified.

In the Developed Country context one can (and does) for the most part begin with the assumption that there are significant checks and balances in place to ensure probity in these processes–audits, oversight committees of elected officials, publicly accessible budgets, an information tool enabled public and so on. In many LDC contexts many or even most of these accountability mechanisms may be lacking and it is into this breach that OGD and its proponents may now be allowed to step and among other outputs to develop the methodology for crowd-sourced (enforced) accountability, transparency and information access. Thus one of the mechanisms that Ricardo Santana and his students are building into their OGD designs is the means for “crowd-sourcing” of observation and review of budgetary and procurement processes and through these public actions providing reinforcement, “bureaucratic space” and support for those public officials who are striving to act in the public interest but who in Developing and Emerging countries may need to have their efforts towards administrative reform and modernization amplified and reinforced.

The challenge (and opportunity) thus is to see OGD not as is often the case in DC contexts, as simply a means to provide business with additional resources for consumer services or as a support to commercial enterprise or as a basis for additional citizen as consumer convenience, but rather as one of the fundamental building blocks for the promotion and maintenance of structures of good, effective, transparent and accountable governance. Moreover, these differences in starting points for OGD in DC’s and in LDC’s should inform the design of OGD programmes and not incidentally software supports.

There is it appears, two possible worlds of “Open Government Data”–one the world of smart phones, and Ipads, of apps and upscale “demographics” of interest to sponsors like Proctor and Gamble; and the contrasting world of slum dwellers without access to sanitation, of populations subject to systematic mal-and even corrupt administration –worlds where app providers and the folks who make the OGD available to them go public with multi-million dollar IPO’s and ones where those with the courage to pursue public information may be putting their lives at risk.

Data as with information is power and this power may be of even greater significance when its benefits accrue to the powerless rather than to the already empowered.