Use data judiciously

by April 17, 2020 0 comments

Collating migrant data and finding a smart way of anonymised aggregation may be the key to prevent a future pandemic and resurgence of COVID-19

The world that we knew has pretty much rebooted and a new order is staring at most of us as we start getting back to work in set-ups we used to call workspaces. The rule book, regulations, policies, priorities, diagnosis and cure are changing by the hour around the globe as we try to make sense of the new normal.

Though India has extended its original 21-day lockdown till May 3, it has announced a graded easing of restrictions. This step has been welcomed by all, as the choice in a country like ours is not between the disease and livelihoods but between “lives and lives.” Yet, as we ease into normalcy, we know for sure things will never ever be the same again. As many corporate trainers, life coaches or leaders will tell you, this could either be the greatest catastrophic moment in India’s recent documented history or the beginning of a great tryst with prosperity and development.

The Covid-19 challenge has in a way isolated and perhaps generated rich, contextualised and most important “recent” data of nearly the entire 130 crore population in just a month, which would have been unthinkable until recently. However these data sets are siloed and sitting in tight pigeonholes of what are popularly known as “sarkari files” across hundreds of districts of the country .

Consider this. One of the most repeated and stark issues defining India’s Covid-19 crisis would be the plight of migrant workers. Thousands thronged railways stations in densely-populated Mumbai, a similar number descended on the streets of Gujarat, besides many are sleeping below bridges and flyovers in cities like Delhi. This is the second wave, post the one seen during the initial lockdown announcement which saw thousands walking along railway lines or stranded on borders of various States. A brief intervention by courts  meant most State Governments put the migrant population in tight, dense chicken cages. This faceless yet key pillar of the economy is a rich data mine waiting to be harvested for greater growth. The State Governments, through their district administrations, have access to these shelter homes. It would be worthwhile for a savvy Chief Minister to quickly tabulate all information his Government has on migrant labour in an excel sheet. These spots can serve as key gateways for State welfare activities. Assuming that most of the migrant population stuck in these shelters do not have any valid Government document, a beginning could be made to start providing them with a basic set of papers which would in the long run entitle them to a host of Government spending. Basic medical insurance and provision for getting cheap ration via food coupons would generate tonnes of data on their health and migratory patterns. This is a one-time limited window opportunity for bringing nearly 50 per cent of India’s unorganised workforce into the mainstream. This requires coordinated Centre-State agility, perhaps spearheaded by the labour department. The Central Government will have to ensure close coordination with State Labour Commissioners who in turn will be aggregators of this data, as well as, key facilitators of welfare schemes. The thin line of data privacy for this faceless crowd will have to be adhered to as top priority. That itself sets a huge challenge for many moth-eaten files strewn across labour departments of the country. Collating this data and finding a smart way of anonymised aggregation for the future may be the key to prevent a future pandemic and resurgence of the current one. If you speak to any of the migrants, the first thing they will tell you is that they want to return to their villages and stay there for some time. The horrors of being without means, if not food and the emotional stress of being away from their families is a wound which will fester further, unless a visible monetary benefit is given now, together with a promise of a long-term benefit like a health insurance and income guarantee.

Next is the much talked about contact tracing app, Arogya Setu, developed or curated indigenously by the Government in its preparation for opening the floodgates of the economy. It has had a mixed response so far in terms of its downloads and use but will be a potential e-pass for future mobility. This app, collecting tonnes of data of individuals will have to be carefully protected for future questions with regard to privacy implications. This data sits at the heart of Indian authorities’ claim to data sovereignty and it can very well be the showcase of the Government’s commitment to data privacy of its citizens.

So far, this data is, to my understanding getting aggregated with only a few departments within the Government, which has limited scope of use. If this data set generated so far and the potential of it becoming the super app and aggregator needs to reach level two, many established regulatory checks and balances, including a judicial oversight and perhaps independent third-party is a given ask. As I argued in the beginning, this juncture in India’s fight against the pandemic is the potential start of a greater robust economy, if the opportunities are well-encashed and in time. The next fortnight will be full of many such eureka moments, real-time data slicing and a policy call, someone needs to dig their head deep into the mine field.

(Writer: Kumardeep Banerjee; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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