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Recent advances in technology and storage capacity have led to the creation of huge datasets that could potentially serve as solid foundations for evidence-based, intelligently designed public policy. However, much of this data sits in storage. For data to be useful it must be accessible – researchers and policymakers must be able to search the data easily based on specific indicators. How can government ministries initiate the creation of such interfaces?
India’s Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) is currently leading such an effort. Since July 2013, officials at the Ministry have joined forces with researchers from Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on a data visualization project that will take vast amounts of administrative information being generated by the world’s largest public works program and make it usable to policymakers and the public via an interactive web dashboard. On March 10, L.C. Goyal, the Secretary of India’s Department of Rural Development, held a press conference to launch the Public Data Portal and demonstrate a set of visualization tools that will be included in the next update of the technology.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is a work-guarantee program and one of the Indian government's flagship social protection schemes. Around 50 million households per year gain employment under NREGA. The program is designed to help enforce a minimum wage floor for rural agricultural workers: because laborers have NREGA as an outside option with guaranteed work (up to 100 days per year for each household) and a secure minimum wage, they have increased bargaining power in non-NREGA work and can demand higher pay.
Administrative data on NREGA is collected and stored in a database on a daily basis, with over three terabytes collected to date. This might well be one of the largest development databases in the world. NREGA has been a pioneer in providing open access; however, the indicators it provided were difficult to use, and the website structure would have required the user to navigate tens of thousands of webpages to assemble quality information. In addition, the landing page did not make clear how to navigate to the data tables.
The EPoD research team has worked with the Ministry of Rural Development to construct dashboards that will focus on key areas of interest for NREGA implementation, including payment delays and participation of traditionally marginalized groups (women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes). The first output of this project – Ministry of Rural Development’s Public Data Portal – was launched at the March 10 press conference.
The Data Portal has enormous potential for research purposes, and to contribute to the smooth running to NREGA. Furthermore, by providing access to visualized administrative data, the Portal could improve transparency and lead to better program performance through empowered citizen groups. An ongoing aim of the collaboration between MoRD and EPoD is to spread knowledge of and demand for high-quality visualization throughout the Government of India, and push for the adoption of similar projects for other social programs.