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Can Technology Transform Governance in India?

March 30, 2016

By Aditya Valiathan Pillai

A group of engineering students trudge up the stairs of an engineering college in the heart of Bangalore’s swanky Electronics City. Flip-flops beat against tiled floors, fingers run through bed-head hair. These bright minds are partly behind India’s unprecedented growth over the last two decades: the young tech-elite who power Indian technology’s heavy hitters like Infosys (whose sprawling campus is across the street), and run global giants like Google and Microsoft. As they fire up their laptops and plug in their headphones, these 50-odd data scientists, software engineers, and computer scientists are turning their attention toward something normally considered beyond their realm. Using open municipal data, they will attempt to come up with a technology solution to some of Bangalore’s toughest civic problems over the course of a one-day “hackathon.”

Hackathons are an extreme sport. Programmers are asked to sit together and program path-breaking ideas in charged environments, with blatantly inadequate amounts of time to do so. This particular “civic” hackathon to transform accountability and participation in urban governance was organized by Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based NGO. Participants were provided with an open ward-level municipal dataset developed with The Asia Foundation’s support, and asked to create mobile phone applications and websites to be used by citizens and governments to improve the quality of infrastructure and services in their city. Apart from a sense of civic duty, teams were drawn to the event by potential incubation support for their idea, a much sought after commodity in Bangalore, and a cash prize.

The winning team of the hackathon created a fully functional WhatsApp-based app that allows users to send text and pictures of malfeasance or ineptitude (such as an official overcharging at a toll road, or a public park with defunct bathrooms and no lights), and track action taken on complaints. Municipal officials have access to live citizen input on individual projects, can track what aspect of the project is most troubling to locals (noise in a residential area, for example), and even pinpoint which officials have been named the most in complaints related to a specific project. This after six hours of programming. It was a tough field to win, too; one competitor proposed a web-based rating system for contractors of public projects (whose names are usually plastered across stalled projects), another designed a platform for rating public amenities.

winning team of the hackathon

The winning team of the hackathon, above, created a fully functional WhatsApp-based app that allows users to send text and pictures of malfeasance or ineptitude and track action taken on complaints.

As the center of India’s high-tech industry, Bangalore has a thriving hackathon ecosystem with big names like IBM and Intel offering sizeable amounts of money and sometimes jobs to the winners of these competitions. Technology companies have long seen these competitions as an efficient way of spotting the talent and ideas that fuel profits and technological innovation. The effect is now spilling over. Non-profit civil society organizations like Janaagraha are beginning to realize the potential that technology, and specifically, crowdsourcing innovation, can have on solving real-world problems. Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) used a variation of the concept to crowdsource scalable assistive-device prototypes for the physically challenged. This could be the beginning of an encouraging pattern that allows Bangalore’s civil society to apply its strengths in information technology to solving the city’s civic weaknesses. And, as other cities become more technologically savvy and connected, employing this approach to cities across the country is the next step.

India is in the midst of a difficult transition. Urban governance systems will have to keep pace with a growing middle class, complex migration patterns to cities, and the rising expectations of citizens better off than they used to be. India’s per capita income is set to grow from $1,570 in 2014 to double that in 2025, powered by income growth in the cities. If handled correctly, governance systems could get a big boost from a simple fact: three Indians come online every second. And they are increasingly doing this on smartphones. Goldman Sachs found that in December 2014, one in five Indians used a smartphone, and just six months later, this figure jumped to one in four. The price of smartphones is also dropping – one Indian company recently developed a smartphone for around $4. These are ideal circumstances for mobile phone applications like those developed at Janaagraha’s civic hackathon.

India mobile phone user

India is in the midst of a difficult transition. Urban governance systems will have to keep pace with a growing middle class, complex migration patterns to cities, and the expectations of citizens better off than they used to be. Photo/Flickr user Eirik Newth

With internet penetration expected to rise from 32 percent in 2015 to 59 percent by 2020, and growing investment in new technology tools, the potential of these apps is huge. However, accessing data and information remains difficult in India. To truly tap into this potential, governments must become more open to sharing data and increase access to information, enshrined in right-to-information laws, and let innovation take flight. Apps like these have enormous utility in solving other major issues facing India’s urban transition such as violence against women (Asia Foundation partner Safetipin has already developed a groundbreaking app to crowdsource safety data for public spaces), as well as water availability and consumption. India’s transformation in technology is well poised to be the leading edge of a transformation in governance.

Aditya Valiathan Pillai is an Asia Foundation program officer in India. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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About our blog, In Asia

In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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