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MIT Scientists Assess How Indian Cities Navigate E‑Governance and Data Privacy

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Oct 9, 2019

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The Aadhar initiative now covers 98% of adults in India, by government estimates. Under it, a unique 12-digit identity number is assigned to an Indian citizen, after the collection of their demographic and biometric data. Aadhar is one of the largest government databases in the world, and the sheer quantity of sensitive data the government now possesses has left Indians shifting in their seats, with many questioning the intent, legality, and data security and privacy provisions of such a project.

Aadhar aside, Indian cities are increasingly shifting all municipal governments from paper-based systems to fully digitized systems via the e-Government Foundation, to create platforms where citizens request and interact with government service departments. This involves collecting and sharing citizen data with government officials, and potentially everyone. This, too, has added to the national call for the protection of citizen privacy and the restriction of citizen data usage, which led to the Supreme Court ruling, in 2017, that Indian citizens have a constitutional right to data privacy and to decide if governments and the private sector can or cannot use their data.

India is at dual inflection points; it is stuck in a push-and-pull between preserving privacy and using data to improve the efficiency of government services. But there is a way out, according to a new MIT study that identifies eight “model” municipal governments in Indian cities that successfully balance privacy and efficiency, while maximizing both.

“How do municipal governments collect citizen data to try to be transparent and efficient, and, at the same time, protect privacy? How do you find a balance?” co-author Karen Sollins, an MIT researcher and specialist in computer science, artificial intelligence and internet policy, asked in a press release. “We show there are opportunities to improve privacy and efficiency simultaneously, instead of saying you get one or the other, but not both.” First published in the journal, The SSRN (formerly known as Social Science Research Network) the study was recently presented at MIT’s Technology Policy Research Conference.

The study analyzed data from more than 380,000 anonymized citizen-government transactions across 112 cities’ municipal governments in one Indian state –not identified by the study for confidentiality reasons — for all of 2018. The requested services analyzed were of three kinds: new water tap tax assessment, new property tax assessment, and public grievances about sanitation, stray animals, infrastructure, schools, and other issues.


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How the e-governance system works is this: Citizens access the relevant platforms for these services via mobile or web apps, entering various types of personal information, and then monitor the progress of the request. The request, and its related data, then pass through various officials, who each complete a sub-task toward resolving the request within a time limit. The request then goes to the next official, and so on.

MIT researchers analyzed data from this system via software that captured each step of each request, with timestamps of when it passed on to the next official, for each of the 112 governments. They then ranked each service request within each city based on two criteria: a government efficiency index — how quickly (more efficient) or slowly (less efficient) a service is processed compared to the prescribed time limit — and, an information privacy index — how responsible is the government in collecting, using and disclosing potentially sensitive citizen data.

“Phone numbers and home addresses, for instance, aren’t needed for many of the services or grievances, yet are collected — and publicly disclosed — by many of the modules,” writes Rob Matherson, a science writer at MIT News. “In fact, the researchers found that some modules historically collected detailed personal and property information across dozens of data fields, yet the governments only needed about half of those fields to get the job done.”

By analyzing the two indices, researchers found eight “model” municipal governments that performed in the top 25% for the three services, in both the efficiency and privacy indices. These governments only used essential data and passed it through fewer officials to complete the requests in or well before time.

The researchers now plan to take a closer look at the reasons behind the efficiency of the model cities and behind the poor performance of the cities in the bottom 25% in the rankings. “First, we’re showing India that this is what your best cities look like and what other cities should become,” co-author Chintan Vaishnav, a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management, said in the press release. “Then we want to look at why a city becomes a model city.”

The researchers insist that it is crucial to conduct similar studies across the world where similar citizen and government data are available and which have similar time limits to complete service requests as India’s. “We believe the indices defined in this paper may be generalizable beyond Indian cities and also beyond any particular product for digital governance such as the eGovernments product suite,” the study says.

The researchers are now working on a model that provides city governments with their scores on efficiency and privacy in real-time, as citizen requests are being filed and processed. The study concludes that “the goal of providing transparent governance, construed in a specific way, need not be compromised by the pursuit of higher governance efficiency and privacy.”

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Written By Pallavi Prasad

Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.

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