Economic Survey 2019: Government Should Create Central Welfare Database Of Citizens

If information in datasets is utilised together, it can help reduce targeting errors in welfare schemes, the survey said.

A technician walks beneath wiring cables for servers inside the data center room at a company. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
A technician walks beneath wiring cables for servers inside the data center room at a company. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

The government can improve its delivery of public goods and services by creating a central welfare database of citizens by merging various existing databases, according to the Economic Survey 2018-19.

The transformation of the world economy, thanks to the internet age, has led to data explosion and in recent years the marginal cost of data has been on a decline while its benefits to society are higher than ever, the survey, which was tabled in Parliament on Thursday, said.

The fact that data is widely available and disseminated, its application across sectors creates societal benefits, the Economic Survey said, adding that it requires the government to view data as a public good and be treated as equally important as physical infrastructure.

Today, the government stores a vast repository of administrative, survey, institutional and transactions data about citizens. But these datasets are scattered across numerous government bodies and ministries, which causes problems when citizens have to access public goods and services, it said.

This, according to the Economic Survey, acts as a hindrance for policymakers as each ministry “only has a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle” that is the individual or firm. “The government can thereby deliver a better experience to the citizen by bringing disparate datasets scattered across various ministries together.”

If the information embedded in these datasets is utilised together, it can help reduce targeting errors in welfare schemes and also integrate markets nationally, by reducing the need for middlemen as under the electronic-National Agriculture Market model, the survey said.

But it found that although data dissemination is virtually free in monetary terms, there are associated costs and risks related to data privacy and security.

The key principle in dealing with ‘intimate’ private data compared to anonymised or public data rests on whether the individual has complete knowledge of the use of their data and their consent for using it, the survey said.

In recent years, several privacy activists and technologists have raised concerns over the government’s surveillance capabilities through various nationalised databases.

Central Welfare Database Of Citizens

Economic Survey 2018-19 has proposed that the government create a central welfare database of citizens. This central database can be accessed by other ministries such as home affairs, health and family welfare, human resource development, among others.

“Each department of the government is responsible for making available the data they hold as a data provider. These departments must take care to appropriately treat private data and public data with the standards they require. This data is then made available through a Data Access Fiduciary to the data requestors,” the survey said.

Economic Survey 2019: Government Should Create Central Welfare Database Of Citizens

Data requestors can be public or private institutions, with access controls granted to them only if they have appropriate user consent, the survey said, adding that under such a structure the Data Access Fiduciary will have zero visibility on the data due to end-to-end encryption and that user consent will be at the centre of the government’s initiative to make data a public good.

The prospect of empowering the government with such comprehensive, exhaustive information about every citizen may sound alarming at first. However, this is far from the truth. The proposal envisioned here does not gather any new information; rather,it seeks to make available all data within the government for citizens, government, private and public institutions to utilize the data subject to user consent and appropriate privacy and fairness related constraints.
Economic Survey 2018-19

To enable policymaking that views data as a public good and treat it equivalent to that of other infrastructure resources, the survey said the government needs to step up its Digital India efforts—particularly, in converting paper-based information records into digital ones, and encourage further digital data collection directly at the source.

The survey said that governments at all administrative levels should invest in building their internal capacities “to exploit data in real-time, perform analyses and translate data into meaningful information”.

Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation and Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology can act as nodal departments to steer such efforts at the national level, it said.

The same approach can be used by departments of state governments and the central government, the survey said.

The survey also said private sector may be granted access to select databases for commercial use. “Alternatively, datasets may be sold to analytics agencies that process the data, generate insights, and sell the insights further to the corporate sector, which may in turn use these to predict demand, discover untapped markets or innovate new products,” it said. “Either way, there is tremendous scope for the private sector to benefit from the data and they should be allowed to do so, at a charge.”

The survey also recommended that data collection initiatives taken up by central ministries and state departments shouldn’t just release their survey findings and reports, but also publish the underlying data for independent public analysis.

The benefits of creating data as a public good can be generated within the legal framework of data privacy. Going forward, the data and information highway must be viewed as equally important infrastructure as the physical highways. In the spirit of the Constitution of India, data “of the people, by the people,for the people” must therefore become the mantra for the government.
Economic Survey 2018-19