In 2004 website called yelp.com was created to help people find local businesses such as small restaurants, salons, etc. The idea of the website was simple. Any user or a business can locate itself on the map and provide basic information about itself. For example, a restaurant could describe itself and provide its menu and other details, and any user could review the organisation. Someone who is looking for a service, e.g. salon in a particular area, can now search easily for all salons by the price, services and reviews.
What yelp does is to enable people anyone to find information about services, and at the same time to offer information about it in form of reviews. With millions of users contributing a little bit of information each, the overall knowledge base becomes tremendous. The idea of yelp could be extended in powerful ways to deal with public services and public assets.
Making information easy to access
The potential for a Yelp-like service to review governments and to increase transparency occurred to me during my fieldwork. To take an example, during one of my visits to a Panchayat I came across a public assets register. Every Panchayat in Tamil Nadu is expected to maintain a register with all the public assets in the Panchayat. This particular Panchayat was supposed to have six ponds, but then two of the ponds were “missing”, naturally, under the houses of some influential people. If we go through other such registers in other such offices, we will be sure to discover missing houses, dams, ration shops, roads and many other public facilities. Most of us do not have an access to these registers to find out what assets and services exist officially. The access will be even more curtailed for those who are seeking to establish corruption. While the right information laws do provide us with legal access to such information, laying our hands on it takes much effort. This naturally deters public involvement in dealing with corruption.
Imagine now the ability even for an amateur to lay hands on such information with little effort. For example, we can create an application that will list all the public assets within the 2 km area of where one is standing using a mobile phone. This can radically change our ability to monitor the government, and the ability to watch comes with the ability to transform. Such applications can put pressure on the government, and force it to perform better.
While discovery is one aspect of and yelp, feedback is the other. Let’s take NREGA as an example. We can easily develop an application that allows anyone to provide feedback on each project and to rate them. This will help us create a large database of information about the quality of works that can transform the way we discuss programmes like the NREGA. Having concrete information will put pressure on corruption and poor quality, and will also help us to discover where things work. This will help us learn effective methods, and perhaps create rewards for those who make them work.
Having a tool like this can also enable people’s organisations in interesting ways. It should not be difficult for activists working on PDS, or even the media to start a campaign for people to evaluate the functioning of ration shops. In a very short time, we could have a large volume of information that can then serve as the basis of an informed campaign. Similarly a campaign to evaluate the usage of MP or MLA funds could also have interesting democratic implications during an election. We can go on and on with other examples.
Interestingly, a lot of information about public services and assets is already available online. For example, basic information about school infrastructure of almost every school is available in one place. In states like Andhra Pradesh, we can identify every project in every village with information on everyone who received any money for working in NREGA. There are many other such examples, and the availability of information online is increasing exponentially.
While information is expanding rapidly, the format of presentation leaves much to be desired. India’s budget documents continue to be presented in hundreds of PDF tables. God knows what one is supposed to do with that. School information systems or NREGA information do not come with adequate geospatial data. There is also no way of developing applications for people to provide feedback on these projects. But these issues can be addressed with a little bit more work, now that the real hard work of collecting the basic databases and putting them online has been done.