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The Cost of Innovation
Data-driven murder of state-capacity
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It’s 6:00 AM and Imran is ready to leave for work. Their 2 year old son isn’t awake yet. His wife has packed a steel tiffin for the day. It’s not enough for the whole day but he decides to eat on a dhaba on the way. He had joined the state engineering services about 2 years ago and holds the position of a Joint Engineer, an entry level position for overseeing public engineering works in a rural district of Bihar. He struggles to kick start his motorbike. It’s freezing cold and he doesn’t have a departmental vehicle assigned to him. The two cars allocated to the district are being utilized to chauffeur his superiors’ personal families. The local contractor had offered to buy him a new bike but he had declined the offer on principle. His bike finally breathes into life. Ready and well armed with multiple power banks, he leaves for the day. His first stop is at the local petrol pump. He fills a full tank knowing well in advance there will be no reimbursement for his bills. The administrative cap for travel allowances for his district was surpassed months ago. He opens the official whatsapp group to find the apk shared by app developers in Delhi and installs the android application. A survey needs to be done. It’s “urgent” as per his superiors, a word that has little meaning left when almost every task given to him is classified as urgent. He starts the survey and drives from one village to another. The internet is patchy but he has been informed that the mobile application works offline as well. Not informed about the intended use of the data, he makes his own assumptions about what should and shouldn’t be surveyed. Occasionally he checks in on the whatsapp group to see if someone has posted any tips on the application usage. Occasionally someone jokes about not being paid enough for this work. No wonder some of his colleagues have found other sources of illicit income. As he drives on dilapidated roads, he is careful not to drop his phone. Many of the roads which he passes are due for routine inspections as part of his regular duties. A proper inspection would require about 2-3 hours per road but instead he makes a mental note about the visual condition of the road and decides to extrapolate the same and write a desk based report later. It will be inaccurate, but that’s the best he can do given the circumstances. He did the same last month as he was occupied with Panchayat election duty. Before that the engineers were called in to help set up a district mela on behest of the local MLA. There is always something. Today he has to cover 100 villages. At around 11:00 PM he reaches home. His wife applies balm to his back to soothe a recurring ache. Their 2 year old kid is fast asleep. Imran’s wife is concerned about the stress and exhaustion. “Wasn’t the government job supposed to be easy?” The next day he reports to the office to find that a percentage of photographs weren’t uploaded to the online system because of system outage at the server end in Delhi and that he was forwarded an outdated version of the app. Others in the whatsapp group have reported similar issues. He tries contacting the helpline number provided by the software development team in Delhi but they are helpless as well. Imran’s superiors decide that it’s best for him to go to and re-survey the villages for which the data was lost. This goes on for a week till the survey work is complete. He never heard back about how the data was utilized or got access to the data he collected through the app.
Meanwhile in Delhi - the survey data from many engineers like Imran across the country are aggregated to fit a single bar graph with a 2 line caption in a government commissioned, multilateral bank funded, big-4 consultancy authored report. The report is titled “Data driven Innovation in Rural Infrastructure” which among many things concludes that state capacity is limited, corrupt and pushes for further privatization.
Disclaimer: This is a fictional write up loosely inspired by ground realities.
If you finished reading this and are still here:
This was originally posted on my blog on March 28, 2020. I was at the lag-end of the implementation of third phase of PMGSY. Central to PMGSY-III, was an algorithm I had proposed and developed which with it brought in a lot of costs and burden on the existing capacity. Central to it was the data-preparation and collection costs associated with running the algorithms and checks. Almost routinely, the core team would stop and question ourselves, whether all of this effort put by everyone is worth it? Are we really getting closer to better selection of the roads than status quo? The post above was written then as outlet of frustrations, from my own guilt but also what I’ve seen over and over again play out.
Very often, if not always, projects I’ve been involved in or pursued have been convoluted in their costs and benefits. Whenever the careful negotiation of costs and benefits is put under question, doubts creep in and motivations dropped. Very rarely has there been a project which I’ve not questioned midway its implementation whether it was really worth it or whether it did achieve the goals we planned.
The only project that I’ve encountered where I found myself doubt-free and pure in its merits and enabled dogged conviction was opening the PMGSY Rural Connectivity GIS Datasets. These datasets were for a long time only accessible to less than 10 people, and all of us were convinced without doubt how incredible these datasets were. While the idea to open it was in our heads for a long time, we were waiting for the stars to align. After more than 2 years of waiting and pursuining, the data was opened up liberally in January, 2022. One year later, the data has more than 20,000 downloads and has been deployed for usecases the dozen people with early-access could never imagine.
Technologically, data collection is intensive but opening it up is turn-key. Other than pursuing the decision at the higher levels, opening the data required little physical effort from me but when I look back I count it as one of my most pure, cherished and impactful projects in the Government. Not that it absolves us of costs inflicted on many people like Imran, nor does it help alleviate what they endure, but it does help a little in making sure their efforts are given some broader meaning because very little will ever justify the cost we technocratically inflict on our frontline.
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