Sunday, May 24, 2009

Congress government must increase public access to data

One of the Obama Government's objectives is to increase transparency in government and public access to data. Towards this end, it has set up
The purpose of is to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. Although the initial launch of provides a limited portion of the rich variety of Federal datasets presently available, we invite you to actively participate in shaping the future of by suggesting additional datasets and site enhancements to provide seamless access and use of your Federal data. Visit today with us, but come back often. With your help, will continue to grow and change in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
This is the kind of openness that we need to see more of in India. Once data gets into the steel trap of the government, it can be cussedly difficult to extract it. A good case in point is the Indian Patent Office. Patents are supposed to be a monopoly on an invention granted to an inventor in return for disclosure. This disclosure is supposed to help society to build on existing knowledge and avoid reinventing the wheel. Even USA, which is considered to have the most permissive patenting regime in the world, has a freely accessible database of patents at However, extracting patents from the Indian Patent Office is like a root-canal operation. My friends inform me that recently it took them six weeks to obtain copies of patents and required several follow-ups and representation to the higher ups.

This is an intolerable state of affairs. As a citizen, the patent information is yours by right. Yet, you have to pay Rs 4,000 to get a copy of a patent. On top of that, you have to supplicate in front of a officer whose salary is paid out of the money that you pay as a tax payer. At several levels, this is a subversion of the original intent of the patent system, which is to increase access to new inventions and ideas. Also, consider the fact that this travesty is happening within the context of a civilization that believes that knowledge shall set you free! This is just one instance of a system that has been perversely twisted to deny citizens access to data that rightfully belongs to them.

While the BJP did not win the elections, one of the proposals that I really liked within their IT Vision was that of replacing the Right to Information Act with a Duty to Inform Act that puts the onus on the government to share information with its citizens. In the long run, I think this is the way to go and with the technology at our disposal, we no longer have excuses to keep public data out of the reach of Indian citizens.