Print Edition - 2014-10-10  |  Oped

Data for development

  • A national data warehouse will help evidence-based planning and create new business opportunities
- PRABIN PAUDEL
Data for development

Oct 9, 2014-All the major activities in development projects such as baseline reviews, project designs, outcome listings, and monitoring and evaluation involve crunching data. In order to successfully complete a project, whether it is road construction or hydropower development, accurate and reliable data is vital in each stage. Despite its great importance in all phases of the project cycle, visually interactive data in the form of information is hard to find at Nepali government offices and public organisations. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) is the sole provider of government data, but its website is cluttered with static data that is hard to decipher and convert into information. Any other government web service and the manner in which they provide information are no better.

Storing central data

Given the integral role data plays, the Government of Nepal would do well to work at the national level to create a data warehouse, provide data in the form of information, and promote the notion of open data. It may sound ambitious but national level data warehouses have been built in other countries and there are proven technologies available in the market at an affordable price to do so.

I am proposing this based on my recent experience of leading a similar effort at the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), a government body that promotes renewable energy technologies in rural areas. AEPC is implementing a National Rural and Renewable Energy (NRREP) programme for the promotion of various renewable energy technologies such as solar, biomass, biogas, wind, and micro-hydro. These different technologies were earlier running as independent programmes with their own database until all of them were brought under the aegis of the AEPC as a single window system for renewable technologies in Nepal. Hence, AEPC wanted to set up a common Management Information System to provide relevant information and data to all stakeholders.

Due to the large size of the NRREP programme, AEPC decided to create a data warehouse consisting of data on all renewable energy technologies in Nepal. The data warehouse is linked to a common platform that can provide any information regarding renewable energy in Nepal to the public. This initiative was led by Govinda Pokharel, who was then director of AEPC and is now Vice-Chairman at the National Planning Commission (NPC). It was due to his vision to harness the power of data and information and communication technologies that AEPC was able to create a data warehouse, the first of its kind in the public sector in Nepal.

By following the same proven model, if databases from various ministries, departments, and other government agencies are collected and merged into a national data warehouse, it would be possible to use the data in country-level planning, budgeting, and monitoring. Such a national-level data warehouse could provide information to central agencies like the National Planning Commission and each government entity could access each others’ data. Public and private entities and civil society at large could also use the data for multiple purposes.   

Data as information

One area where government agencies, including the CBS, are currently lacking is in providing data as information. On visiting the CBS website, one can see a list of documents available to view or download, but they are not collated and have not been transmuted into information. There are separate documents for each district on agriculture-related data but it is not easy to merge data for 75 districts for different sectors and visualise country-level status. Therefore, providing an interactive analytical visual platform, one that the user can play with, is a must.

This is possible when there is a national-level data warehouse. Collected data can be converted into visualised information for the general public. There are ample benefits of such a platform. Private organisations, for instance, can use it to start businesses. This could also attract more foreign direct investment as people outside of Nepal interested to invest here will have access to reliable information at their finger tips.

Promoting open data  

After the government collects, stores, and transforms data from all ministries and other public entities and provides it in the form of information, it is equally important to make this data available to all for free. This will also help make the government more accountable and transparent.

The concept of open data is becoming popular in both developed and developing countries. Open data is information that is available to anyone to use for free. Data from government and public organisations about education, transportation, energy, agriculture, and health can help plan activities and resolve many problems in these sectors. In addition, it can also help open up many avenues of opportunities for entrepreneurs. For instance, AEPC’s providing open data about national renewable energy can generate new ideas for businesses to build solar plants and wind turbines.

Few initiatives have already been taken by the government in this direction. The Ministry of Finance is building an Open Aid Platform where details of all the money coming in from foreign donors will be stored in a central database and available for free download for anyone interested. Such an initiative is required in other sectors as well. However, due concern should also be given to ensure that personal privacy is protected, as governed by national laws.

The current government cannot ignore the importance of data for national development and the need to promote a knowledge-based economy. Towards that end, first and foremost, the Planning Commission should work on restructuring the Bureau of Statistics to make it more scientific and tech-savvy. Only a ‘National Data Science Institute’ with a high caliber team consisting of data scientists, engineers, and legal experts can realise such an ambitious goal of building a single platform to disseminate information. This will not just help the government with evidence-based planning and decision-making but will also create new business opportunities and directly contribute to the national economy.

Paudel is Innovation Technology Consultant for the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment

Published: 10-10-2014 09:23

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