Government - Held Tradeable Information in India*
At the last Meet of the Information Today & Tomorrow (IIT Meet) at Surajkund some participants from the industrial organisations evinced keen interest in the information held by Government departments. The following recommendation reflects this interest:
"A comprehensive directory giving details of databases available
Government departments,with details of access mechanism should be prepared and published.
Databases with good national and international market potential should also be identified."
A project was approved and awarded to the Institute of Social Analysis and Communication, New Delhi. It was decided to include all the S & T departments along with some other departments which deal with Government-held information, viz. DST, DSIR, CSIR, ICMR, DOB, DOE, NIC, Department of Ocean Development, Department of Environment, Department of Tourism, Planning Commission, Department of Statistics, Non-Conventional Energy Sources, Health Services, Industry, Department of Company Affairs, etc.
An interview schedule was designed to gather information from various departments and units. Alongwith the questionaire a resume explaining tradeable information and methods of adding value to information was sent to all the deptt. In addition to interviewing some of the secretaries, senior officers were interviewed to get their views on the entry of private sector information industry organisations to handle government-held information. The members of the study team experienced difficulties like busy schedule of the senior officers, not parting with the information, taking shelter under the Official Secrecy Act or Service Conduct Rules and their negative attitude towards this type of study.
Nature of Information in Govt. Departments
Most of the Government departments hold information in the normal course of their work and also supply some information to the media research workers and to the public. Collection of information in these departments is usually through three distinct methods as :
Departments which have the mandate of registration, licensing, certification and similar statutory regulation, are able to collect information automatically. Parties themselves deposit documents or records giving details of products/organisations/value, etc. When such records are accumulated and processed, a valuable source of information is created. The Registrar of Companies (ROC) is a typical example of this nature.
In the second category comes all those departments where information have to be generated or captured through an elaborate collection/observation mechanism. This may include laboratories, observatories, satellites, research vessels and so on. Most of the scientific departments like Ocean Development, Biotechnology, Environment, Non-Conventional Engery Sources, etc. come in this category. Further, it has been noticed that these departments very often take on the role of co-ordinating agencies and thereby are in a better position to collect data from a large mumber of agencies.
In the third category can be placed those departments which essentially deal with information collected in other departments and, hance, the emphasis is on processing and dissemination. The NIC and the Department of Statistics are two obvious examples of this nature.
The above are not mutually exclusive categories. Some departments do have different functions, but some departments collect information and generate as well. The study compiled information on mechnism of collection and dissemination of information value added information, conditions of transfer of information and databases available with various Departments. Some of the information can be categorised as follows :
Directories of scientists/technologists, experts, institutions / organisations;
S&T exhibitions, museums, science centres, voluntary agenceis, R&D centres, NGOs in India;
Data on foreign collaborations, deputation reports, extramural research projects, Tokten programmes;
National surveys on resources, S&T activities, technological databases on composites, food processing, energy, environment, non-ferrous material, etc.;
Fellowships, publication databases,Indian patents;
Data on granting recognition of non-commercial scientific and industrial research, technology status of different products, companies registered under the Companies Act, 1956.
All the above information is in database form or hard copy form and some of these files are unique. At present certain information is gathered through the participating institutions/ laboratories within a department and is shared among them only. Such information could be of national importance and used for wider disemination. Such information could be sifted and repackaged with the help of consultants and editors and published in the form of serial reviews and advances series and is worthy of marketing to scientists at international level. Thus the information in repackaged form with proper indexing and making it more accessible to reseachers, field workers, scientists, NGOs and general public could be put to maximum use. The voluminous data obtained by the Registrar of Companies (3,73,543 companies till August 1995 : available with the Dept. of Company Affairs) which are published in 8 fat volumes, could be made more useful by sectorising the entire file. For each company the appropriate NIC (National Industrial Classification) code is given. This could be utilised to create sub-sets according to the types or industrial sectors of the companies. This could be another way of adding value.
Role of NIC and the Department of Statistics (DOS)
Both these departments collect information/statistical data from a large number of other dapartments and make them available in different ways. The DOS also generates/collects new information, through its wing, the National Sample Survey Organisation, in various fields of activity. The NIC, as is known, is the leader in the computerised handling of information in the country. It has helped a large number of government departments in creating databases and making them available online to a larger number of users. The NIC has created and holds more than 400 databases. Many of them are actually owned by the departments who supply the information (e.g. BTIS, NOIS) and the owners decide to whom the databases should be made available. However, there are a large number of public domain information databases, in the use and marketing of which private sector information industry participation is possible.
It can be said for certain, that most departments are now able to bring out far more colourful and attractive annual reports than what the government press with its stock of low grade newsprint paper could churn out earlier. Any reader would love to hold a present day annual report in his hands. However, these reports do not reach many hands for various reasons. Firstly, their print order is very limited. Secondly, as these are free publications, there is hardly any marketing efforts involved. Distribution is more of a ritual to show that copies of annual reports have been distributed on time. Consequently, many potential users do not get an easy access to such documents. Considering the above situation, the Secretary in the Dept. of Electronics suggested that some agency might come forward and create a database of annual reports of government departments.
It was observed during the interviews that in many departments concepts like `tradeable information' or `value-added information' were completely unknown even amongst very senior officials. This was evident in spite of supplying a brief write-up explaining the concepts. However, there was a marked difference in this respect, between the officials of the S & T departments and those in other dapartments.
It has been observed that in the mandates or objectives of the more recently established departments, dissemination of information finds a prominent mention. This is a significant trend. Another related issue is the Official Secrecy Act. The provisions of this Act have to be reconsidered in the light of changes through the years and also citizens' right of access to government information in a democratic country and suitable ammendments made.
Lastly, it should also be mentioned here that the new born fledgling Information Industry Association should now come forward and make its presence felt. It should also be able to identify tradeable information or information that could be made tradeable by adding value and also identify the target groups for each type of information.
* A study conducted by the Institute of Social Analysis and Communication, New Delhi and sponsored by NISSAT, Department of Scientific & Industrial Research, New Delhi.