Tag Archives | Open Data

India’s unusual trade pattern with the United States

Richard Rossow (via Milan Vaishnav) shared the latest US-India trade in goods data updated by the US Census Bureau.

India has a running trade deficit in goods: where it imports more goods than its exports. It is wrong to simplistically judge whether a trade deficit is good or bad – however, India does do ‘better’ when it comes to its services.

However, today this blogger learnt that the trade relationship that India has with the United States of America is quite different from that with many other big trading partners. India’s large software and services exports to the US are well-known, but India exports more goods to the US as well. Little wonder that American businesses lobby hard in Washington to be able to trade more and operate more in India.

In 2014, for the first time since 2006, India’s exports to the US are more than double its imports. It is currently unclear as to what to attribute this towards and pass judgement on whether this is a good or a bad thing. The broad trends in the two economies in the last 4 years has been one of revival and renewed growth in the United States, and faltering growth and investment in India.

India-US Trade1The timeline of imports and exports from the 1980s onwards has a few points of interest from recent years. The most prominent of these is the dip in 2009 of both Indian exports and imports, with the former affected far more than the latter. This was preceded by a sharp rise in 2007 in Indian goods imports from the US.

While Indian exports to the US bounced back since 2010, Indian goods imports plateaued in 2011 and have dropped a little in real terms since then.

The USTR website on India-US trade relations says that India’s largest goods exports to the US are precious stones (diamonds), pharmaceuticals, mineral fuel, organic chemicals and others. India’s largest goods imports are again precious stones (diamonds and gold), aircraft, machinery and optical and medical instruments.

A closer examination of export and import trends in types of goods (using the US Census Bureau’s “end use” dataset) provides the following:

1. Since 2009, the largest growth in highly traded Indian goods exports to the US as of 2013 are:
– Petroleum products, other
– Tobacco, waxes, etc
– Fish and shellfish
– Fuel oil

2. Since 2009, the largest growth in highly traded Indian goods imports from the US as of 2013 are:
– Complete military aircraft
– Gem diamonds
– Nonmonetary gold
– Newsprint
– Parts for military-type goods

3. Since 2009, the largest fall in highly traded Indian goods imports from the US as of 2013 are:
– Civilian aircraft, engines, equipment, and parts
– Chemicals-fertilizers
– Steelmaking materials
– Computers
– Drilling and oilfield equipment

I encourage readers to comment on the significance of some of these observed changes.

There’s a lot more information waiting to be unearthed from these datasets, including information on when Indian defence imports of US equipment really increased and to what extents. The defence angle is particularly interesting as the Indian ministry of defence is quite opaque in defence spending and is known to defer capital payments while making large announcements.

Readers are welcome to use the full rich XLS spreadsheet that I have compiled on all the data from the US Census Bureau relevant to the last couple of decades of India-US trade.

Addendum: The US$-Indian Rupee exchange rate has been steadily rising, making imports from the US less competitive. This could perhaps explain a part of the slump in US goods imports by India.

PS. All years used in this post are calendar years and not financial years.

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Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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In Pragati: From Open Data to a Culture of Openness

This week, I write in Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review about thinking beyond open data and creating a culture of openness in India:

Building sound public policies requires robust information systems and data. The state has the primary onus on provisioning for the public good that is knowledge – and traditionally the working of the Indian state involved secrecy as a core principle. The state enjoyed a monopoly on generation and access to large parts of knowledge and data relevant to public affairs, with its citizens often kept in the dark. Thanks to almost two decades of campaigns in the country, this paradigm has been overturned significantly.

When it comes to knowledge, information and data – the form of opening up determines how usable it is. Since the passing of the Right to Information Act into law, the focus of many advocacy efforts has shifted to usability and ease of access to government information and data. Release of information suo moto decreases the time cost of accessing information, and when it comes to data it is quite obvious that whether it is shared as a photocopy, PDF or an excel file makes a world of difference. Unfettered open access to data and information generated through taxpayer funds may remain a distant goal, but there are constant signs of progress. The Census of India is an exemplar of openness and friendliness as a data provider, and the Government Data Portal: data.gov.in was launched just last year is being populated with more datasets every month.

Increasing openness of official information is but one leg of improving the ‘public good’ quality of knowledge. Along with openness, the contestability of information has also increased in India over the last two decades. As Pratab Bhanu Mehta mentions, when official pollution numbers are not trusted, you have private organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment to monitor the pollution on their own and provide independent evidence.

Research institutions, not-for-profit organisations and the media are playing a larger role in generating data that is relevant to public affairs. Many private players routinely engage in data collection exercises, and conduct large surveys for research and to answer specific questions. Not only is this being done on a local scale, but nationally as well. Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre conducted a national analysis of public services in India about a decade ago, and the ASER Centre provides state and district level information on children’s learning levels and education across the country, year after year. These are but two examples out of many.

While citizens of India are demanding more openness from their government and private entities are playing a greater role in contributing to public knowledge, openness as a culture has been far slower off the mark. Barring exceptions, research and not-for-profit organisations are far from open with their data in India today.

Data is collected with great care, cost and effort and is often used with great effect – but rarely more than once or twice. The original researchers often do not have the inclination, incentives or the luxury of going beyond their original mandates in analysis. Just like government data is underutilised if it only remains in an official report, the utility of privately generated data may far exceed this limited use.

Data and information are also network goods. Data sets can complement each other and together they can yield  richer knowledge than they would on their own. A lack of public sharing of data sets and a culture that does not expect that of its knowledge creators prevents this from happening.

None of this is to say that individuals are not generous with what data is at their disposal. While rent-seeking remains a problem, many researchers and organisations are happy to oblige requests for data. However, this remains sub-optimal as personally investigating and enquiring after data results in very high costs for searching – if not monetary, then certainly in time and effort spent. The only way to change this is if more people adopt online, open disclosure of data.

While an open culture around data is desirable, it takes several complementary actions to get there. Access to private data, whether it is generated by a business or by an NGO, cannot be treated as a rights issue. Individual freedom and private property need to be respected while creating enabling incentives and encouraging voluntary efforts to open up information.

As research and data get exposed, the first problem that arises is that faults and errors become evident and can cause people to beat a quick retreat. What needs to be kept in mind is that pioneers who open their data sets before others can reap a large signaling dividend. Modest research with openness could have a higher impact than a superior quality study that remains closed. If sustained, open data researchers can build a reputation that is several notches above those who keep their data closed.

The second problem is that open disclosure results in a loss of control – where unknown anonymous users could use it without giving proper credit and for radically different ends. While this can indeed happen, the public benefit from open disclosure and the credit for it remains higher than such losses.

The third problem that can arise is that as the culture of sharing is weak and data science is still nascent in India, the benefits of opening up data sets may take a lot of time to yield impressive results. What is also needed is a kick starter – perhaps in the form of scholarships for students and researchers to use high quality datasets and publish new results.

Donors and foundations funding research and analysis also have an important role to play here – by committing to openness and providing platforms that enable sharing, they can change the work cultures in organisations that they fund. Official mandates to that effect government-funded research would work the same way. In India there is ample precedent for comfort: agencies such as the World Bank and others have embraced open data, it is for others to keep up.

If India is to transition to a true knowledge economy, open access, availability and contestability of public knowledge is paramount. A narrow campaign to liberate government data will have far less of a lasting impact than a broader attempt at creating a culture of openness and sharing around information and data. It is time we started on the latter.

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