While she was still in school in the US, Rwitwika Bhattacharya worked for an American senator from her constituency Katharine Harris. This experience made her realize how much help and resources are made available to an American politician to help them in the course of their work, a fact completely absent from the Indian political scenario. Determined to do something to address this deficiency in her home country, the largest democracy in the world, she graduated from Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government and has been striding up political reforms with her NGO Swainiti ever since.
Swainiti’s latest offering is Jigyasa, a one stop resource point which provides ‘knowledge, data analysis and developmental correlation between governance, policies and developmental outcomes.’ Their main goal is to provide thorough well researched data to governmental programs that will help elected representatives take effective decisions in their constituency.
The political system in the country is a convoluted web of corruption, bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency. The team behind Jigyasa has been tirelessly at work for more than a year to develop a product that can effectively address these problems. A conversation with Rwitwika Bhattacharya results in this epiphany. The youth may hardly have any representation in the Parliament, but when dedicated millennia’s like her are hard at work making the country a better place, then there is hope yet for India.
How did Jigyasa come to be conceived?
In working with Parliamentarians on Swaniti engagements, our focus is to resolve issues that they deem are a priority. But we saw a significant void in this space. When Parliamentarians assess the state in their community, they do so by talking to party workers, constituents etc. And while most of the times the problems that emerge are pressing, there is no data backed decision making that comes in to place. Thus the Jigyasa platform was conceived.
The goal of the Jigyasa platform is to provide quantified development indicators (over a decade or so) and overlap them with administrations in office. Now, as a MP and as Constituent I can see how a Party/State/Sector has performed over a period of time and accordingly plan for the development programs I want to improve. As discourse about government performance during this election and beyond grows, we expect this tool to become particularly important.
What tools and methods do you apply in generating your data? Is your data collection primary or secondary source?
The Jigyasa team consists of eight people: six research associates and two coders. The Research Associates began by going through information from different ministries and across states, talked to bureacrats and filed for RTI. Once were able to assess the available data (eventually one of our key takeaways was that there are significant data gaps within the government that needs to be looked in to), then they collectively met for over three months to identify metrics they can showcase (we wanted to pick metrics that the government can influence. For example we chose infant mortality over life expectancy because the government can affect that). Finally, they worked tirelessly to compile hundreds of excel charts to map out the indicators that were then turned over to coder.
Our coders were very focused on creating an interface that the ‘average Joe’ can use. So they ended up creating four different iterations before deciding on this page. The coders had to also go in to designing and putting together maps and information that could be consumable. They worked on the site for five months. Finally, now the Jigyasa site is here!!
Please elucidate how does Jigyasa overlap development performance with administrations in office?
As I mentioned, our goal was to create a platform that would inform MPs about development performance over a period of time. Therefore we were very careful with the kind of metrics we selected. Following was the selection process:
As mentioned above, the research team met several hours every week to evaluate metrics that would provide a fair assessment of governmental performance usable for MPs and constituents. The metrics that were finally selected were ones that
a.) …could be directly be affected by the government: For example, even though data about life expectancy was available, the team decided that a government could not influence an individual’s life expectancy and therefore decided to instead look in to Infant Mortality rates,
b.)… the government invested significantly in to: For example, in the education sector, government has consistently focused on building schools across communities and therefore the team decided that Gross Enrollment Ratio would be a fair metric.
c.) …had the appropriate systems in place: For example, on paper the government is expected to have programs that mandate ICT training in schools but the reality is different and therefore the team picked metrics where the systems for operationalizing projects were in place.
Given that the 16th Lok Sabha elections are going on, it is a very opportune time to launch such a politically relevant site. Was the timing intentional? How do hope to influence voting patterns with this initiative?
The whole process took us over a year to put together A lot of time invested in data gathering. We were hopeful of launching it sooner but we are glad that we will be able to influence some portion of the population. We are hoping that constituents can go in and see how their state is doing on several indicators. Also we are hoping that several leaders (MPs, MLAs, etc) can explore areas where they can also bring progress and development and use this website as a tool.
What are the long term goals and outcomes you visualise for Jigyasa?
Swaniti is an organization that not just develops knowledge. We will continue to build on the website by adding indicators, improving the interface and continuing to look for data that will help in the decision making process for Parliamentarians. But we’ll also support in implementing programs in the constituency for Parliamentarians. Our vision of the Jigyasa portal is to eventually use this information to bring data-drive solutions.
How did you go about assembling such a highly qualified team? What do each of them bring to the table? What are their motivations and inspirations in being part of this endeavour?
Swaniti has been very fortunate in getting some of the most dedicated and driven professionals who share this vision for more data based decision-making in the government. Our team has worked through weekdays and weekends since last year and has sought for perfection. A special acknowledgement for Shantanu Agarwal who was leading this initiative and Dinesh Chand who was the lead researcher. The team inspires and drives each other unlike anything else I have ever seen.
Since your team is interspersed all over the country, and the globe, does cross collaboration become problematic?
We have a Delhi office for most of our team members but interestingly those working on Jigyasa were interspersed. Thankfully through daily skype calls and meetings they were able to coordinate together and deliver. It was stressful during the period when the team had to choose indicators. But they didn’t let the distance affect them and continued working hard.
What are the initial reactions and responses you have had for Jigyasa? Are they encouraging?
Yes they are very encouraging. We had done a softlaunch for Jigyasa and the demand for a product like this is tremendous. We are confident that now we the hard launch we will have a strong user base.