A public response to the proposal for NODE: a National Open Digital Ecosystem

Some Observations On The Proposal for A National Open Digital Ecosystem

The suggested initiative, based on the published documentation, appears to be driven by the need to enable private enterprise to provide services to citizens. However, it is plain, to citizens, that our state is founded upon the creation of a government to serve the people. Whatever needs to be done to realise this, whether it be the creation of an empowered and privately financed entrepreneurial sector or otherwise, must place the citizen first, and not at the receiving end of externally conceived deliverables.

The vision encapsulated in the document is certainly attractive, but only superficially so. There are large gaps between the assumption that private enterprise is both willing and capable of realising the needs of a citizen-driven society, and that of a private-enterprise-centric design, wherein it is hoped that the Constitutionally-defined needs of the citizenry will be, eventually, met.

Design drives development of deliverables, in such an approach, and not the other way around. Historically, in the years immediately following Independence, the imperative to develop industry through internally generated national investments led to the creation of many such assets, whose need for survival trumped that of delivering service and value to citizenry.

As a long term developer of engineering solutions to gaps in service deliveries for ordinary citizens, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. It is imperative to utilise the learnings of ordinary citizens as contributions to the development and improvement of systems upon which service deliveries will be actualised. There is little evidence that the present suggested approach has any provision for it at all. Rather, the assumption that Open APIs and Open Standards will be evolved, that presuppose readymade and opaque ‘black box’ code, upon which enterprise (whether private or public, but the implicit emphasis is on venture-capital-funded private) will build end-uses, militates, by design, against any such possibility.

  2. The existing framework of public administration must be empowered to take responsibility for the creation and implementation of citizen-facing services. This is not an outsource activity, nor is it one that can take place behind closed doors. In recent decades, the framework for publicly transparent activity has been legislated, but not taken forward to its logical regular and mandated publishing of state activities for effortless public examination and discussion.

  3. The use of the word ‘Open’ in the title of this initiative must be matched by the openness of Free Software principles. This does not mean the compromise of national security, but rather its enhancement, by doing away with opportunities for clandestine compromise of national imperatives. In particular, the active and financially productive involvement of empowered citizens, as well as state employees (as in #2 above), must be leveraged whole-heartedly, to minimise opportunities for national assets to be privately monopolised. This is the standing policy of the Government of India since 2014, although there has not been significant utilisation of this policy, either in the publishing of government activities, or in the development of national asset management. The conceptualisation of a national open digital ecosystem is a remarkable opportunity to leverage it, rather than to continue on a wasteful path.

  4. Neither private citizens nor private enterprise should be enabled or empowered to leverage potential conflicts of interest between national imperatives and private gain. It appears from the documents so far published in this connection that sufficient care is not being taken to minimise or obviate such possibilities.

  5. While the Constitution itself unequivocally places the interest of citizens ahead of any others in respect of personal privacy, the suggestion that private enterprise can leverage citizen data (an intrinsic national asset residing with citizens) for private gain is incomprehensible. It appears that the need for specific legislation to protect ‘data’ has been deliberately used to muddy the waters in this present initiative, and should be strongly resisted.