Big problems, simple solutions: Why Open Source Govtech is the need of the hour

By Rahul Kulkarni, CTO, Samagra

Since its launch in 2013, the quantum of direct benefit transfers (DBT) initiated by the government amounts to Rs 22,13,911 crore. Last year in September, on average, more than 15 lakh unique taxpayers logged onto the Income Tax portal every day, and more than 1.5 crore returns were filed. Four years since its rollout, 66 crore GST returns have been filed so far.

In the Indian context, any number with the crore suffix seems par for the course. But seen from any other vantage, these numbers are mind boggling in scale and should evince appreciation for the mammoth tech systems which power the implementation of these governance reforms.

Over the last decade, India has leapfrogged on the digitisation and S front. Systems like UPI, CoWin, and those mentioned above are all innovations which operate at a scale that’s unthinkable for most countries. While these are still evolving, they have all made the life of the common man much easier.

As we continue on the path of bringing about more large-scale digital transformations, it is also important to pause and question if we are doing enough to address the long tail tech problems of governance–the routine, operational tasks which government officials have to carry out and which are critical to keep the system running. For example, data collection-what would be a reliable way for agriculture extension workers to collect data from visits to farms? Or data-backed decision-making-what can be done to make it easier for district and block officials to visualise education or health data on intuitive dashboards to drive timely decision-making? Or tracking pendency-can there be an automated system for initiating escalations to department heads when junior officials don’t adhere to timelines for processing applications for government schemes or services?

All of these are real problems, encountered by crores of government officials at the state, district and block levels on a regular basis. Solving these can improve efficiency in the system, instil accountability towards outcomes, and make evidence-based decision-making a norm.

Several states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha are already at the forefront of solving these long tail problems using open source tech tools.

In Haryana, a District Education Officer (DEO) can view learning level data for students across schools in her district using a customisable dashboard. Further, the DEO can easily slice and dice the data in a manner that can give insights as specific as how many students across Grade 3 in the district are not able to do 2-digit subtraction.

In Himachal Pradesh, block level officials responsible for visiting schools to observe classroom instruction use an app to gather insights. The app gives them a standard set of questions (subjective and objective) which can give a comprehensive overview of the quality of the teaching-learning process. This app data feeds into a dashboard viewable at the state, district and block level. Being GPS-enabled, the app ensures the visits are actually happening and the data captured is reliable.

In Odisha, during field visits, agriculture extension workers use an open source app to collect information from farmers on crops grown, pest attacks, record their questions and feedback.

All the apps, platforms and dashboards described above have been created using open source tools, adapted to serve GovTech use cases. But why open source?

First, open source allows the reuse of already existing, tested tools, which have been perfected over time. Why build from scratch, navigate a labyrinth of bugs, when one can build (quite literally) on the shoulders of giants. Second, open source codes ensure 100% transparency which builds trust and allows audits which help find and fix security issues. Third and very important in the government context, open source tools can be wired together into functioning products at negligible cost and time, compared to developing proprietary tech systems. India is already developing standards and protocols like National Digital Education Architecture, Beckn, Open Network for Digital Commerce, National Digital Health Mission and Desh Stack, which will make open source solutions to long tail problems in agriculture, digital transactions and commerce, health and skilling, interoperable with each other.

Going forward, these are the pillars which hold the potential to transform governance in India. If the best tech minds in the country engage with the GovTech ecosystem, the promise of open source can be realised faster.

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