People are going to ask government for answers, and the solutions will lie in getting transparency through new-age systems.
By Sayli Udas⎯Mankikar
While Niti Aayog’s recent report on Artificial Intelligence (AI) provided a roadmap for urban bodies to think about new, smart ways to city functioning, a recent case of file tampering that took place in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), allegedly leading to the death of a peon, has made a strong case for encoded digital files and smart land recording systems, enabled through AI and blockchain technologies.
On 26 May 2018, a case of tampering of an important land acquisition file in the development planning (DP) department of the Mumbai civic body had come to the fore. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) Commissioner Ajoy Mehta’s file noting that a land acquisition case in suburban Jogeshwari ‘should’ be challenged in the Supreme Court was mysteriously changed to ‘shouldn’t’. Had this single change gone unnoticed, it would have got the landlord kickbacks worth several hundred million rupees.
This mischief was traced to a peon working in the department through a CCTV recording. The clip showed two unknown persons entering the department and making changes to the file with the help of the peon. Two weeks later, on 1 June, the peon was found dead under the wheels of a Mumbai local. An FIR was registered against unknown persons and a probe is on.
While this incident has come to light and is being investigated, there are thousands of files exchanging hands in government offices in between numerous peons and administrative staff. This puts a question mark on their safety — whether critical decisions are being changed without being noticed or if files are being buried somewhere, never to be retrieved.
Since 2013, the Mumbai civic body, like many other public bodies in the country, has taken up the task of digitisation of files where newer files are being scanned and saved in an online repository. This year’s municipal budget has set aside INR 1.12 billion to get Mumbai’s civic departments computerised. The intention is to make all services, registrations and application processes online, and fast tracking and streamlining the process of approvals — making them tamper-proof. Sadly, the experience so far has been wanting. Many software which are currently used for digitising systems are helpful and do bring in some degree of transparency, but are rarely smart and never predictive.
World over, governments are embracing AI-based applications to reduce file backlog, cut costs in processing files manually, overcome resource constraints, free workers like peons from mundane tasks, improve the accuracy of projections and bring an element of e-intelligence into the existing systems. The employment of these systems extend to tasks for which humans depend on technology, such as CCTVs, where AI could help in identifying criminal suspects via facial recognition, and scanning millions of documents in real time to trace fraudulent transactions.
Along with AI, blockchain technology could help municipal bodies and government departments form private networks for critical and high-security data such as land records, thereby keeping a check on every player accessing the system for any files or data. It works on the format of an encoded digital ledger comprising of data records or blocks that is stored on multiple computers, which can be accessed only by authorised officials. Once these blocks are collected in a chain, they cannot be changed or deleted by a single actor; instead, they are verified and managed using automation and shared governance protocols.
Such systems create a more transparent, safe, and trustworthy environment where data is shared. All the stakeholders are forced to take ownership of the information and everyone in the system knows precisely who accesses and amends information, on which day and at what time.
As it is with every new technology and systems, there are several questions raised about the viability, effectiveness and risks of both the AI and the blockchain technology. These discussions range from issues of the scale of data mining, the energy needed to process the data, the imminent danger to existing job functions that could be replaced by technology, strategic data privacy concerns and the lack of talent in this field, among other issues.
While answers are being sought and statistics are being belted out on either side of the debate, in reality, there is little that can be done to stop the world from going through these transformations.
China, in July 2017, has already set up a plan for development of AI, enumerated in the ‘State Council of a Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’. China, through its renowned BAT framework — enabled by its three tech giants including Baidoo, Alibaba and Tencent — is rapidly adding AI capabilities to its government functions. Right from enabling face recognition, automatic traffic predictions and parking systems. Its larger plan talks of automated vehicles, computer-aided diagnostic systems, intelligent service robots, etc.
India too is catching up, albeit slowly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also stressed about both AI and blockchain. Several government initiatives, including the Atal Innovation Mission’s Atal Tinkering Labs, Atal Incubation Centres, Scale-up Support to Established Incubators and several other programmes and associations with industry leaders are being initiated to develop digital platforms to infuse transparency and increase efficiency of governance.
However, the pace needs to be faster and concrete and time-bound implementation plans need to be drawn up soon. People are going to ask government for answers, and the solutions will lie in getting transparency through new-age systems. The answers will lie in finding the sweet spot, where government tries to draw fine balance between smart solutions and the uncertainties of a dynamic governance structure.