In a recent interaction, I was being asked if I could think of tools for trade that should be there but is not available so far. In the Indian context, of course.
A topic close to my heart, my bread and butter, my response was the following:
Availability of trade statistics in the most usable format is the most important tool for trade policy research, in my opinion. I think, we can make substantial improvements on this front. I will explain my point through an example, please correct my observation below if I am wrong. Take Trade Agreements.
3. While it is important to have these trade agreements in the existing format for dissemination at large, I think information on schedules of tariff commitment can be put out in machine-readable formats for better dissemination of the same. For instance, look at http://dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/aanzfta/official-documents/Pages/annex-1-schedules-of-tariff-commitments.aspx
. Having the schedules of tariff commitments in excel really helps especially when we have to merge the datasets. In India’s case, we also need to provide additional information on NIC codes linking to HS codes or provide concordance (in full) on the same website or link to an aligned website.
5. Consolidation of information from across government portals is something we need to priortise too. For instance, the trade agreements information can be made available on either websites but not necessarily on both the websites.
6. There is a lot we can take cue from the other country websites such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis (US).
In a similar vein, I had tweeted about the NIC codes for FDI policy. The tweet can be followed at https://twitter.com/Agarwal_Natasha/status/733205032716226560
. It does appear that DIPP did pick up some comments given the structure and format available of the same on the DIPP website. But again it is in pdf format which makes it extremely difficult for researchers given that they have to convert every pdf into excel where such conversion does not take happen accurately.
My question always is that India has committed itself to Open Government Directive which means it is imperative to provide information in machine-readable formats such as excel sheets. Besides, if it is already disseminating information in pdf then why does it create a usability barrier in not providing the same in machine-readable formats?
I think it is a very important and necessary exercise to think through the manner in which we can disseminate trade information for facilitating trade policy research.
My response evidently led to another response. Most of the points were agreed upon. Nevertheless, there was still a mention that while India’s trade data is available in the most accessible form, FTA schedules are not.. arguing further that this may be by design.
The first point in the response stuck to me was “accessible form”. What does he/she mean by “accessible form”? If we are on the same page when it comes to accessibility, then I would be happy to be proven wrong in my understanding that we need to work a lot on to improve accessibility to India’s trade data. To make my point, my response was the following:
The most accessible form may not necessarily be the most usable format. I will give you a few examples here:
1.1 Under this website, any option that I use gives me a comprehensive information on the possible search.
1.3 Now I click on the top-right excel icon which should download the data for me in excel.
1.4 However, it doesn’t do the same. It downloads the data in a .asp format which I cannot open.
1.5 I have tried this across computers and I get the same result.
1.6 Now even if I try to overcome this problem by simply copy-pasting the table from the window, the problem in it being interoperable. Like, in the case of countries, I need to provide a column with country code. A similar problem arises when using products.
1.7 For a researcher, this only adds to the problem of having to use data from this website.
2. A similar situation arises even in cases where the data is available in excel. For instance, take the new trade analytics website.
2.1 After navigating the website, I learn that I can download some of the data. Not all!
2.2 When I do download (http://commerce.gov.in/analytics/
), the data doesn’t facilitate interoperability. It provides me with information where I have to again spend hours having to make it interoperable.
The excel has all the information needed for dissemination. It has country codes, and metadata in one sheet. If a researcher wants to merge this dataset with other datasets such as World Development Indicators then all the researcher has to do is give one command and the dataset gets merged. A lot of people have used this dataset, and have even sent me emails on how it has been easier for them to use this information rather than go through the pdfs which are not user friendly.
Another example, I can give is from the US. I had to merge data on small business employment share (industry-wise) with the existing dataset I had. All I had to do was download the data, and merge with the trade data available on WITS. This is because the US website provides relevant concordance in excel formats which makes the merging within jiffy across multiple datasets. It took me literally an hour to get the dataset in the new format, and for us a day to have more insightful results. Such dissemination of information gave us more time to think on crucial issues rather than worry about how to use the data as the data was already available in the most usable format. All we had to do it was customise it to our need.
So, the question really is = when we are already providing so much information, why can’t we provide it in the most usable format? Is operating in silos the answer? We can always change the design by substantially improving it. For example, we can always put the schedules of tariff commitments in trade agreements in excel formats. This additional ease along with the entire agreements just helps the researcher to focus on the nitty gritty of agreement rather than manually input the tariff commitment schedule. It is actually not that difficult to put the schedule of tariff commitments in excel. Besides, once such information is made available, the use of it over the years pays off the investment in time/effort/money. There is a lot we can do on this end.
And that is where I end to! There is a lot India can do to improve the accessibility of its available data.