The Union government is in the process of commissioning a project to analyse public sentiment about it on various online platforms. The project will cover state-owned MyGov.in, social media portals such as Facebook and Twitter, and the top 10 news websites in the country. The analysis will also extend to Twitter and Facebook accounts of government ministries and departments, according to a document evincing interest from companies and defining scope of work that has been posted on the website of the electronics and information technology department. The Centre expects the platform to be ready in two months.
This is the first time that the Centre is deploying a tool to 'officially' listen in on social media conversations and monitor media reports as well as subsequent public reaction. The idea is not to see which journalist is saying what and tell the government "inhe ad dena band kar do" (don't give them ads), said a government official familiar with the plans. It has also got "nothing to do with politics or elections", the official added.
The stated objective is to gauge public opinion related to policy matters and get a "comprehensive picture of the larger issues concerning the people", the official said. According to the mandate, the company will analyse comments posted on MyGov.in, which sees about 50,000 responses every week. It will also scan through social media sites, articles posted on news portals and the comments section, and categorise these into three "tag clouds" - negative, positive and neutral.
"Analytics are not strong if you are looking at it with a tunnel vision," said the government official, adding they needed to be comprehensive and corroborated across different platforms. The idea behind extending the mandate to social media websites and news organisations, according to the official, is to make sure the government's policies and initiatives are in sync with the people's wishes.
However, the government claimed it would only study posts that are "public" and not build backend access into the network of social media companies to get a look at all content.
According to the official, the Centre was not interested in "listening to everything that people are talking about", rather it will restrict its queries that relate to its business of policymaking. "Anything beyond that is not our mandate," the official clarified.
According to Mahesh Murthy, founder of digital media firm Pinstorm, these kinds of sentiment-analysis tools have become quite popular lately with both companies and political parties, who use these to gauge public mood before elections.
"They can cost anywhere between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh a month," he said, adding there were hardly any privacy implications since the data being analysed was in public domain.
Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society said, "Privacy concerns aren't as acute if there is no profiling that is happening." Prakash added the concept might be worrisome if algorithms became the determining factor for policymaking, as they could be dangerous for democratic functioning. "They are like black boxes and you don't how they function."
Launched about six months ago, MyGov.in is the National Democratic Alliance government's citizen-engagement platform through which it solicits ideas and inputs from the public on government business.
Once the sentiment-analysis project is implemented, the government will be able to automate the process of providing summary of inputs on discussion topics to the government agencies concerned.
The volume of comments received on the platform is making it difficult for the Centre to manually sift through these for the most relevant ones.
"The solution would display two sets of dashboards. One would be in public domain. The other would be restricted through the multi-level role-based access system provisioned by the solution," said the document evincing expression of interest from companies.
Those interested will have to provide a proof of concept before being selected.