So we have a bio-earthquake with shifting epicentres in Covid-19, still rumbling unpredictably over our demographic plates. How do you measure it on a real-time basis, count the damages, predict the next building to fall, the next neighbourhood to be hit, and evacuate everyone safely? Not easy at all, as it turns out. Our need to quantify has loosed on us a vast trove of unruly statistics—data itself gone viral, a tsunami in the wake of a quake. Its sheer scale and speed posed challenges. But there’s an additional qualification. The virus, for all the conspiracy theories around it, is an apolitical being—class-neutral and ideology-agnostic.
Data, on the contrary, is deeply political—and not merely at the level of nations or governments. As a unit of knowledge, it is in its very DNA to segue into power—and to bend to its whims. It is owned, it is withheld, it is manipulated. Knowledge, when shared, grows—or so goes an old Indian dictum. But deriving power by knowledge secretly is tradition too. Democracy enjoins upon its keepers an oath to transparency on anything that affects the public; opacity means you don’t even know what questions to ask—a handy thing during one of human history’s most momentous events.