Advancing economic growth with geospatial: New areas to conquer

Advancing economic growth with geospatial: New areas to conquer

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With India’s GDP growth showing many signs of slowdown, much effort is needed to revive growth, preferably towards double digit. It is not just for pride or a world cup race. It is critical to raise the incomes of people. It does not matter if, in the process, a small percentage of Indians become richer than they are now.

In the process, we also should be careful not to use vague words like ‘economic development.’ While benefits have to reach various segments of people, under the use of the word ‘development,’ often the ‘growth’ story is not addressed. This is especially true for those who deal with natural resources. Let us address economic growth and geospatial industry’s role.

Look downstream for value
There are many studies about the cost benefits of remote sensing, earth observation etc. In fact around 1997, Prof. S. Chandrasekhar, Gopal Raj and myself had made a research report – probably the first for India then. The benefits were in terms of money value: be it sale of data, the revenues that were collected as remote sensing data helped to avoid under reporting, better estimate of crops (including cotton) which helped avoidance over inventory etc. Overall, the cost of satellites and the launch cannot be recovered from earnings of data sale. The study showed that this apparent “loss” is not just for public good alone; if the government, trade and industry use the derived information well, there is actually much more money to be earned by them. They pay taxes too. In our research, the cost to benefit was about 1:4 to 5. In other words, it contributes to economic growth considerably. An important point to be noted is that most of this economic value (addition to GDP) lies in the downstream applications.

This is where the role of geospatial technologies, applications and services comes in. Geospatial data received a fillip in 1972 through the launch of ERTS-1 satellite (I was with NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and then also ISRO engineer. GSFC was responsible for ERTS-1, later named LANSAT). Thematic snapping, cartography were the key output products.

There has been a lot of growth during the past four decades. India has fortunately kept pace with these developments. There is not much need to list them.

But it is worthwhile to mention a seminal overview by Dr. V Jayaraman, former Director, National Remote Sensing Centre and current Prof. Satish Dhawan Professor, ISRO HQ, titled “Earth observation: A peep into the near future” in Signatures, newsletter of the ISRS-AC Vol. 24, No.1, Jan-March 2012. After expressing a concern about how many of the 200 EO satellites planned for the next decade are going to materialise, he stated “It can still be safely said that data availability in the coming decades will not be an issue and it will be available in plenty amounting to petabytes. Converting that data into knowledge products and assimilating into models to derive useful societal applications of direct relevance and delivering on the Web in near-real time basis will always be challenge.” It is worthwhile to add the word “economic” here, that is, societal and economic applications: A societal application which is not economically viable for long time would have to be dumped. The logic of continuing economic growth which will add more and more people into better incomes, will take precedence over the subsidies which will maintain the status quo. Let us remember that India has a huge bulky base of 700 million people to be brought up to good income levels (at least lower middle class incomes).

New applications
Thus the geospatial community can be assured of huge data of various types unlike in the past and the challenge before them is to create societal applications which will be paid for and other economic applications for trade and industry which will give them better profits.

Let us list some possible areas which have not been widely thought of before by the GIS community.

Waste management
Let us look garbage and industrial waste disposal. Innovative use of limited amount satellite information for finding landfills, the terrain details (upstream, downstream status etc.); adding on ownership, demography etc., to it and using social/citizen network through mobile on a daily, hourly basis to help plan and monitor garbage disposal system. Similarly for waste waters, ponds, pool etc., upto the ocean/sea outlets, satellite information can help in effective and repeated reuse. Garbage disposal is an activity for which the municipalities will pay, private sector will be inducted and taxes will be levied. The job is to maintain a supply chain and sustain people satisfaction – a major GIS task.

Similarly, reuse of wastewater through recycling is going to be a major economic activity. Sensors are getting cheaper. Again, a little bit of satellite data coupled with a large amount of ground data obtained through mobile phones etc. will help take stock, model, plan and monitor.

Micro small medium enterprise (MSME) management
Another GIS application is the geographical clustering of micro small medium industries (MSMEs) in India. A lot of data is available in the government records, but not regularly updated. The clustering can it be done through with updates from industries themselves. This can help in supply chain management and monitoring their local environments. This can also help colleges in planning placements near their campuses. Similar data and models can help the retail industry, especially foreign retailers.

This is not a very exhaustive list. One can debate as to which of them can really take off commercially. The main interest here is to take the GIS community to areas they have not even looked at before.

Other applications
Similarly, there is plenty of scope in tracking terror cells, demography, terrains etc., in order to help the security forces to plan and execute. Combining satellite and other intelligence data will be a continuing business in the coming decades.

Another useful area with significant commercial prospects includes monitoring of mines and their environmental cleanliness in an informed way, so that uninformed activism may be minimised. Continual update of disaster prone areas can help insurers and also help conduct regular disaster management exercises.

Though the world is getting increasingly globalised, economic value addition and competitive success depends on a deeper understanding of micro level, spatially-distributed markets. GIS community has to reach out to those markets to make money for themselves and also spur economic growth.

One has to accept that most of the geospatial applications and therefore the businesses, cannot be totally decoupled from the public (government) support. Most of them are tied with public good: be it waste management or MSME support services. Purely market-driven businesses may be rare. That is a challenge, especially in a country like India, where doing business with the government is not easy.

However, if we keep trying and keep pushing, we can surely succeed!