Can India achieve ‘less government, more governance’ with geospatial technology?

Can India achieve ‘less government, more governance’ with geospatial technology?

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India is in the forefront globally with a vibrant and forward looking space policy, strong cartographic base, strong capability development programmes in its educational institutions and a private geospatial industry that is raring to go. The new government and in particular, the Prime Minister is well inclined to bring to play the best of technologies in support of development in various spheres. Will all these positives result in big bang opportunities in the geospatial arena? Will India be able to unleash the potential of geospatial technology to fulfill its development agenda? Managing Editor Prof Arup Dasgupta takes stock of geospatial data policies and business environment in India and establishes the need to evolve a unified geodata policy. 

The four pillars on which any development activity rests are technology, its applications, stakeholders and the policy framework which guides both the technology and the applications for the benefit of the stakeholders. Policies are principles, rules, and guidelines formulated or adopted by an organisation to reach its long-term goals. Policies should be therefore, enabling but unfortunately they can also be restrictive. In India, one of the hangovers of the pre-independence period are restrictive policies to control a fractious subject nation. Many of these have been removed but many still remain. Unfortunately, many were added in the post-independence period which have actually harmed and continues to harm industry, academia and the government itself.

Technology causes disruption. Governments hate disruption. Herein lies the seeds of potential conflict. However, such conflicts can be resolved if the government turns to technology, owns it and formulates its policies to harness the disruptive power to further its goals of good governance. No organisation can afford to ignore technology and this applies to governments as well. Unfortunately, while embracing technology, governments tend to think in extant policy terms and instead of thinking out-of-the-box, they try to tinker with the existing policies to suit the current situation. Another retrograde development is the use of policy for gatekeeping under the guise of security, rather than for enabling. Gatekeeping comes at a cost which is paid for by the government itself in terms of lost opportunities, additional policing and resentment among the stakeholders. An indirect cost is the efforts by many to bypass the gatekeepers by alternate legal and illegal means.

In this context, to gauge the mood and expectations of the industry, Geospatial World interviewed a few leading industry representatives on key issues. These are their views.

Data

Geospatial applications require spatial data for which there are five sources – satellite imagery, aerial imagery, topographic maps, positioning data from GNSS and crowdsourced data. Satellite imagery is governed by the Remote Sensing Data Policy formulated by the Department of Space. Aerial Imagery is governed by three agencies, Directorate of Civil Aviation for flight permissions, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Defence for security clearances. The Map Policy of the Survey of India guides the procurement and usage of topographic maps. GNSS data is governed by the policies of the Department of Defence. On crowdsourcing, the government has no policy and, as the recent experience of the Google Mapathon shows, it falls back to the time tested pre-independence British Raj policy of denial of permission!

Satellite Imagery

The Remote Sensing Data Policy allows unrestricted sale and usage of satellite imagery of up to and including one metre resolution data. Data of resolution better than one metre can be procured only through the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and is subject to vetting by the High Resolution Data Committee. In practice, such data is only available to government agencies and to private industry who are executing government contracts. The policy is unclear on the procurement of unrestricted data of resolution one metre or more from foreign satellites directly from foreign vendors. Such ‘low’ resolution data over India, from Indian remote sensing satellites has to be procured only through NRSC. The policy for the procurement by Indian entities of IRS data over foreign countries collected by foreign operators under licence from Antrix Corporation, is also not clear.

BVR Mohan Reddy, Executive Chairman, Cyient Ltd (formerly, Infotech Enterprises) feels that the government monopoly on the distribution of data poses challenges in terms of approval timelines. He adds that it has been the experience that getting this data is quite challenging if it is of high resolution. Further, misconceptions about data restrictions among users due to lack of clarity on what is restricted and what is not adds to the problem. Amit Somani, Joint Managing Director of ADCC Infocad concurs when he says, “As an industry, we still face problems in purchasing remote sensing data”.

Echoing these difficulties of procurement Bharti Sinha, Executive Director, Association of Geospatial Industries (AGI) adds that, “With the implementation of the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy in 2011, there has been a significant change in both the procurement process for imagery as well as the availability of satellite images up to one metre resolution, both becoming simpler.
owever, even today, there has been little change in the actual gestation time for delivery of the ‘processed’ data on the ground, which remains between 2-4 months. The new policy does not address reduction in timelines for data of higher resolution, required for enterprise and mission critical applications, which need to additionally go through a stringent screening and approval process, and which may take upwards of six months before data is available for usage. This lead time restricts the applications and usage of the datasets to very few users and sectors”.

These numbers seem to indicate a mistaken idea among the powers that be that the currency of data as well as a higher resolution is not needed simultaneously for running a mission critical application. Hence, if it a mission critical application, like disaster recovery after an earthquake, use low resolution unrestricted data; use high resolution data only for non-mission critical applications! Sinha and Reddy rightly add that, world over, geospatial data is increasingly being used for diverse applications ranging from mission-critical enterprise applications for operations to critical inputs for planning, reviewing, monitoring and business decision-making in critical sectors like agriculture, forestry, water management, mining, energy, natural resources, land use, etc.

Sinha feels that fast and efficient data supply requires “.. a conducive policy opening up the delivery of satellite data, with the right security and procurement safeguards incorporated, through other private companies as well as franchisees, with NRSC focussing on critical and sensitive data availability. With multiple players, this will help reduce the processing time for the data, as well as usher in creation of ready-to-use-datasets, thereby further reducing the timelines. This will also propel and propagate the use of geospatial data by mainstream applications as well as individual users”. Agreeing with this, Somani adds that coordinating demands from all users is an uphill task for NRSC and there is a need for appointing more distributors who can aggregate the demands to speed up the process.

Reddy would like policies to be more open, flexible and business oriented through quick and hassle-free approvals under a single window with a fixed timeline. Srinibas Patnaik, Senior Director-Sales, DigitalGlobe feels that the Remote Sensing Data Policy needs to be liberalised with immediate effect to ensure government and defence customers buy high resolution imagery directly from vendors/suppliers. He expresses a need to encourage private players to use high resolution data as it is not allowed at present unless there is HRC approval.

Aerial Imagery

Aerial data is widely used in western countries due to ease in permissions and less sanctions. However, in India to get aerial flying permissions, four Central ministries are involved and in each ministry it goes to four to five levels. Consequently, it usually takes around two years to get a requisite permission. While a single window system, as proposed by Reddy, will be really helpful but Somani isn’t sure how realistic it could be due to the involvement of different departments. Sinha and Reddy both feel that UAVs for aerial data acquisition is the way forward but in the absence of a guiding policy, it is not clear how this technology could be introduced.

Kaushik Chakraborty, Vice President, Hexagon India points out that consultants, engineering and construction companies need accurate and up-to-date engineering grade geospatial information for all infrastructure projects. Aerial technology, especially airborne Lidar coupled with high resolution aerial imaging can help create very accurate base maps for multiple application projects. However, the process of approval for aerial survey is so cumbersome and time consuming that these projects take years to complete. The alternative is to use other methods which create less accurate data impacting the long term viability and maintenance of the infrastructure.

Rajesh Mathur, Vice Chairman, Esri India concurs pointing out that the adoption of geospatial technology in infra projects will require higher scale maps, typically 1:2000 or better. This will necessitate access to high resolution imagery to capture features in detail as required. Industry should be enabled to conduct aerial photography, wherever essential, to capture high resolution images. This will also require import of equipment, including aircrafts. Appropriate policy intervention will be essential to facilitate it.

Chakraborty spells out a possible policy intervention which would enable industry to have a long term partnership with government, preferably with a long term ‘fly as and when required’ contract, under which there is a continuous supply of cost effective geospatial information from aerial sensors for mission mode projects of the government.  In addition, if policy allows, industry could invest in the required high cost capital goods as they can see a return on investment (ROI) in the long term, thus keeping geospatial information updated, benefiting government programmes.

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps are produced by the Survey of India. After a series of stop gap arrangements, Survey of India (SoI) decided to split the topographic maps into two series, Open Series Maps for civilian use based on WGS84 and UTM projection while the existing Everest series continued as military maps. SoI also launched a massive effort to digitise the OSM. It also came out with a Map Policy.

As per the Map Policy, civilian users can access the Open Series of Maps, OSM. Conditions are that the coastline and international border maps are classified as ‘Secret’ and the rest are ‘Restricted’, thereby negating the very act of ‘opening’ out these maps. These maps omit all sensitive information and also do not show any height information. The latter making them useless for any natural resources projects. OSM digital maps are the copyright of Survey of India and their use and reuse is regulated through several licences. The Map Policy and several documents on the policy, guidelines and different licenses are available at (http://www.surveyofindia.gov.in/tenders/National Map Policy.htm). While these are quite exhaustive they are not in line with the technology that is available today.

For example, the internet licence restricts all maps to be in JPEG format even though the ISO standard requires that they be in GML format for interoperability among diverse systems. In fact, most data exchanges through Web Map Services or Web Feature Services have to be done through GML. By putting a restriction on only using JPEG, the policy actually goes against the internationally agreed standards. It may be useful to recall that the ISO standards are based on the Open Geospatial Consortium’s GML specifications and NSDI, a sister organisation to SoI under the common Department of Science and Technology, is a member on the Board of OGC. NSDI has a schema developed for GML 3.0 but SoI supplies its digital topographic maps in industry proprietary formats and refuses to follow the ISO GML specification causing difficulties for users who do not have these proprietary software which are quite expensive.

Users of the SoI digital OSM also question the quality of the digitisation. Many organisations buy the maps but quietly digitise the paper OSM maps on their own to meet their quality standards. It may be noted that the entire Indian topographic map series is available for over-the-counter purchase in the UK. These are based on the old British one inch to the mile series suitably updated using Landsat data.

GNSS

This is a grey area. DGPS data is being freely collected for projects like National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) by industry for the government. Consumer items like smartphones, navigation devices and cameras also carry GNSS receivers which can be used for position location and navigation. The Google Mapathon quoted earlier encouraged citizens to map points of interest (POI) which could be used to update Google Maps. The allegation by Survey of India that sensitive locations have been mapped by citizens has now been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) turning this into a criminal investigation. The data, needless to say, has been impounded and one wonders if these citizens and Google will now be accused of ‘waging war on the nation’ in the true spirit of the British Raj!

Reddy point out that a number of applications, specially in the transport and navigation sectors need GNSS data. He looks forward to see clear policy initiatives for capture and dissemination of data through UAVs, crowdsourcing, and other contemporary techniques. In summary, it would be ideal if there was an integrated policy which incorporates all these technologies, techniques and methodologies and clearly defines identification of sensitive data and the procedures to deal with it. Somani feels that with IRNSS, Indian users should get, policy permitting, the benefit of accurate positional data for which they are now dependent on American, Russian or European data.

Chakraborty avers that the GNSS industry would like to see the import restrictions on survey grade GPS devices made less cumbersome and also see a reduction in the import duties on GNSS equipment to assist in infrastructure projects which in turn will definitely help the overall infrastructure ecosystem.

Critique of the Existing Geospatial Policy

In spite of the lacunae pointed out earlier, there are opinions that since we have a policy why not work with it. After all there are projects which do not need data of resolution higher than one metre. That is true but then what about the Map Policy which transfers its restrictions on the OSM digital maps to any map prepared with the OSM as its base? Thus the Coastal Erosion Maps prepared by the Department of Environment are now Secret and therefore not available for open dissemination.

Patnaik outrightly disagrees that there are conducive policies for geospatial data in India. Unless there is open licensing policy, he avers, the industry cannot be predicted to grow significantly. Somani is ambivalent. He says that in new data policy, quite a bit of conducive guidelines are framed but at implementation level there is hardly any change. In his opinion here it’s not only the guidelines but change of mindset is required as well. Sinha echoes the same sentiment when she says that the government needs to recognise that many of the policies were formulated several years ago and in a different technology and business landscape.

Reddy is more forthright when he says, “In the last few years we have seen more flexibility in terms of policies pertaining to mapping and geospatial data, but I don’t think it is conducive enough to bring a radical change. Generating high resolution data still remains a key challenge for both the services providers as well as the service seekers, whether it is getting data through high resolution imagery or aerial mapping, there are a number of restrictions for which approvals and clearances are required. While we are not advocating that we should compromise with national security, the system could be made more streamlined and responsive enough to encourage mapping activities at a faster pace. The government could study the models adopted by various developed nations where fetching high resolution data is not such a challenge from a regulatory perspective”.

Industry looks forward to faster approvals for getting clearances from defence and other agencies for aerial mapping, use of UAVs, terrestrial Lidars and cameras. Similarly for high resolution imagery, government should allow multiple imagery providers provision it directly under an appropriate legal framework.

Supporting Somani, Reddy adds that, “This entire exercise also needs a change in mind-set which means getting rid of the data paranoia affecting many government agencies”. He quotes the example of projects for mapping of coastal areas or cadastral parcels where there is an insistence to execute the projects within the premises of the contractee agencies to preserve the‘secrecy’ of the data! Why should cadastral data pertaining to agricultural land parcels in a state in Central India be so sensitive? Such secretive and over cautious attitude leads to inefficiencies and higher costs due lack of economies of scale, proper facilities, shared expertise, skills and so many other things which could be handled differently if the data was allowed to be taken to industry facilities within an appropriate legal framework. Reddy cites the example of developed nations, like USA or Europe who don’t see a problem sending its high resolution data to India for outsourced work, but in India, Indian industry is not allowed to take Indian data to their facilities in India!

Chakraborty takes another point of view and agrees that at a national level, projects used for macro level planning of the nation results in large data creation. But is this information accurate and up-to-date and is it being shared with all agencies for better governance?  He goes on to add that as a nation we need much more usage of geospatial information in micro level planning of infrastructure in cities, towns, and rural communities. These public works and infrastructure projects require very accurate engineering grade geospatial information which is not easily available today as it is cumbersome for industry to create this in a timely and cost effective fashion in the restrictive environment. Therefore industry has to compromise with whatever data and information is available rather than insisting on the best data for the job.

Mathur indicates a major lacunae in sharing of GIS assets available with different agencies. A lot of time is consumed in building base maps and other data sets while implementing GIS projects which leads to increased project costs and delays adoption and implementation. Government needs to mandate all agencies to disclose the data sets available with them and share them with other agencies that may need them. Inability to provide easy access to authoritative geospatial content acts as a major deterrent to adoption of geospatial technology.

For example, for urban projects there is a need to integrate the data layers available with entities like municipal corporations, utilities and other departments and provide a comprehensive data base on a geospatial platform, to deliver content and services. Likewise a State GIS initiative will help in building a comprehensive data base contributed by various departments and hosting it on a location platform that can expose content, services and applications to all those who can benefit from them. This approach will not only reduce entry barriers for adoption of geospatial by way of cost and time but also give a holistic view to all the stakeholders; bureaucrats, decision makers, knowledge workers and the citizens.

Reddy adds that it is also necessary that the government revisits its procurement policy which should be made suitable for high technology products and services; the current L1 system of procurement is one of the key bottlenecks in successful execution of geospatial projects in India.

Open data and Open Governance

The critique of the existing geospatial data policy also provides pointers to the way forward. Apart from the changes needed in the policy, Mathur and Chakraborty have indicated the need for a greater data sharing not just by the major data generators but by all geospatial stakeholders. In effect the call is for Open Data and Open Governance.

Somani indicates that they have worked and created geospatial data for quite a few departments in government, but it is doubtful whether even a quarter of the functionaries ever use them. Barring a few organisations where they are in continuous process of data updating and usage in governancein the rest the data is usually unused. Unless Open Data is made mandatory, it shall never be implemented in India.

Sinha says, “Sharing of relevant data and information is the key to facilitate and maximise governance and transparency in the government. There is a need for both independent running of dedicated enterprise systems in different departments as well as need to share critical and relevant information across departments and/or to a central repository so that an integrated view is available to each decision maker irrespective of where they may be”.  Transparency and good governance has to be based on correct and updated data and geospatial technologies will be a critical factor of this information, provided that the right policies, processes and implementation programs are in place.

Reddy says that both governance and accountability serve a great purpose in the planning, building and maintaining the geospatial infrastructure in the country. Planning includes implementation of policies on data and other associated issues in right earnest that will facilitate usage and growth of the geospatial technologies including opening up of the data creation and dissemination activities. Creating an open environment will instil confidence among providers and users of geospatial data and technology to make investments and reap the benefits. Capacity planning and skill development in a more holistic manner,provisioning usage of geospatial technologies in the long term planning process and allocation of the necessary funds also play an important part.

Building refers to the basic infrastructure for high resolution imageries, positioning data, spatial data infrastructure, and other associated products and equipment necessary for the growing demands for geospatial technologies through investments and initiatives taken by the government directly or by facilitating the industry to invest and create. A number of such initiatives to build this infrastructure have been taken by the government like the IRS Satellite systems, Bhuvan, National GIS initiative, NSDI etc which are quite significant and laudable.

Geospatial data is dynamic as there are continuous changes in the real world. Without regular maintenance the whole exercise becomes infructuous after a period. The process of data maintenance once again takes us back to the same challenges that are faced during a fresh acquisition – lack of funds, difficulties in getting high resolution satellite and aerial imageries and other regulatory issues, misplaced perceived notions of data sensitivity, L1 procurement process and so on.

Reddy summarises that an open, transparent, accountable and practical approach with good governance will certainly take geospatial to new heights. He is extremely hopeful that the new government will fill up some of these gaps and facilitate an environment that will help this technology grow tremendously in the country.

Chakraborty adds that there already is an open data initiative by NIC and DST is also an active part of this.  These open data repositories need to be populated to make this project a success. The National SDI initiative will definitely help this and provide support to governance if there is a policy mandate that all government agencies creating civilian data and information with public funds should share this data and information openly with all other government agencies. The INSPIRE project in the European Union is a great example of how this can work and benefit the country and its citizens.

Patnaik holds that first governance and transparency has to be achieved and maintained followed by open licensing and open data for the industry to grow in this country.

Mathur points out that geospatial technology adoption will lead to increased transparency, enhanced operational efficiencies and strengthen citizen interface thereby facilitating improved governance. Open data initiative would be the enabling platform for consolidation of various geospatial data assets available with various ministries and departments and building a comprehensive data base using standards based geospatial software, adoption of a common open data model and an open, standardised database structure for achieving interoperability.

Apart from exposing data, there is a need to invest in building service delivery platforms on robust, field proven and standards based geospatial technology, to host data and various business processes of the Central and State Governments which enables users to consume a variety of service enabled on diverse clients including browsers, desk tops, tablets and mobiles. With about 900 million mobile subscribers in India, this approach will allow both urban and rural India to benefit from the geospatial technology and provide greater transparency in the functioning of the government. Several countries and cities world-wide have adopted similar approach successfully. We, of course, need a robust, field proven and standards based geospatial technology platform to build this critical infrastructure.

Role of Private Sector

Public Private Partnership (PPP) has been a catch-all phrase mouthed by the government and the private sector but their meanings have been as different as chalk and cheese. Till now the government looked at it as a glorified contractor-contractee relationship. Will the new government have a different view? Partners should share and share equally both successes and failures, profits and losses. Is the industry ready for this?

Somani expects growth in sectors such as Infrastructure, Utilities and Agriculture through the use of technologies like LiDAR and BIM in infrastructure, smart grid in utilities and risk management for insurance in agricultural which are widely used in developed countries. He feels that the private industry will have to play vital role in implementation as the Indian geospatial industry is moving away from being service-oriented and becoming more solution-centric.

Reddy states that the geospatial industry has been contributing to some of the ambitious programmes of the present government like smart cities, rail asset mapping, bullet trains, providing 24 hours electricity, health and sanitation for all, creation of national highways and some of the existing initiatives like NLRMP, R-APDRP, JNNURM, NGIS, NSDI etc. These programmes and initiatives could be better served by industry with improvements in the policies. There could be various policy models – starting from simple outsourcing contracts to PPP models to other hybrid models. In the current budget the government seems to be quite optimistic about PPP models where the industry can participate with a right business model. He is of the opinion that the private sector will not hesitate in making investments given the right environment, business model and reasonable returns on investments.

Chakraborty adds that with the number of projects and programmes today there is tremendous need for accurate and up-to-date information at different scales.  The only sustainable way to do this is with industry via a PPP model.  Industry has the capacity and the skills to not only create the data but more importantly to keep the geospatial information fresh and updated so that every agency involved in providing essential services to citizens uses it in their planning and operations.

Patnaik is somewhat pessimistic when he says that industry plays a vital role in supporting government and defense sectors and their projects end–to-end as they have the capability and the capacity to deliver; but he finds limited or no knowledge or capability in government bureaucrats and decision makers regarding geospatial technology and applications, hence the power of geospatial technology is not felt vis-à-vis IT.

Mathur strikes a more optimistic note when he says that the Indian geospatial industry is recognised as the source of high end, comprehensive end to end services by discerning users world-wide, having moved up the value chain substantially in their customer engagement and are driving highly sophisticated geospatial technology projects using contemporary technology. This experience and global exposure will enable the industry to support the government in the adoption of geospatial technology in mission critical projects as a partner.

The industry can participate in building data assets, build systems and applications leading to creation of location based platform. In fact, industry should be involved at the project conceptualisation stage itself so that the applicability of geospatial technology in the entire workflow is assessed and incorporated. Services of professional bodies like Association of Geospatial Industries (AGI) and FICCI can be utilised for this purpose. Private sector can also facilitate human resource capacity and capability building.

Epilogue

The new government has come to power on the slogan, ‘Less government, more governance’. Will this slogan result in the rationalisation of the geospatial policy environment and the removal of those antiquated laws and regulations which are the detritus of our enslaved past or the result of the bugbears of the overcautious bureaucrats and brass-hats? Will we see a new approach? Will we see thinking out of the box? Industry seems poised to take up the challenges if there is a conducive and enabling environment.

Recommendations

In view of the anomalies outlined above, it is necessary to revisit the several separate policies and evolve a unified geodata policy which will satisfy development and civilian applications while at the same time address the national security concerns. The following recommendations are made with this in mind.

Map Policy

  • Make the OSM series maps completely unrestricted. They do not have heights or any VAs and VBs. Continue to register the map users as is being done now under the Map Policy.
  • OSM maps should not be used for legal purposes like boundary delineation. For this the restricted SoI maps are to be used.
  • Make available products like slope maps which are derived from height information but cannot be used to re-calculate the height contours.
  • Charge royalty on map reuse through value addition but do not demand IP rights.
  • Create a new series derived from the OSM but which have positional accuracies matched to satellite remotely sensed data. These will be useful for thematic mapping and can be made public and available freely or at nominal cost.
  • All maps should be available as per ISO standards

Remote Sensing Data Policy

  • Deregulate all high resolution satellite imagery older than two years and aerial photographs more than five years old. Such data has no security value.
  • A policy for use of UAVs for remote sensing should be taken up at the earliest in consultation with industry
  • Data from non-photographic imaging sensors like synthetic aperture radar and LIDAR should be completely deregulated for Indian users.

Other Data

  • Data collected for public good and for government funded projects should be shared mandatorily.
  • Data from sensor networks should also be shared.
  • All data should follow basic meta data standards derived from the Dublin Core.
  • There is a need to recognise crowdsourcing as a legitimate data source.

Data Delivery Mechanisms

  • All digital data must conform to international standards as specified by ISO or OGC or by independent standards developed in India.
  • Data ordering should be automated and include online browsing, order placement, payment and delivery to reduce turnaround time.
  • All transactions should be recorded and archived. This should include the IP address trace back.
  •  The security approach should consider calibrated access. Large volume users should be handled differently from low volume occasional users. Large volume users should only use digital signatures.
  • Users should need to register only once and not for each transaction

Digital Rights Management

  • All data should be unobtrusively watermarked using advanced steganographic techniques to be approved by a suitable security agency
  • Legal liabilities associated with each data must be listed out including disclaimers for improper use.

Review

  • The policy should be reviewed every six months by an empowered committee consisting of representatives from all sectors.

Partnership Models

  • Several suggestions have been made about partnership with industry. These need to be studied and a set of models need to be discussed with industry which can be followed for small, medium and large scale projects.

Capacity Building

This has been addressed by some of the industry experts. There is a need to standardise geospatial courses in different institutions and bring them up to industry expectations.