Home Articles Country focus – Chile: Like fine wine

Country focus – Chile: Like fine wine

Bhanu Rekha
Associate Editor
[email protected]


For decades, investors with an interest in Latin America essentially looked at Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Though Brazil continues to be the favoured destination in the region, investors with an eye for detail have been consistently playing the Chilean markets. The Chilean economy is certainly the most open in South America and one of the most open in the world. Free trade agreements allow companies in Chile to access 86% of the world’s GDP while the government’s macroeconomic policies provide market stability. Chile is one of the 21 members of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) and has recently become a member of OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development).

Chile essentially is a commodity-based economy whose primary exports are minerals, food, timber and a world-class wine production sector. These exports have kept Chile buoyant over the past few decades. The February 2010 earthquake and the accompanying tsunami have decelerated the country’s recovery from the economic slowdown, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is quite optimistic and predicts a 6% economic growth for the country in 2011. The new government that took office in March 2010 under the leadership of businessman Sebastián Piñera has already initiated measures to increase the pace of economic growth by freeing up regulations and cutting taxes on business. IMF also predicts that the public and private-sector reconstruction spending after the quake could continue to support growth.

Geographic data is the crux of 80% of all human activities and is the essential core for geospatial technology. Geographic data has moved out of the domain of armed forces in many countries, Chile being an exception.

Servicio Aerofotogrametrico (SAF)

Established to meet the needs of the Chilean Air Force in the field of remote sensing, aerial photography and related techniques, SAF is also mandated to produce all aerial information required for the development of the country. It produces aeronautical cartography for the entire country at scales 1:250,000, 1:500,000 and 1: 1,000,000. Complementing these, SAF produces specific cartography of all major cities at 1:1,000 and 1:2,000 scales. This apart, SAF receives satellite imagery from Israel’s EROSB, France’s SPOT-4 and NASA’s MODIS. “While about 50% of SAF’s data is demanded by government organisations, the rest is bought by private companies, especially in mining, forestry and precision agriculture sectors,” informs Milton Zablah Ruz, Sub-Director, SAF.

Clarifying on data availability and accessibility, Milton says, “About 90% of SAF’s data is available in digital form and can be bought from our website. We have initiated a geoportal but it is on hold at this point in time as funds were diverted for the reconstruction of the country post February 2010 earthquake. Once the geoportal is ready, we will open part of our data (1:250,000) for free.”

To give a boost to the country’s fledgling RS industry, SAF initiated to build an earth observation satellite, SSOT. The satellite is being built by EADS Astrium and is scheduled for an early- 2011 launch. Once the satellite is operational, SAF will take the responsibility to process and deliver data. In the aftermath of the February 2010 quake, SAF flew to all the affected places, captured about 4000 images and created mosaics of places before and after the quake to devise an effective reconstruction plan. SAF has also initiated to bring all relevant organisations including IGM and SHOA together to prepare a risk map for the country.

Centro de Informacion de Recursos Naturales (CiREN)
The Information Centre of Natural Resources (CiREN), under the Ministry of Agriculture, provides information about renewable natural resources. It has the biggest geo-referenced database on soil, water resources, climate, fruit growing and forestry in Chile and it has also created a rural real estate register. After serving for 45 years, CiREN’s activities are linked to agricultural policies and it plays a significant role in planning and decision making for both private and public sector and in the design of policies for productive development and territory management.

“A significant contribution of CiREN is in disaster mitigation, management and devising reconstruction plans for areas affected by natural disasters,” discloses Esteban Vojkovic Acevedo.

Servicio Hidrografico y Oceanografico de la Armada de Chile (SHOA)
SHOA, under Chilean Navy, is the permanent, official and technical service for everything related to hydrography, maritime survey in rivers and lakes, nautical cartography, nautical charts and planning and coordination of all the national oceanographic activities. SHOA is also responsible for the operation of the national tsunami warning sys- tem for monitoring and predicting any signal of a potential tsunami. To optimise the production, SHOA has initiated the corporate database project which collects all the information processed by SHOA departments and facilitates easy dissemination. SHOA offers its products and services to the maritime and scientific community through its portal, www.shoa.mil.cl

Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria (SERNAGEOMIN)
For a country endowed with rich mineral resources, it is but natural that an organisation like SERNAGEOMIN assumes enormous significance. SERNAGEOMIN was created in 1980 by merging the Institute of Geological Survey and Mines Department to create a comprehensive platform specialising in geology and mining matters.

It generates, publishes and disseminates maps and documents of basic geology, mineral resources, geoenvironmental and geological hazards and relevant information for companies that are involved in the exploration and mining. SERNAGEOMIN provides technical assistance in setting up a mining company in accordance with the current legislations in the country and monitors the activities of mining safety and environment management. Mining safety and risk reduction are major areas of concern for SERNAGEOMIN and it provides training on these aspects.

Quite a few regional professional associations are active in Chile, trying to promote the usage of geospatial technologies through their activities. Prominent among them are:

The Pan American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH)
PAIGH is a specialised body of the Organisation of American States (OAS), established in early 20th century to advance the establishment of international borders between Latin American nations. “Though the institute was established for this purpose, each nation chose to establish its own national geographic authority. In the case of South America, without exception, all those institutes are still with us,” informs Santiago Borrero, Secretary General, PAIGH. PAIGH has been very active in the promotion of SDI and the modernisation of spatial datasets as a means to support national economic strategies. “We established the Pan-American Committee on SDI in the Americas in 2000. Since then, we have implemented about 48 pilots, organised three regional conferences, enabled 17 national level SDIs and associated with several other activities dealing with the use of spatial information for development,” Santiago elaborates.

GeoSUR is the latest initiative of PAIGH in association with Corporacion Andina de Fomento (CAF), Instituto Geografico Militar (IGM), Chile and other institutes in the region. The programme promotes the use of geospatial information and supports planning activities for development by way of a ‘digital doorway’ ), a platform to access all spatial information produced in South America by means of a geoportal.

Sociedad Especialistas Latinoamericana en Percepcion Remota y Sistemas de Informacion Espacial (SELPER)
Another active professional association in the region is the Sociedad Especialistas Latinoamericana en Percepcion Remota y Sistemas de Informacion Espacial, SELPER. It aims to promote knowledge exchange by bringing together all professionals and relevant institutions. “This is done by the national chapters by way of organising international symposia and national seminars, conducting training courses and bringing out publications,” says Carlos G Pattillo B, Treasurer, SELPER-Chile and General Manager, CPRSIG Ltda. “We actively work with international organisations like European Space Agency (ESA) and Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES, France),” he adds.

‘Latitude Sur is our next major project’
Can you brief us on the mandate of IGM?
IGM is the national mapping and the main cartographic organisation of Chile and is responsible for producing the official political, topographic and cartographic data of the country. We also produce atlases and maps. But our main task is to generate geodatabase for the country, armed forces and the government. Our latest major initiative post February 2010 earthquake is to create a new cartography of the entire country at 1:25,000 scale. The project is titled ‘Latitude Sur’ and as part of this, we will produce a new mosaic of 5,600 topographic map sheets in digital form, a high accuracy new DTM. We will very soon invite international companies to select our providers. We will follow new and novel technologies for this project

How do you make the data available to the users? How frequently is data updated?
As the project will be financed by the State, the data will be made available to any government department for free. Private users can purchase it at a subsidised price. This data will be made available through a Webmap server to not just Chileans but to others as well. The existing data is available on the Internet and one can request for data through an email.

We would ideally like to update our data every five years but as it is not feasible, we look for alternatives. We have an agreement with the ministry of public works, who update the road network on our maps. We are also looking to have a similar agreement with urban ministry and a few municipalities. They have large scale maps of their areas. We ‘Latitude Sur is our next major project’ intend to put their maps on top of our base maps. The problem in this case is the varying standards, quality and accuracy among municipalities which we are trying to overcome.

Kindly elaborate on the role of IGM in the rescue work in the aftermath of February 2010 earthquake.
When the earthquake struck, IGM dispatched three teams of cartographers to the affected areas where the army was deployed to support the relief operations. The effort was recognised not just by the army but also by the government because all the cartography needed for the operations was available – even at very large scales. We also created a new geodetic network in earthquake affected areas. We have about 1000 ground control points for the whole country. About 150 of those were affected by the earthquake and they lost all the accuracy. An effort was made to recover the control points with international cooperation and a few universities. We deployed 50 GPS receivers in the affected areas and recovered the accuracy.

IGM is a critical stakeholder of SNIT. How is IGM’s involvement in this initiative?
The mission of SNIT is to make visible and accessible all the cartography available across the nation. We cannot make all the cartography available for free as we need finances to sustain. So we select data at some scales to be made available for free. We make our datasets accessible to all ministries through SNIT.

What are the initiatives towards creating awareness?
Yes, that is one of the missions of IGM. To achieve this, we have designed an international conference to be held next year and entered into partnerships with several academics and universities. We work together in making people aware about the benefits of these technologies. We involve ourselves in training, albeit indirectly. We guide the universities in designing their courses and also send our personnel to these universities to learn and get trained.


Technology gains greater significance if its efficacy and utility contributes to the quick development of the country. And geospatial technology is at the core of such purpose. Chile is endowed with rich natural resources and assorted climatic regions, which makes it imperative to take technology course. The major economic driver and the most potent application sector in Chile is, evidently, mining. According to Viviana Torres Pavez, technical seller at Optech, there is a huge demand for long range LiDARs that can work underground in the north of the country and Optech is capitalising on this demand. CODELCO (Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile), an independent company owned by the Chilean State, is the largest producer of copper in the world and owns about 20% of world reserves of copper. CODELCO is involved in the exploration, development and exploitation of copper and other by-products and utilises an array of geospatial technologies. ” Mining sector aggressively supports implementation of technology. They support many IT companies and help geospatial companies make a living. In the case of ESRI, 20% of our business is related to mining,” Juan Enrique Silva, Commercial Manager, ESRI-Chile, announces emphatically.

Governments, especially the municipalities, are major users of geospatial technology in Chile. Armed with the mandate to build their own cadastres, the 340 municipalities of Chile are active users of geospatial technologies. “We generate maps at 1:1,000 and 1:2,000 and host the data on the Web for the easy access to citizens. This information, which is updated every six months, is used for a variety of purposes including land use planning and development, safety during major events and in emergency,” informs Luis Valenzuela Olivares, a cartographer in the municipality of Las Condes, the business district of Santiago city. As each municipality is responsible for its own cadastre, different municipalities tend to have different priorities and use different standards and formats and maintain different levels of quality. “This is making it really hard to put together a national cadastre and is leading to regional imbalances in development. The government hasn’t been able to put together this information in a uniform format and deliver good quality data and services to its citizens,” laments Juan.

The regional government of the metropolitan of Santiago is opening up to the significance of geographic information and has hosted its thematic maps on forestry, health, education, tourism etc on its geoportal. Though the use of GIS is limited to publishing maps on the Web at this point in time, the government has slowly started using the information for analysis and decision making, informs Fabiola Zamota, analyst in the regional government. The planning division in the ministry of public works has comprehensive spatial data vis-à-vis airports, roads, ports, water infrastructure, architecture of public buildings etc. The spatial data, held individually by each segment until recently, has been brought together in an effort to have better management of data. The ministry published its data on its portal and is open to public access. The department has plans to create an enterprise level GIS to facilitate the integration of all spatial data available in the ministry, informs Boris, Armando and team at the planning division.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES While government data providers are gung-ho about their active projects and new initiatives, a more pragmatic picture emerges on speaking with other stakeholders of the geospatial community.

As with any country with a fledgling geospatial industry, Chile too is a land of several opportunities with an equal measure of challenges for growth. Liberal market norms, free trade zones and open data policies are creating conducive environment for business. On the flip side, a limitation on the industry is the economy itself, which is majorly dependent on the global prices of metals like copper. The recent recession threw prices of copper to an all-time low but the country is recovering. “Also, unlike a few Latin American countries, Chile is a straight forward country and it is very easy to do business,” according to Sergio A Hernandez, Latin America Sales Manager, Mapping & GIS Division of Trimble. However, creation and periodic updation of spatial data is also limited by availability of monetary and human resources.

Chile’s vulnerability to natural disasters often puts a check on its economy. The February 2010 earthquake and associated tsunami cost a whopping US$ 15 billion to the country’s exchequer, not counting the hidden damages. Simultaneously, it created an opportunity for the industry with ‘Latitude Sur’ project, as part of which the Instituto Geografico Militar (national mapping organisation of Chile) will map the entire country at 1:25,000 scale. “The quake has also opened up infrastructure and transportation sectors for geospatial industry as the government is pumping investments to rebuild,” says Walton Edwards, General Manager, GeoSoluciones, a solution provider and distributor for PCI Geomatics, RapidEye and Digiterra. These apart, forestry and agriculture are potential application sectors for geospatial industry in Chile. “Though not much of remote sensing is being used in infrastructure and utility, GIS is being used by some private utility companies to build enterprise level GIS for sharing of information within their organisations,” says Carlos.
SNIT for coordination
The Sistema Nacional de Coordinacion de Informacion Territorial (SNIT), established by a supreme decree of the Ministry of National Assets in September 2006, is the national spatial data infrastructure of Chile. SNIT facilitates the access and use of geospatial information generated by government organisations by creating a collaborative environment of all participating agencies and developing suitable standards. As part of its efforts, SNIT has created a geoportal ) and hosted a gallery of topo maps, thematic maps, catalogue of metadata and developed a map viewer, informs Alvaro Monett, a geographer with SNIT. SNIT created an interactive educational website, Mi Geografia, to create awareness and impart the knowledge of the country’s territory, especially in children and young adults. Geonodo is another initiative of SNIT. This standards tool allows each organization to publish its spatial information. This is key to create a national network of interconnected information services. It is built on open source platform and is freely distributed. Carlos G Pattillo B, Treasurer SELPER-Chile “GIS is being used by some private utility companies to build enterprise level GIS for sharing of information within their organisations”


The innovativeness of applications and the level of projects are often indicators of the maturity of the industry. Though one of the top five geospatial markets in Latin America, one gets to hear varying perceptions vis-à-vis the maturity of geospatial market in Chile. While Juan says GIS is majorly used as a mapping tool and Chile is yet to open up to its analytical and decision making capabilities, Walton feels otherwise. According to him, integrated solutions are already the norm and remote sensing is fast replacing traditional aerial photogrammetry. Several organisations and companies are embarking on enterprise level projects and the outlook is positive for large government projects in the future. On a similar optimistic note, Dean Angelides, Director, International Operations, ESRI says, “Organisational adoption and use of geospatial technology is on the rise, especially in utilities and government sector. They are using GIS to mission critical and business critical applications. A similar trend is observed in the flow of revenue and growth as well.”

Education and human resources
As Chile started recognising the significance of geospatial tools to tackle natural disasters, assess environment impact and conserve natural resources, there is a visible hike in the interest of the student community towards geospatial courses, according to Dr Luis Carvacho of the Catholic University of Chile. Taking a slightly different stance, Carlos says, “There are seven universities offering courses in remote sensing at various levels, including research. Owing to government apathy, a few centres are closed.” But as Chile gears up to launch its own satellite, Carlos is optimistic about remote sensing research and applications getting a boost. Though differing on the availability of geospatial education in Chile, both Luis and Carlos agree on the training of personnel. “There are enough people being trained. But it is limited to imparting technical know-how to work on projects and is far removed from pedagogical approach,” says Luis and adds that it is important to initiate students into geography right from secondary school. Agreeing with Luis, Juan says, “Because of low awareness, organisations are generally unwilling to get their professionals trained, the exception being when a company decides to implement an enterprise system. Government needs to work on developing the basic skills of people it is employing. Also, it would be a good idea to create a geospatial association to leverage the skills of the industry.” Language is another challenge. “It is difficult to get people trained through the Web in local language. People buy software but the manual comes in English, complicating the issue,” Juan adds.

Awareness of political class and enabling policies are prerequisites to the growth of geospatial industry and Chile is falling short on both these counts. Knowledge and awareness is present at professional level but it is difficult for them to reach policy making level to get approvals for projects. “Worse than that,” Juan says, “Chile is not conscious about the potential of any information, leave alone spatial information. We have public safety information distributed in many agencies, but as it is not integrated, it is very difficult to make any analysis out of it. The previous government has formulated a ‘digital agenda’ but geospatial didn’t find place in it. We need to educate our leaders. Geospatial industry should be smart enough to show the benefits to the ruling class.” Also, by law, much of the spatial information is in the hands of armed forces, which operate in silos. However, a coordination committee (one executive from army, navy and air force) is looking at avenues to work together and make certain spatial data available for free.

Pointing out the lack of a space agenda on the eve of launch of Chile’s own satellite, Carlos Pattillo stresses on the need to have a national space policy to give direction to the remote sensing activities in the country. “We have a space agency but SAF is coordinating the building of satellite. We need a policy to guide the remote sensing industry. The interest among professionals is high but the support from government is lacking,” he rues.

Though beset with certain natural limitations, Chile offers an open environment for business. With several major projects in the pipeline as part of the reconstruction plan, Chile has ample opportunities on offer for the geospatial industry of the world.

Bhanu Rekha
Associate Editor, [email protected]

Previous articleProject Sujala: Space for sustainable future
Next articleWeb-based mapping: Data gateway to Africa
I am a well-rounded communications, writing and media professional with top-of-the-line experience in all forms of media. Spent the last 11+ years of my productive career in geospatial industry understanding, writing, speaking and advocating for the technology and business dynamics and seeing the positive change constructive communication can bring about in a niche domain. I can balance my intellectual instincts vis-à-vis business needs very well and find them complementing and synergistic. Am equipped with good verbal and written communication skills; am agile and a quick learner; have an eye for detail; ability to build and lead successful teams; strategise, plan, produce and launch - print editions, market studies and marketing campaigns.