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Data Policy: The missing link

As geospatial technology becomes part of growth and development, it’s time India takes a look at and revamps the existing data policies to help the sector realise its full potential

A sound policy framework that facilitates the availability and accessibility of geoinformation is crucial in exploiting the full potential of geospatial data as an enabling tool in mission mode projects, governance, businesses and everyday lives of citizens. Coming out of the military domain, the first de-restriction of topographic maps in India started around 1967. In the last 47 years, it has come a long way, opening up several core yet independent geospatial information organisations for topography, remote sensing information as well as thematic mapping organisations for forestry, census, archaeology, soil and land use.

With such a wide variety of data generating organisations, a laudable space programme and a thriving services sector, data should have been the last issue in the country. Unfortunately, while there is an abundance of geospatial data, the Indian data environment is still fraught with numerous challenges in the absence of an integrated national geospatial strategy, clear-cut data-sharing policy and easy access to high-resolution data.

Security paranoia?
The National Map Policy (NMP) was established in 2005 with an aim to promote the use of geospatial knowledge and intelligence by all sections of the society. With the NMP, two series of topographic maps became available — one for defence forces and another for civilian purposes as Open Series Maps (OSM). The Remote Sensing Data Policy 2011 was announced while taking into consideration “the availability of very high-resolution images, from foreign and commercial remote sensing satellites, and noting the need for proper and better management of the data acquisition/ distribution from these satellites in India”. As a result, all satellite data of resolutions up to 1 metre was free of any restriction for distribution on a nondiscriminatory and “as requested basis”.

It won’t be breaking news to say both these policies are underlined by security concerns. The NMP 2005 states that “SoI has been mandated to take a leadership role in liberalising access of spatial data to user groups without jeopardising national security”, and each of these OSMs (in both hard copy and digital form) will become “unrestricted” after obtaining a one-time clearance of the Ministry of Defence. It adds and “SoI will ensure that no civil and military Vulnerable Areas and Vulnerable Points are shown on OSMs”. Similarly, the Remote Sensing Policy 2011 recognises that “national interest is paramount, and that security consideration of the country needs to be given utmost importance”.

While the government opened up the data for various applications recognising the significance of geospatial data, observers feel the security concerns still prevail upon even the “open” data. A report, Perspectives for a National GI Policy, by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), observes that soon after the NMP was announced, it dawned that the digital Open Series Map is only a “red herring” and that the security concern would still prevail.

The government, however, believes the restrictions are not a great hurdle to development. Dr V.K. Dadhwal, Director, National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), is emphatic that the high-quality imaging environment is not restrictive in India. “Yes, higher spatial resolutions than 1 metre have a set of guidelines. But geospatial sector is much more than imaging. NRSC believes in open data and that is why all satellite data is available for purchase by users,” he claims while adding open data should not be confused as free data. NRSC officials also point out that data prices have come down by over 100% in the last few years, which only point to the fact that the sector is opening up.

Further, use of high resolution data is allowed in special cases, points out Dr S. Sudhakar, Director, North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC), who in fact believes 2.5 metre resolution is more than sufficient to handle most of the development-related works. Surveyor General Dr S. Subba Rao says the Survey of India, the nodal agency for maps, has just begun mapping the country at 1:10,000 scale and once completed, it will take care about 90% of development projects in the country. He is also of the opinion that “the remote sensing policy that opened up imagery of up to 1 metre is absolutely fine. Beyond that I don’t think many people need it.”

Vision for a National GIS
A national geographic information system (NGIS) has been envisaged in the XII Five Year Plan to map information, assets and data accurately, which will assist in policy and works planning and improve delivery of services in urban and rural areas. The Plan has approved Rs 25 billion for the project to be implemented by the Survey of India. National GIS envisions a well maintained collection of geospatial datasets to allow national use, published via standard web services so that government and private sector entities and citizens have the same national view of GIS data. The National GIS can be envisioned as a GIS Systems of Systems, to enable mechanisms by which GIS can bring in full-scale support to governance and embed GIS in all aspects of planning.

The Indian Railways recently placed a sixfigure order with GeoEye for stereo imagery with spatial resolution of 50 cm. However, it may take months before the images actually land with the Railways after the clearances from NRSC, which is again the sole custodian to acquire and disseminate all foreign remote sensing data entering India. Procurement of foreign imagery is not so easy, especially for the private sector, but NRSC officials claim the delay is due to the normal procedures.

The industry acknowledges the security concerns but wants the government to be judicious in its approach owing to development needs. With the private geospatial sector getting more and more involved in national development projects, there is a genuine need for access to data. “Imagine using data with error margin of 50 feet for cadastral mapping where people are possessive about every inch,” says Rajan Aiyer, MD, Trimble India. “Even for pipelines, underground utilities, fibre optics, aligning roads, we need millimetre or centimetre-level accuracy.”

And this opens another pandora’s box. This kind of accuracy can come with use of GPS for positioning or Virtual Reference System (VRS), use of which is restricted in India. “The government is apprehensive that it can be used by people for nefarious activities. But even smartphones can be used for that. We have to remove this fear, uncertainty and doubt,” says Aiyer.

As a result, many users, including government departments, are increasingly using sources like Google Maps. For instance, the Railways is using Google Maps for preparing its GIS basemap. “It is just that Google is available easier,” says S.S. Mathur, General Manager, Centre for Railway Information Systems. Agrees Sanjay Jaju, IT Secretary, Andhra Pradesh, who says the state government has started collaboration with Google since it is available in such a user-friendly open format.

“When you have Google and others, holding government data is not going to make any difference to you. Private companies who work in India and abroad understand this but the government has a problem,” says Pankaj Gupta, Head – GIS Collection Data Collection, Trimble India. Gupta points out that China has every district mapped on VRS. “Even Bangladesh allows VRS. SoI has started talking about its own 50 receivers because they want to create a VRS system in India.”

Data sharing
If security is a laid-down issue, the lack of laws or policy regarding data-sharing further complicates the problem. Data custodians are often reluctant to share their data. “People think data is power; if you share, you lose the power,” says Subba Rao.

Maj Gen Dr R. Siva Kumar, CEO of National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) agrees that reluctance to share the data, in addition to other factors like lack of metadata, data in analogue form, non-interoperability and policy, has been a reason why users have traditionally not been able to use and add value to this asset (spatial data). NSDI was set up in 2006 as a national infrastructure for the availability of and access to organised spatial data, with the objective of developing and maintaining standard digital collection of data and developing common solutions for discovery, access and use of spatial data in response to the needs of diverse user groups. Over the years, Kumar says NSDI has been able to develop consensus amongst 17 mapping agencies to come together and commit for sharing geospatial data but a lot remains to be done.

However, many within and outside the government think even though NSDI was launched with much fanfare, it hasn’t been able to achieve much. Industry insiders concede that data sharing is a mindset problem. Sudhakar of NESAC feels there is an inherent reluctance among government departments in sharing data. Voicing similar sentiments, Ganesan Kumar of the Tamil Nadu Highways department says, “For our work, it was a challenge to get SoI maps with information about boundaries of MLA/MP constituencies.” Harsh Sharma, Vice President (NMG,EA and IT), BSES Yamuna Power Limited, says that the procurement of images from government departments is major challenge faced during preparation and updation of base maps.

The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, cleared by the Cabinet in early 2012, is expected to be in force in a few months. The policy makes it mandatory for every department to share data — spatial and otherwise — thus helping in effective framing of national policies and planning. All governmental data-holding organisations will have to prepare a negative list of non-shareable sensitive data, weighing the need to restrict public access due to security or privacy, against the obligation to share it with civil society and the scientific community. “Once this happens, everyone will fall in line,” says Subba Rao. The government has also launched a data portal (data. gov.in) to make data accessible and available to all government ministries and departments, which is a great initiative on paper. But even then there are issues. For instance, the NICMaps prepared by the National Informatics Centre (National Informatics Centre) are awaiting clearance from Ministry of Defence before it can be made accessible.

Data duplication
Often, there are multiple agencies involved in data generation, activities or data pertaining to the same geographic location. And this data is collected by these agencies independently. As a result, the authenticity of data is often lost, impacting the decisions it supports. For instance, Varsha Joshi, Director, Census Operations Delhi, shares that her department had to face numerous problems while conducting census operations in 2009 over the authenticity of maps due to multiplicity of sources. In such a situation, users also lack clarity on whom to approach for the most authentic information.

Any metropolitan city in India typically has a municipal authority, an urban development authority, a public works department, the water board, and even power, gas and telecom utilities. All these bodies produce their own data, often resulting in duplication. Subba Rao points out that the Delhi State Spatial Data Infrastructure (DSSDI) was envisaged to address this issue and created one database for the Delhi Government. He, however, concedes that this is a difficult and time-consuming task and the Delhi Government had to bring in legislation to mandate this.

Further, a lot of corporate data exists in the geospatial data space. Geospatial solutions and services companies require different kinds of geospatial data for their activities and meet project requirement. While some of it is procured from the government agencies, companies also acquire their own data. Dr Aniruddha Roy, Vice President, Navayuga, says the company acquires primarily the SoI base data and imagery products from NRSC. Datasets required in addition to these are normally developed afresh based on the project requirements. He adds that there is often a lack of clarity regarding the processes involved in acquiring datasets from government agencies. Turnaround times can also be a constraint as the companies need to meet project deadlines.

A private player, on the condition of anonymity, shares that the company generates its own data to deliver its projects efficiently. Similarly, there are a lot of individual surveying and mapping projects undertaken by various government departments for specific purposes. All these activities generate a lot of geospatial data and information which does not find its way back into some central system from where it can be picked up by other users for their activities. The employee of a public sector organisation undertaking a large surveying exercise agrees that such data, which will otherwise remain within the project itself, is a national resource and should be available for use by other organisations.

One way to address this, as Roy suggests, is that all government-sponsored projects should have a common repository. A project like R-APDRP should have a common GIS repository, which in this case can be with the Power Finance Corporation and the Ministry of Power. They can store the data in central repository which can be shared through distributed environment, he says. However, the basic facts need to be kept in mind — that the base line data in terms of boundary etc should match with the SoI basemaps.

Data comes in various standards. GIS experts in India have repeatedly raised concerns about the interoperability issues and the different versions of maps and data created by various government departments in India. Multiple standards and lack of interoperability not only hampers its effective usage, but can also be a roadblock in addressing problems like inter-state issues.

SoI, which is implementing the government’s ambitious National GIS project that aims to have one database across the country, also plans to address the issue of uniformity of standards. Subba Rao explains that SoI will soon formalise the methodologies — standards to be adopted, format in which the data will flow in, kind of data transaction etc. As a one-shot solution, SoI is trying to make sure all data that goes into NGIS is OGC-compliant. As for standardising data from other departments, as of now, SoI plans to accept whatever format data comes in and convert it for NGIs. “At a later date, when NGIS is launched and they all become part of it, they will automatically migrate to a uniform format and this will gradually become a standard. Today, if I tell them to use a certain standard, it may come across as an imposition,” says Subba Rao.

Way forward
The underlining problems are primarily because there is no ownership of geospatial as a sector among any government department or ministry. With the major data-generating organisations in India spread over various departments (see box: Data Custodians), no one official or minister has the onus of getting deep into the problems to create a conducive policy environment. Also, several efforts to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among these agencies have not achieved the desired level of results primarily because each of these agencies have a very distinct mandate and is administered by different ministries.

Industry experts believe that initiatives like NSDI no doubt work to facilitate collaboration among various spatial data organisations, but this works only to promote the sharing of information without the necessary mandate to encourage the creation, management, maintenance and the utilisation of geospatial information.

Further, these data custodians served certain well-defined purposes which were relevant at the time of their creation. Today surveying and mapping has evolved into integrated geospatial faculty which offers much greater degree of utility and contribution to socio-economic development of the country and its people. Therefore, feel experts, there is a need to amend the scope and mandate of these organisations in order to make them more meaningful and relevant to serve the country to their fullest potential. Take for instance the Geological Survey of India (GSI). GSI is administered by the Ministry of Mines, which has no interest in strengthening the institution beyond using it for mining and exploration activities within the government sector. However, if modernised and mandated, GSI can play a much larger role in national development through contribution to commercial mining and exploration industry. Recognising these lacunae, the XII Plan seeks to position GSI so as to emphasise on geospatial and multi-disciplinary work for the benefit of science, society and the nation.

One way forward is setting up of an agency that will be an integration/merger of core geospatial data organisations, including topographical, geological, remote sensing, land registry and others in the country. An encouraging development in this direction is the recommendation put forward by Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Communications and IT, to set up a national geospatial information agency/authority. He asserts that data should be housed in one national agency. A number of countries such as Japan, Canada, Indonesia are working in this direction.

To address the issues, the Indian government has envisaged creation of a National GIS system which aims to have one database for the entire country for all geospatial data that is integrated and from all government agencies. The XII Plan has approved Rs 25 billion for the programme. SoI, which is mandated to set up the NGIS and make it functional, is targeting to launch it by October with its present set of 1:50,000 maps of the country. It plans to update it gradually with 1:10,000 maps as they are created as well as with data from other departments and states.

The government believes that NGIS will go a long way into solving a lot of these issues. While ironing out the challenges of sharing, standards and duplication, it will also be a repository of all government geospatial data in the country. However, while there is a lot of euphoria about this, the industry is trying to stay cautious since it believes NSDI was also launched with such hype, but several years down the line, data sharing is still a challenge. Some like Rajesh C. Mathur, Vice Chairman, NIIT-GIS, believe NGIS is at a very high level and the real issue is penetration to the state and district levels. For, while policies are made at the national level, actual development work happens at the state level. “NGIS is like a banyan tree which has a lot of other offshoots. It’s not an end in itself. For NGIS to be truly successful you need state GIS,” he says. “Towards that end, a state GIS only can integrate various departments of the state governments and become part of the National GIS in a federative manner.”

Some experts, however, say centralising everything could be a total formula for disaster. “The world is talking of distributed GIS and cloud, and we are still talking of centralising,” says an insider.

Further, the NGIS also fails to address the issue of data generated by private organisations. The recent report by Boston Consulting Globe on the state of geospatial services sector in India had called on exploring PPP initiatives for building a geospatial capital. “In building out infrastructure and collecting data, companies often replicate each other’s work. They can reduce costs and save time by building mechanisms for exchanging the data they have already gathered,” it said.

The NGIS vision document recognises that for National GIS to be successful, it is imperative to have a National Geographical Information Policy. Dr K. Kasturirangan, Member (Science), Planning Commission, had also recently talked about the need for a national geospatial policy to address issues like data sharing and formatting.

The NIAS report on the National GI Policy, created on the behest of the Department of Science and Technology, further widens the scope, underlining that any such policy also must define how activities of GIS data usage and applications can be undertaken “while addressing issues of national strategic relevance, technological supremacy in GI, wide-spread usage of GI in society, address privacy, data quality, intellectual property rights and national security issues — all of which are yet to be well-defined and to be made clear”.

There is no dearth of geospatial data in the country. However, if geospatial data has to become the backbone of mission mode projects, become part of governance and business endeavours and become a key enabler to advance the economy, it has to be credible, available and usable. It is important to address the gaps in the data landscape to ensure this criteria is met.