Home Articles “Geospatial data should be housed in one national agency”

“Geospatial data should be housed in one national agency”

Kapil Sibal calls for free flow of data; integration with IT industry to provide holistic solutions

The geospatial industry in India has done fairly well over the years. Its expansion and growth has been quite steady. Way back in 2005, India revised the map policy and set up the National Spatial Data Infrastructure — two initiatives that helped the geospatial industry grow. This in turn helped businesses and the government, and the common man. But there has been a paradigm shift since then. Technology is advancing at such an enormous pace that geospatial industry can no longer exist on its own; it needs to integrate into the mainstream of information technology (IT). And I think this industry needs to be addressed in that context as the real challenge is to integrate geospatial information with the general flow of information on the Net. We must connect geospatial data with economic activities to find solutions for the people.

Integration into mainstream
The Indian government is using geospatial technology in projects such as the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme, the Agricultural Resources Information System, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the National Land Record Modernisation Programme. The technology has given a fillip to urban planning and development of sustainable cities, power systems, land records, spatial-based agriculture and forest information. In non-traditional areas too, geospatial technology is now pervading all segments of consumer devices and services and across verticals of public and private sector businesses.

Permeation of location-based social media has also increased public awareness and helped unveil new geospatial application opportunities. This information now is vital in car navigation systems, wireless networking, mobile computing, automobile tracking systems, location- based services, transportation planning, engineering, environment modelling and analysis, telecommunications, farming and public health. And it is important is because there is no human activity that takes place on Planet Earth without reference to a particular point on the planet. Geospatial information, riding on the shoulders of general IT information, can help decision-making to be far more efficient and conducive for economic growth.

Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Communication and IT,
Government of India

National agency to integrate geospatial data
The Indian government is setting up four regional data centres to house all available data and application technologies that will be provided to the industry and to the public at large. If you integrate geospatial information into the cloud computing set-up, the end solutions will be fully integrated ones. If an MSME wants a particular solution, it can access the data centre. This centre may in turn be connected to the cloud, or the MSME may be directed to the cloud.

In urban planning, 3D representation of the data along with integrated data processes is of mmense help. This is true of transportation and agriculture. The farmer then can figure out what he should and shouldn”t do. This data, made available on a mobile phone, will be an empowering tool, helping him in timely decision making and contributing to economic growth.

The problem, of course, is that many of the agencies in India have data but they are not integrated with each other. For example, the Survey of India is housed in the Ministry of Science and Technology. All remote sensing data is housed in the Department of Space while the geological data with Geological Survey of India comes under the Ministry of Mines. But in the absence of an integrated institution to collect, manage, disseminate, analyse and create applications with the data, geospatial data is not being optimally utilised by central and state departments or by the private industry. I think it”s the right time to create an agency in India which houses [and manages] this data. This agency must absorb the data that departments put in the public domain.

Free flow of data
However, this is a problem of mindset elsewhere in the world too — every person believes that the data he/she generates is his/her exclusive property. Governments and people must understand that as far as geospatial data is concerned, they may have some copyright over the data for having created it, but data essentially comes from Mother Earth. And Mother Earth doesn”t have any exclusive stamp of possession which any entity or person can claim anywhere in the world.

So, basic essential data which emerges from the Planet Earth must be available free of cost across the board. This is one thing that needs to be agreed upon if we want to make use of data in a substantial way. You can build on it to claim possessory rights, but basic data should be freely available. I have always believed that government departments which collect data should use the data not just for themselves but put it in public domain so that they too can use it. If a government department has data of location of schools, it must share it with the private sector, which can in turn help the government in providing solutions for larger social and economic benefits.

Another thing troubling me over the years is the fact that we do not have maps for planning. The maps we have are at 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scales. But for urban planning, you need maps at 1:2,000 scale. The Ministry of Information and Technology recently decided not to wait for the Survey of India to map things on the ground. We decided to take what is at present available through satellites and create maps at 1:10,000 and 1:2000 scales. You may have a level of inaccuracy of about a metre or even less, but for macro planning, these are nothing compared to the data that is available. We can then wait for the Survey of India to make them more accurate as the years go by.

I only talked about education and what we are doing in the IT Ministry. But geospatial data has enormous use in every sector of the economy. I cannot think of a single sector where this data will not be useful. And yet within the Government of India, we have not been able to decide so far as to what is the level and kind of data, and to what extent we can distribute and make it available to the public.

The government is currently in the reform mode and we hope to get some decisions for the geospatial sector as well. There is a group of ministers (GoM) which is looking at various issues that geospatial industry faces and I happen to be a member of that GoM.

Reforms need not be only legislative ones; it is not just about getting bills passed in Parliament. We can do many things outside the Parliament which will actually generate the kind of activity that will help the private sector grow at the rate of 25- 30% in the geospatial space. This is a sector which can create enormous jobs for the country.

Kapil Sibal addressing the Geospatial Artha Summit in New Delhi

Skill deficit and curriculum revision
We have a population desperate for jobs and I am sure geospatial industry today does not have enough skilled resources. We have been working with the industry to introduce some courses in this field. But, what we need to do is integrate some of the institutions to ensure that the skill requirements of the industry are generated through them. We can sit together with the human resource development industry and prepare courses of study and make sure that those syllabi are tailor-made for the sector. Otherwise we will not be able to create the right course for the kid who moves out of the college to get a job.

The University of Hyderabad will soon house a special centre of excellence for which Rs 25 crore has been sanctioned. But again, Rs 25- 30 crore in one university will not produce the numbers the industry needs. It should be done on a much larger scale.

India needs to think and plan for 20 years ahead, project our manpower requirements for the future, see where our technology will go, how cloud computing, geospatial sector, the IT sector, mobile technologies, and other technologies will converge. If you have a road map for the next 20 years, you may even come to a conclusion that what you need is not a worker skilled in geospatial technology but a multi-skilled individual.

Get a holistic approach
The geospatial industry needs to look at things a little more holistically. It is okay to provide solutions based on geospatial technology, but that is a micro solution. What you need is a macro vision and solutions have to be at both ends. To create a framework in which geospatial technology has an integral part, you need to be multi-disciplinary in your approach and a platform that is multi-disciplinary.

And your competitiveness will depend on how much holistic solutions you provide to the economy. And in providing holistic solutions, geospatial technology is one part, and a very integral part.

I am neither an expert in this area nor a scientist, but as a policymaker I believe this is the kind of vision the industry and the government should have. At the end, it is the ordinary consumer who has to be empowered and benefited. If that is not done, there is no point in having these technologies.

(Based on the speech delivered at Geospatial Artha Summit, in New Delhi in September 2012)