GIS and Geoinformatics in Sri Lanka

GIS and Geoinformatics in Sri Lanka

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Dr Ranjith Premalal De Silva
Department of Agricultural Engineering
University of Peradeniya
Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
[email protected]

Experience, status and prospects
The development of the use of GIS and other associated technologies in Sri Lanka has been very significant over the last decade. In a digital era, the advantages of using digital data for information generation are being appreciated by the scientific community in the country. It is very encouraging to note that the application domain of GIS has advanced through a sequence of development, publication, evaluation, and criticism towards a more comprehensive description of geoinformatics. This progress and development is in parallel with the global trends in advancement and furtherance of geographical information science where application context of GIS contributes for the fundamental part of critical evaluation process.

In Sri Lanka, the interest for the traditional disciplines like surveying, cartography, photogammetry has faded away and a significant trend of involvement in the use of geospatial data is increasingly experienced. The transition from traditional surveying and mapping technologies towards geoinformatics where modern spatial science and information technology interact successfully to provide effective solutions and approaches, is not without constraints and challenges.

Unlike in the developed world, in Sri Lanka, rapid development of relative science and technology for geoinformatics has been a major constraint due to the costs involved in technology transfer and acquisition. The education establishments of the country make a brave attempt to cope up with the rapid phase of these developments within their strengths and potentials. However, the current local trend in geoinformatics is getting increasingly biased more towards computer science and related information technologies. The balance between conceptual and theoretical research and application development endeavours needs to be maintained in order to derive the maximum benefits of the emerging technology for the betterment of the country.

Standards for geospatial data
Following the guidelines and recommendations of the South Asia GIS Forum (1999), several initiatives in the state sector for the standardisation of geospatial data are evident in Sri Lanka. The Department of Survey has drafted a proposal for digital data standardisation and distribution, ownership, copy right and liabilities, quality and accuracy, scale issues and data formats. Map user group meetings have been organised and the proposals for streamlining the use of geospatial data have been forwarded to the map user community in the country for endorsement and approval. Further, digital maps of land use and spot heights at the scale of 1:50,000 prepared according to the proposed digital data standards are available at the Department of Survey. Digital data layers of major towns, stream network, road network, irrigation tanks and reservoirs and contours at 1:250,000 scale can also be purchased. Measures have been taken to issue value-added products of IRS imagery based on individual user requirements. Based on these realisations during the last few years, the enactment of comprehensive legislation for geospatial data could no longer be delayed by the government. In the free market economy, several other state institutions have questioned the legitimacy of holding the sole authority and regulatory monopoly of the geospatial data ownership by the Survey Department of Sri Lanka. The Urban Development Authority, National Aquatic Research Agency, Water Supply and Drainage Board, National Building Research Organisation, Geological and Mining Bureau, Central Environmental Authority, Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka and several other state funded organisations claim the shared leadership in setting-up of national standards for geospatial data. However, the need of the spatial data user community in Sri Lanka today is not the dilemma of determining the most appropriate government institution for awarding the sovereignty of geospatial data standardisation but the privilege of national geospatial data policy which ensures the right of access to the public domain digital data for development and planning decisions in Sri Lanka.

Recent trends in geospatial education
Gradual development of the concepts of geospatial education from the GIS background towards geoinformatics or probably towards Geographical Information Science could be regarded as an encouraging sign for the future of the industry in Sri Lanka. Academic initiatives for GIS and Geoinformatics teaching and curricula development still aim at two distinct phases but commonly perceived together on the same technological platform. National universities and higher education establishments focus geospatial education on a broader academic consideration which includes fundamental theoretical concepts, principles of geospatial analysis, mathematical and statistical backgrounds, data integration issues and data quality standards, scale issues and data conversions, and practical applications of geoinformatics with a detailed account of prospects and limitations of such applications. However, GIS training, oriented towards providing hands on experience of practical use of GIS software dominates the education agenda. Production and service sectors encourage this sort of training with the blessings of software dealers. In such training programs, trainees could only develop their skills on the use of software functionality and thereby restrict their prospective careers for technical level employment opportunities. There is a heavy demand from these trainees to acquire formal geospatial education, stepping beyond the boundaries of task-oriented technical expertise.

In view of the geospatial education in the country, there are few gray areas, which need to be strengthened to deliver the benefits efficiently. Market opportunities in the country for geospatial expertise have not been well communicated to the student community. This is more serious in the engineering disciplines. There is a distinct gap between the demand of such expertise and what is available in the country. Academia should explore the avenues for better awareness of the current developments in spatial sciences and attract students to cater the needs of the local industry. Potential expansion of geospatial education towards new disciplines also needs to be explored. In the state funded universities, the decline in resource allocation also hinders the development and expansion of geospatial education in the country.

In the GIS software market, ESRI through the local distributors products has promoted and popularised ArcInfo and ArcView as professional GIS software. A recent survey has revealed that ArcView is the most preferred software with 88 percent users in the survey and ArcInfo was ranked as the second with 56 percent users. It was also found in the survey that 67 users have purchased ESRI software from the local agents and this includes more than one department from the same institution. These software costs millions of rupees for the license and exhausts the recurrent expenditure budget for annual maintenance fees. In most of the training programs, organised through the sponsorship of these vendors, GIS training means ArcInfo and ArcView training. This has led to acquire these software with all the modules irrespective of the real need of a GIS system, whether it is partial or full. Most of the institutions expecting to utilise functionality of geoinformatics perceive these software as only available choices and are reluctant to step into the use of geospatial data because of the heavy financial burden of such investments. Hence, these institutions are being deprived of the benefits of the use of geospatial data with the low cost GIS software available in the global market. It is the duty of educators in the discipline of geoinformatics to introduce and create awareness of the choice available for software and educate the user community of the benefits in the use of free downloads and other cheap software. In place of ArcView training, geospatial education with a wider scope needs to be prioritised in the academic establishments.

Further, there are obvious differences between theoretical concepts and application knowledge of geoinformatics. This has reached a critical level as IT professionals are gradually becoming responsible for geoinformatics applications in various specialised disciplines. This has led to generate graphics and maps of high visual quality but of poor information and misleading results with poor interpretations. Geoinformatics education should support and develop the skills of individuals who have expertise in their own disciplines to take advantage of this emerging technology to develop realistic application opportunities in their respective disciplines.

Most of the institutions dealing with the geospatial data in the country are managed by administrators who have no proper background or knowledge on the potentials and limitations of geospatial data. Hence, issues related to data quality, data exchange and sharing which are important aspects in the use of digital data are constantly overlooked by the managers. An introduction and basic conceptual background of geospatial data need to be incorporated into curricula of the other disciplines in the universities.

Geospatial data and information/ Communication technologies
In Sri Lanka, a significant contribution from information and communication technologies to support the use of geospatial data is seen as an incentive. The Internet and Intranet have rapidly become the most popular and widely used channel for communication and information and is utilised in various sectors of geospatial data management. Technology transfer is no longer a constraint due to the availability of web based delivery of information in geospatial applications. Although the concepts of virtual campus and cyber classes on geoinformatics education are still at infancy, widespread use of Internet and Intranet for supplementary education has become compulsory for geospatial data user community. However, there is no proper assessment of the impacts of web based training for the geospatial industry in the country.

Problem solving via email discussion groups, bulletin boards brings the user community together and creates opportunities for sharing information and experience. This could further be developed towards a national multi-disciplinary research and application agenda. Multimedia learning and demonstration tools are extensively used together with digital technology. Purchasing of software and upgrades, satellite imagery and other web based data downloads are experienced at many institutions.

Demand for geospatial data
At present, demand for geospatial data is very high and diverse. Some institutions prefer to acquire raw geospatial data while majority of the establishments require value-added or processed products of geospatial data. However, most of these demands for geospatial data could be summarised to present in a form of a digital geospatial database for natural resources of Sri Lanka. The major sectors which deal with geospatial data include research and education establishments, telecommunications, power and energy, irrigation and water resource management, environmental conservation, meteorology and climatology, agriculture, transportation and urban planning. According to the responses of the exploratory survey carried out by the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Sri Lanka and Sida/ SAREC research cooperation project, geospatial data demand is prominent in the areas of land use mapping, research and training.

Although private sector could play an important role in generation and distribution of geospatial data, initiatives for such market strategies are not currently seen in the country. Both state sector and private sector own and manage digital databases for their individual sphere of operations. Most of the collaboratory work initiatives are based on personal contacts and understanding, and reconciliation for national objectives is yet to be experienced at the institutional level. The responsibility of such inter-institutional cooperation mainly lies on the hands of the top administrators.

Geoinformatics and future directions
The review of the past developments and present status of GIS and geoinformatics reflects bright prospects and great expectations of the industry in Sri Lanka. There is an urgent need to establish a national organisation or forum with the mandate and responsibility for geospatial data policy, geospatial education, dissemination of knowledge & information related to geospatial issues. This organisation or forum could also serve as the national affiliation towards the regional cooperation for geospatial data sharing and integration process.

Acknowledgements
The author wishes to thank Mr. Lal Mutuwatte, Senior Research Officer, International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka and Dr. N.D.K. Daaywansa, Lecturer, Department of Agricultural Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka for their support in compiling the information for this paper. The author also acknowledges the information collected from abstracts of papers published at workshop on present and future development of GIS in Sri Lanka by the University of Jayawardenepura/ Cnetral Environmental Authority.