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GIS in the internet era: What will India gain?

Ravi Gupta
Director, CSDMS

Email: [email protected]

The Internet, sometimes called simply “the Net,” is a worldwide system of computer networks – a network of networks in which users at any one computer can, if they have permission, get information from any other computer (and sometimes talk directly to users at other computers). It was conceived by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US Government in 1969 and was first known as the ARPANet. The original aim was to create a network that would allow users of a research computer at one university to be able to “talk to” research computers at other universities. A side benefit of ARPANet’s design was that, because messages could be routed or rerouted in more than one direction, the network could continue to function even if parts of it were destroyed in the event of a military attack or other disaster.

Today, the Internet is a public, cooperative, and self-sustaining facility accessible to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Physically, the Internet uses a portion of the total resources of the currently existing public telecommunication networks. Technically, what distinguishes the Internet is its use of a set of protocols called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Two recent adaptations of Internet technology, the intranet and the extranet, also make use of the TCP/IP protocol.

On October 24, 1995, the Federal Networking Council (FNC) unanimously passed a resolution defining the term ‘Internet’. This definition was developed in consultation with the leadership of the Internet and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Communities. In the resolution, FNC agreed that the following language reflects their definition of the term “Internet”. “Internet” refers to the global information system that –

  1. is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons;
  2. is able to support communications using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite or its subsequent extensions/follow-ons, and/or other IP-compatible protocols; and
  3. provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure.

Internet growth in India
The Internet has emerged as one technology that is influencing every sphere of human activity. The Internet started in India in 1994. In 1998 the Internet was thrown open for private internet service providers (ISPs).

According to the country’s software association, National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) Internet connections in India is currently around one million which is expected to rise to 1.6 million by the end of March, 2001 and jump to 8 millions two years later. A survey commissioned by NASSCOM revealed that Internet user base was expected to rise to 5 million by end of March, 2000 and further to 18 million by end of March in 2003 and further to 23 million by end-December 2003. The survey was carried out over 68 cities and towns across the country which account for 92% of Internet users. Users are currently estimated at 4 million as each connection is said to be used by 4 people. The survey statement added that over 80 Internet Service Providers and at least 12 private international gateways were expected to commence operations by the end of March, 2001. A study by McKinsey and NASSCOM projects that over the coming eight years, our country might be able to trap 12 per cent of the projected $142-billion global market for IT-enabled services which is worth about $17 billions.

The public use of this technology is so new that the oldest Internet company (Amazon.com is among the first), is just about five years old. One web site is being launched every 8 seconds on the net. Worldwide e-commerce is likely to grow from $8 billion to $327 billion by 2002. Many experts say that they will not be surprised if this figure crosses a trillion by 2003. The recent change of situation shows that E (Electronic) has slowly modified its meaning to I (Internet).

If GIS is correlated with Internet
High Speed communication networks, and specifically the Internet have had a profound impact on the growth of GIS products in just the last three years. Access to GIS resources via a “spatial data clearinghouse” on the Internet is now being accomplished regularly via the World Wide Web. Because of the magnitude of the newly created GIS digital data, one can foresee the need for more robust networks with the ability to conduct a query, display results and download data across the Internet. The natural extension of these developments is public access GIS – citizens as consumers of locational information. Several state and local governments all over the world are now piloting access to GIS resources with easy, graphical interfaces at locations such as government centres and public libraries. With this in mind, perhaps the most dynamic trend is toward GIS on the Internet. GIS on the Internet will make it possible to add GIS functionality to a wide range of applications in the government and make it accessible to the masses.

Can GIS and Internet ever meet?
This trend of GIS on the Internet is bringing together two different types of technologies. The origins and growth patterns of these two technologies are so different (Table 1), that both will have to do some ‘adjustments’ to come together.

Table 1: Growth of Internet and GIS: 
A macro-level comparison
  Factor GIS Internet
1 Push Government Private Sector
2 User Decision makers Masses
3 Providers ‘Experts’ ‘Non-experts’
4 Cost High Low
5 Benefits ‘invisible’ Visible
6 Area of influence Limited Vast
7 Content Controlled Uncontrolled
8 Growth Rate 50% 100%

The factors listed in the table have been elaborated below:

Push: The government plays a major role in the growth of geoinformatics sector. While in the case of Internet, besides providing the gateways, government’s role is limited.

User: GIS has mainly been seen as a Decision Support System (DSS). It’s users are mainly the managers and decision makers at top and middle level. On the other hand, Internet has emerged as a medium for the masses.

Providers: Traditionally, the GIS expertise lies with the ‘experts’, sitting in the high-tech laboratories. While the Internet is a tool, which can be learnt by anyone, sitting at home.

Cost: The GIS technology has traditionally been a high cost technology. While the Internet is low cost one.

Benefits: The benefits of using Internet are visible. Anyone using an email, or a web browser can tell you how useful it has been. On the other hand, GIS technology being not available or accessible to masses, the benefits from this technology remain ‘invisible’ to the masses.

Area of Influence: Due to the same reasons cited above, the area of influence of GIS technology is limited compared to Internet.

Content: Being a government-driven sector, applications for which GIS is used, is limited. It’s directed by the government policy and programmes. On the other hand, the things which can be done on or through Internet are just limited by our imagination.

Growth Rate: Perhaps no other sector of IT has seen as phenomenal growth as the Internet. GIS is no exception.

How Internet can transform our GIS programmes?
GIS and related technologies are being used by the government for developmental planing of the country through programs like National Natural Resource Management Systems (NNRMS), Natural Resource Information Systems (NRIS), Natural Resource Data Management Systems (NRDMS), District Information Systems (DISNIC) etc. The present broad delivery mechanism of the many of these systems is as shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1: GIS Programmes in
the Pre-Internet Era
The NICNET, a network promoted by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), has been the backbone of data transfer among the government agencies. Many of the GIS programmes in the country to use this network for communicating and disseminating developmental planning information. It is envisaged that in the Internet era, many other sectors like research institutes, NGOs, Media, and academic institutes etc. will also be able to access this information through the Internet (Fig. 2). This wider usage of information will help the sector grow fast and attract innovative usage and application of geographic information for development of the country.

In the Internet era, a government initiative like NRDMS may have web site like www.nrdms.gov.in (a hypothetical site, given as an example). User will be able to access the data sources from the links provided to these sites to the primary and secondary producing organisations. The user may download these data relevant for the query to be done. The user may have to pay for the priced data available with data producers. This transaction can be done through payment on-line (e-commerce).

In a more advanced stage, a system like NRDMS may be more refined. All the relevant data may be sorted beforehand by the NRDMS staff, and the user has to just choose among the various datasets available for making a query. The user may also be provided with pre-defined results of some frequently asked queries, which may be used for making more user-specific queries on-line.

The user can again publish the output from the above exercise on the web, by accessing which, any other user requiring similar type of analysis need not do the same exercise all over again. And if the new user does any analysis again, he can send his suggestions and correction, which may be incorporated, on-line if possible.

Fig. 2: GIS Programmes in
the Internet Era
 Looking forward
The concept of use of Internet and GIS, if implemented in letter and spirit, can drastically change the roadmap of GIS development in the country. The Internet bug has bitten India in a big way. It hasn’t spared even the politician and the bureaucrat, the biggest pillars of democracy in the country. The growth of Internet is a good news for GIS sector, since Internet has offered an opportunity for it to come out of the laboratories and directly make an attempt to positively influence the common citizen. Now, the onus is on the GIS community to see that this golden opportunity to help India become the knowledge superpower in the new millenium is not lost.