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LatAm calling

Geospatial technology is integral to Latin America’s slow yet steady growth process in the face of a global slowdown. As the region gears up for the next level in terms of infrastructure, industrial growth and competitiveness, the g-factor is fast becoming a big factor

In a first common spatial initiative for the developing world, 32 countries in Latin America and Caribbean have joined hands to develop a joint Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) for the entire region. The multimillion dollar project, funded by the Development Bank of Latin America and various governments, is being seen as an effective mechanism to support decision-making, regional integration and a fundamental support for infrastructure and sustainable development in the region.

Economic growth

 Latin America has steered clear of the global slowdown and recorded a growth rate of 3% for 2012 and 2013 compared to the global GDP growth rate of 2.3%. However, global factors like global slowdown and fluctuating commodity prices have been spoilers. There are other homegrown factors too. For instance, export of manufactured goods in 2011 from Europe.

Fact File – Latin America
Fact File - Latin America

In such a background, quick, reliable and transparent information about resources for demographic growth, and further analysis and decisions can optimise processes. Geospatial is known to be great enabler — be it for the private sector in reading the trends or for governments effective planning. “Geospatial technologies today encompasses virtually all fields of economic activity, and is therefore the key in the promotion of sustainable economic development,” says Alexandre Derani, Director, Digibase, a Brazilian company providing solutions in surveying and and delivery of custom maps. Concurs Maurício Aveiro, President, OrbiSat, a Brazil-based company specialising in radars: “Geotechnology is responsible for the initial information needed to analyse the feasibility of a project. A country that needs development shall provide accurate geographic information to enable new investments.”

The G factor

Geospatial experts agree the region has huge business potential and offers a large number of opportunities for the development of infrastructure, applications and consolidation of spatial information. “The use of modern positioning technologies based on navigation satellites is a reality in many countries. So is the use of remote sensing data combined with processing and analysis for decision making,” underlines Luiz Paulo Souto Fortes, President of CP-IDEA, the Standing Committee that operates under the UN guidance for establishing policies and standards for developing a regional cartographic model.

Thanks mainly to their space programmes, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico have recorded significant development in geospatial programmes. Colombia and Venezuela are moving in the same direction. Major industry players estimate the growth of the geospatial sector in Latin America is around 20% against a global growth rate of 10%.

The reasons are not difficult to guess. The steady economic growth in the region and a growing awareness of the importance of geography are attracting huge investments from global geospatial players. “Latin America is a very diverse marketplace with differing cultures and economies,” says Fernando Schmiegelow, Marketing Director, South America, Hexagon. The company sees excellent possibilities for growth and has different business models and commercial channels throughout the continent.

In 2012, Trimble invested $3 million to set up its first unit at Campinas in Brazil. After selling its products in the country for the last 10 years, with its own unit, Trimble now looks to partner with local players for developing integrated projects.
“The increasing value of land information in all countries is driving the development of small and medium domestic industries to create [geospatial] products and services tailored to the habits and customs of each place,” adds Claudio Brunini, President of SIRGAS, the main articulator of geodesic activity performed over 50 institutions on the region.

Spatial Data Infrastructure

Advances in survey and mapping in several countries highlight the maturity of the geospatial community here. “Decision makers now hesitate to imagine spatial information as a sheet of paper fixed in time. They want to view it as an entity made up of digital layers which are constantly changing,” says Brunini, from SIRGAS.

All big countries have launched their National SDI initiatives, with the most recent one being Map Viewer Digital Chile, which publishes data and maps for decision makers. This is the first Web platform with land information of the entire country led by the Territorial Characterization Project and the National Land Information System (SNIT). “Georeferencing is essential [for development and policy implementation]. It is a huge industry that involves around $200-billion business. The platform has to be fed constantly and we hope it will be of great help,” says Rodrigo Perez, the minister in-charge of the project.

Colombia released Version 2.0 of the Portal Maps of Bogota in June. “The portal has over 700 layers including building information, health, education, planning, roadways and public areas,” points out Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota.
Peru is also working on developing a geoportal to make available all such data online. “The use of geospatial tools in Peru has been rapidly increasing in various public and private institutions as well the academic world,” says Jesús Vargas, Cartographic Chief of the National Geographic Institute (IGN) Peru.

Similarly, Venezuela is working on maps for major urban areas of the country (at 1:1,000 and 1:2,500 scale). Till date, mapping has been done for 51 towns, informs Jonathan Ochoa, General Manager of the Venezuelan Institute of Geographic Simon Bolíva (IGVSB). The institute is also working on updating maps at 1:25,000 in 21 states, part of a plan to address the demand for planialtimétric information update. The project combines data from Satellite Miranda, radar technology and photogrammetry.

Both Brazil and Mexico are the biggest users of geospatial technology and have Websites with open data about their territory. The Brazilian SDI was set up in 2008 and offers a number of services, including an online map viewer that allows developing interactive maps in raster and vector formats. Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) is also the coordinator of the National System on Geographic and Statistic Information (SNIEG) since 2006. The portal focuses on providing qualitative information that is relevant, accurate and timely, in order to contribute to national development.

The El Salvador National Geographic Institute (NGI) is one of the first agencies in the region to launch a cloud-based map service. It is making available only a selected set of national base maps in the first phase, but plans to add many more datasets in near future.

Many of these institutes have completed global map datasets and are planning to switch to global standards and higher resolution data. Therefore, the next logical step is to coordinate data integration across international boundaries, build regional applications, and develop higher resolution datasets at 1:250,000 andv1:50,000 scale, say experts. Participatory regional coordination of mapping activities is essential to ensure long-term data compatibility.

Regional SDI

 The common SDI project has come at an opportune time. While advanced countries like Brazil and Mexico have their own SDI to facilitate data and information sharing, some are in the beginning stage. The common SDI will host current and accurate geoinformation for all.

“We are setting the foundations for a common SDI for the Latin America and Caribbean region,” says Eric van Praag, Regional Coordinator of GeoSUR. The process is on to identify successful initiatives and the joint plan will look at putting together all such efforts.

Launched in November 2012, the ‘Joint Action Plan 2013-2015 to accelerate the Development of Spatial Data Infrastructure for the Americas’ aims to consolidate the activities of Pan American Institute of Geography and History (IPGH), Geocentric Reference System for the Americas (SIRGAS), Permanent Committee for Geospatial Data Infrastructure for the Americas (CP-IDEA) and Geospatial Network Latin America and the Caribbean (GeoSUR). While IPGH will act in cartographic capacity, SIRGAS will work with the geodesic framework; CPIDEA will act as the political regional manager and the GEOSUR will develop applications.

“These entities are already contributing to the UNGGIM initiative in the Americas. It’s better if we work together in pursuing the development of SDI to support the use of spatial information for sustainable development,” says Santiago Borrero, General Secretary of IPGH.

“The goal is to maximise the economic, social and environmental impacts from the use of geospatial information, starting from the knowledge and exchange of experiences and technologies, and based on common standards,” says Luiz Paulo Souto Fortes, president of CP-IDEA.

Land & cadastre

 The turn of the millennium was characterised by great social, economic and political changes in Latin America. Among others, these led to the conceptualisation of the territory as a must for economic and social development and political sustainability. The concept multiplied the need for information required by governments to implement social and economic policies.

With nearly 80% of its population in cities, Latin America is one of the most urbanised regions in the world. However, the collective deficit of around 51 million housing units is one of the main problems to be overcome, according to a UN-Habitat report ‘State of the Cities of Latin America and the Caribbean 2012.’

Several bottlenecks need to be overcome to build the land administration system for better urban planning. These include archaic property identification systems, inappropriate policies, lack of technical knowhow and inadequate capacities.
In Mexico, the government is working on a $1.7-million Programme for Modernisation and Linking Property Public Records and Cadastre. The Congress is also discussing a law that addresses the issue of public real estate records and municipal land registers to provide the basis for generating a detailed and transparent digital list of properties. Proponents agree that such a law, if enacted, will have a far-reaching impact on public finances, particularly in the collection of taxes, ensuring legal certainties, attracting investments and fighting crime. “It has the same impact of structural reform without being one,” notes Manuel Nunez Velasco, Economic Adviser to the Mexican Senate.

Brazil has a mature cadastre system. The National Institute for Agrarian Colonisation (INCRA) is responsible for maintaining rural property records. The Land Management System (SIGEF) receives information in an automated form. Until mid 2012, an average of 20 certified property registrations were issued per day, which has risen up to 140. “SIGEF is an electronic tool designed to welcome, validate, organise and provide georeferenced data of rural properties. The challenge now is to offer a service that not only keeps the record, but also plans for the future,” says Carlos Guedes, president of INCRA.

Another project, the Rural Environmental Cadastre (CAR), involves the use of high-resolution satellite images to mark the perimeter of the farms across the country and their online registration. A total of $28.9 million was invested in 2012 for acquiring high-resolution satellite images of up to 5-metre resolution for the entire country, which is used as a basis for CAR. “It was the largest acquisition of satellite images from Brazil and one of the largest in the world, provides for the registration of more than 5 million farms, and when implemented will be the largest programme of carbon sequestration on the planet,” emphasises George Porto Ferreira, Coordinator of Environmental Monitoring at IBAMA, the Brazilian agency to combat deforestation.

Venezuela’s National Land Programme is almost towards the end of its first phase and has consolidated much of the target areas in the form of cartographic, geodetic, cadastral and collateral impact of social actions. The next step is to establish a period of review and analysis of the results, procedures and strategies adopted during the initial phase to perform the necessary adjustments based on past lessons.


 Latin America has a long way to go in terms of putting in world class infrastructure. According to a report, Designing the infrastructure in Latin America: the Next Five Years, by CG/LA Infrastructure, 2.1% of Latin America’s GDP is invested in infrastructure, which means an investment of $511 billion by 2015. This is just enough to operate and maintain the old matrix. There must be an investment of $185 billion a year to meet current infrastructure demand. The biggest demand in 2015 will be transportation, mainly highways (40% of investments), followed by the generation and transmission of energy (25%) and telecommunications. Also, ‘The Five Powerful’ — Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile — represent 70% of total infrastructure investments in the region.

Geotechnologies are generally fundamental to all phases of infrastructure, i.e., it is present in different forms in preliminary and feasibility studies, execution, overseeing, monitoring and finally during operation.


Brazil on a roll with mega sporting events

A stadium under construction in Brazil

Brazil will invest around 4% of its GDP, totalling $250 billion, over the period of five years, in infrastructural development for 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics Games. The Ministry of Sports, Brazil has already spent around $14 billion to upgrade the public resources for the upcoming grand events. The investment is scattered over 51 projects across 12 cities which will host the games.

Out of these, 35 are infrastructure projects for transportation and urban mobility. According to the government, this expenditure is within the overall budget for the World Cup. It is estimated that around $22 billion of $17 billion will be invested in the city of Rio de Janeiro alone for the major sporting events. The organisers of both the games explain that the government investments are planned mainly for the country’s infrastructure, urban mobility, stadiums, airports, transportation and communications, among other areas directly connected to the events. Private investments are more concentrated towards the tourism sector, especially construction of new hotels.

According to a study by Itaú Unibanco, on the economic benefits realised with the help of these major sporting events, a positive impact of 1.5% to the

GDP of Brazil is predicted in the next three years, with the creation of at least 250,000 direct jobs in various sectors. “The direct impact of investments in infrastructure, both by government and the private sector, is adding 1% to the GDP. Preparations for the World Cup is giving a multiplier effect to the economy,” says Ilan Goldfajn, President, Itau bank.

Astrium is providing satellite images of the construction and renovation works being carried out at various stadiums in Brazil, in an initiative of its own.

“The population needs to monitor the management of these resources. The government buys some images to monitor the progress of work being done but do not have a regular supply. The great demand is still to come”, says Pierre Duquesne, President, Astrium company.

Besides infrastructure, 14 Command and Control Centres will be set up (two national and 12 in the World Cup host cities). These centres will offer modern technology solutions like air imaging devices and observation decks providing real time updates. After the events, these centres will be linked to support technological and telecommunication integration to police, which is highlighted as one of the most important legacy that will be left for the country.


Agriculture is the backbone of the region’s economy. Several initiatives in this sphere demonstrate the advances geospatial technology has made in this sector.

In Brazil agribusiness is vital, accounting for around 25% of the GDP. The Territorial Management unit of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) has a mission to propose, coordinate and implement services of territorial management of agriculture at strategic levels, and develop technologies and innovative solutions. Brazil has in fact been a pioneer in the use of various advanced technologies in agriculture.

This is also underlined by the fact that in the last 10 years, more than a hundred small to medium industries involved in developing and marketing precision agriculture products have come up in neighbouring Argentina. The machines are exported especially to Brazil, and to developed countries like the US.

“The future of agriculture and livestock lies in the accuracy of the process and that requires programming and control,” says Mario Bragachini Coordinator, Network of Precision Agriculture Project and Machines Accurate National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA).

Other successful examples are the projects coordinated by Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food to promote research plans for increased productivity in agriculture. The priority lines of research focus on improving the quality of seeds and plants to make them more resistant to climatic, pests and diseases. In April, the Secretariat signed a $4.2-millon agreement with 32 states to activate projects for agriculture, livestock, fisheries and productive assets.

In Chile, the SDI project of the Ministry of Agriculture arises from the need to have a unified system that allows access to all geospatial information from government institutions. One of the fundamental principles of the IDE is interoperability. The project is currently in its second version and operates a portal wherein users can access the geo-catalogue from the ministry, news, miscellaneous documents and display of maps. Eugenio Gonzalez, President, Centre for Natural Resource Information (CIREN) emphasises, “We have a very important work — to kind of ‘evangelise’ about the use of these technologies at the public level. We have been working very hard to demonstrate to the world of agriculture that this is such an essential tool.” is interoperability. The project is currently in its second version and operates a portal wherein users can access the geo-catalogue from the ministry, news, miscellaneous documents and display of maps. Eugenio Gonzalez, President, Centre for Natural Resource Information (CIREN) emphasises, “We have a very important work — to kind of ‘evangelise’ about the use of these technologies at the public level. We have been working very hard to demonstrate to the world of agriculture that this is such an essential tool.”


 Latin America and the Caribbean together has around 65% of the world’s lithium reserves, 42% of silver, 38% of copper, 33% of tin, 21% of iron, 18% of bauxite and 14% nickel. According to a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean (ECLAC), the four UNASUR countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru) account for 62% of the regional investments in mining exploration for 2010. Adding Mexico takes this figure up at 84%. In 2011, Brazil, Chile and Peru were among the top 10 countries in terms of attracting mining investments (36% of the world’s total), up from 26% in 2000.

The current focus in Brazil is to discuss a new regulatory framework to expand and strengthen the participation of mining in the national economy. Mining contributes 23.5% to Brazil’s total exports. Another highlight is the creation of a new regulatory organization to implement a new management model, regulate mining activity, mitigate market imperfections, among others.

Similarly in Peru, mining comprises around 30% of the national budget and provides jobs to about 10 million citizens. Peru is working at reducing the time taken to issue new mining exploration licences. “The licences took between 300 and 500 days, but with the new rules this will come down to less than 200 days. This will help us deliver faster permits for exploration in Latin America,” says Peruvian Minister of Mines and Energy, Jorge Merino Tafur.

The mining sector is driven by data and advanced technologies. From exploration to production to transportation, an integrated dataset and a wide array of technologies is imperative in all the stages. Also, as more and more mines opt for automation for better productivity and safety, geospatial technology has almost become a backbone of the sector. “The demand for such services has been growing with rising awareness about this technology,” says Marcelo Moraes, Technical Manager of Globalgeo, a Brazilian company that sells satellite images and geo-based software and services.

After the infamous incident in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped underground for over two months in Chile’s San Jose mine, the government made the use of GPS mandatory in all mines besides investing in technologies to ensure safety. “Technologies like LiDAR are important from the safety aspect as it allows us to look at the operations area without anybody physically entering unsafe zones,” notes Rodrigo Soto, Business Director of Fugro Geospatial Service, one of the pioneers in the use of LiDAR technology in Chile.

Environment & Amazon

 Latin America is known for its natural resources and the Amazon. Development of geo-technology in this region is closely linked to environmental preservation and combating deforestation.

According to IBAMA, the Brazilian agency to combat deforestation, its success hinges on the use of geospatial technologies. Brazil’s DETER programme or deforestation detection system in real time, created by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in 2004, extensively uses satellite imagery. IBAMA receives INPE images with the polygonal evidence of anthropisation action in Amazon every 48 hours. “Before making this available to the field crews, we check the data to identify where these polygons are occurring — if they are in protected areas, indigenous lands, personal property or other domain. Only then we upload our spatial database,” explains George Porto Ferreira, Coordinator of Environmental Monitoring at IBAMA.

The deforestation rate in Amazon has been dropping. From 27,000 sq km in 2004, this has come down to 5,000 sq km in 2012. The DETER programme is one of the major beneficiaries of the $300-million CBERS (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) project, the first Brazilian satellite dedicated to monitoring of the Amazon. The satellites images are coordinated by INPE and published openly so that neighbouring countries can also benefit from the data. “Publishing open data is a global trend and INPE has adopted this policy since 2005,” says Carlos Alexandre Wuensche de Souza, Chief of Office Direction of INPE.

Environmental monitoring and preservation of the Amazon is driving the local industry to develop new solutions. For instance, the Orbisat radar, which operates in X and P bands to produce surface and below-forest mapping, has been chosen by the Brazilian Army for mapping the Amazon. “It operates in adverse weather conditions, at day or night, with or without clouds, which brings the certainty of the fulfillment targets and work schedules,” informs Maurício Aveiro, President of OrbiSat.

The challenges

 Geospatial has been integral to industrial activities in Latin America, but there remain a lot of teething problems. One of the main points is the lack of political will and the need to educate policy makers about the possibilities and benefits of such innovative technologies. “There must be a high-level government support to ensure a continuous funds flow,” says Praag of GeoSUR.

“Though geospatial has been accepted well in a wide range of sectors, it is still unexplored in many others,” concurs Juan Enrique Silva, Director Commercial, Esri Chile, who also feels governments must progress to the next level of using this technology to solve business problems rather than using it only for mapping.

Some see the issue of updates and upgrades — both in data and technology — as another big concern. “Once implemented, there comes the difficulty of maintaining and updating the data. Institutions have to continuously focus on promoting and maintaining operational technical capabilities,” points out Ochoa from IGVSB.

Experts feel the field is still not consolidated because there is lack of planning and cohesion. The public sector speaks for around 70% of the demand but this is not organised since they do not coordinate with each other. “Every agency, ministry and institution makes its own purchase of geospatial data and technology and there is no convergence,” says Pierre Duquesne General Director of Astrium. Organised demand will avoid data duplicacy and optimise state spending.

There is also a feeling that the geospatial industry focuses only on the public sector. “The participation of the private sector is limited as companies that operate in the space segment are highly dependent on public sector,” points out Antonio Machado e Silva, President of AMSKepler, a Brazilian software development company.

Further, despite the awareness about transparency in government actions, there exists resistance to provide open and free information. “Open data can spike innovation, where the industry can develop useful applications from free data for the benefit of all. But it doesn’t mean the data is being standardised,” notes Luis Bermudez, Director Compliance Program, OGC, while emphasising that free data requires a mix of government leadership, policies and technology. The OGC also sees interoperability as a big issue.

In Brazil, INPE provides free satellite images of Sino-Brazilian Satellites (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) CBERS 1 and CBERS 2, in a friendly tool display on its portal. But in Mexico, enterprises identify the availability and cost of satellite images as one of the barriers to the development of the geospatial industry in the country. The creation of the Mexico Reception Station Constellation Spot in 2003 reduced costs but the sector is still missing the vital push.

“There are two challenges: reducing the cost of satellite images and educating the decisionmakers about the use of geo-technologies,” says Esteban Garcia Dobarganes Bueno, Director of Geotecx, a Mexican consulting group.

Lack of trained manpower is another grave concern and IBAMA’s Ferreira feels the onus is on the geospatial industry, free software community munity and universities to focus on capacity building. “Geoinformation is becoming part of our everyday life. We need more human resources for the sector’s growth,” he says.

There is a clear need for greater investments in training, quality programmes and the dissemination of good practices to implement successful projects and thereby generate a virtuous circle that ensures that this technology is used not only by the top strata of the powers that be, but also the masses. But the good news is that n the private sector, geotechnology is migrating from being under ‘spending’ header to ‘investment’ header of companies and government departments. “This is very good and it means that there is great growth potential,” signs off Machado e Silva, from AMSKepler.