Of geospatial data policies and NSDI

Of geospatial data policies and NSDI

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Prithviraj Chavan
Prithviraj Chavan
Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences
Government of India

India has long recognised the significance of geospatial data and the need to share and make data easily accessible to all the stakeholders. In 2000, India realised that geospatial data was fast becoming mainstream data for all economic and development activities, whether it is disaster management, watershed management, urban development, rural development, roads or highways. Any talk of land implies talk of maps and geospatial data. It was no longer limited as a specialised branch of IT, but was beginning to come in its own right. Many universities created special departments and a lot of manpower was being created. India started working on building a platform to make spatial data accessible in 2000 and after a long hard struggle, the institution finally came through a Cabinet resolution in 2006 to formally set up the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI).

Today, there is an industry being created around maps and specialised portals being launched to enable the use of geospatial information in day-to-day development activities. On this road of progress, individual States are creating their own SDIs and Karnataka has already shown the way with its SDI portal. Other States are expected to follow suit, host their data for civilian use and work closely with the India Geoportal of NSDI. India Geoportal would be the entry point for any information about India, States and various departments working in this field.

Geospatial-an engine of growth
Indian government is trying to bring e-governance and g-governance together, particularly in urban governance where geospatial is already making a huge impact. Geospatial technology is fast becoming an engine of growth for businesses and is ready to become a formidable driving force in the global as well as the Indian economy. But India still has a long way to go. When it can get IT, g-technology and e-governance models to work seamlessly, the real power would be manifested.

ISRO has launched an impressive product called Bhuvan. It has low resolution data though, as only about 5.6 m resolution is permitted by the Indian Map Policy. Government is working on the limitations, self-imposed restrictions of the map data policy, which for the first time separated military maps from open series maps. If 2.5-2.6 meter resolution data could be developed on this product, the product can entice users. Bhuvan is comparable to Google Earth, and it has an additional feature of 3-D view. The government is examining the rationale behind keeping the data away from people when Google is giving accurate maps with better resolution. It is working on this problem and is hopeful that the situation would improve and higher resolution imagery it has would be put forth to the public.

Right to information and data policy
While talking about the critical area of policy of data sharing and access, it gets necessitated to debate over the rationale of producing data with public money but refusing to share with anybody. This is not in public interest. This means reinventing the wheel over and over again. It is good to have competition at times to see whose quality of output is better, but a country like India cannot afford this constant reinventing. Thanks to the Right to Information Act, a lot of government information has been put in public domain. A similar mechanism is required to handle spatial data. Any data, not just spatial data, like census, created through public funds, should be in public domain, unless it is specified that it is sensitive and cannot be shared. It could be clarified outright if certain data is not for public consumption; if certain data is only available for government agencies; other data is available for public at a price; in which format data can be shared; and at what resolution and accuracy data can be given. But decide the government must. This kind of policy is in the final stages of shaping up. It would be a data sharing and access policy.

With such a policy, standards become very critical. Data has to be digitised and put into standards. NSDI is working closely with ISO and OGC to create standards. NSDI metadata standard has recently been launched. Once the government makes the decision to further propel this industry with a data sharing policy, it would permit a seamless migration from one State to another State, from national to district and village level for geospatial data. Maybe there is a need for NSDI, which was originally created through a government resolution, to be spinned out as independent authority with its own infrastructure and set-up, and which could be created through an Act of the Parliament. The government is contemplating if this can be done.

Climate change
This is being considered because this is too important a technology. India must take a leadership role in it in a short time. This is not only important for development, but when one contextualises the whole thing in the light of the recent climate change debate, and the fact that the prime minister took initiative and launched a national action plan for climate change last June, government plans eight technology missions to be part of that action plan. One of the missions is on strategic knowledge. Climate change has deep geospatial content – whether it is the melting of Himalayan ice, rise in sea level, temperature profiles or carbondioxide concentration – all this data will ultimately have to be contextualised geographically. Through these missions, lot of funding would be made available – for researchers, universities, State departments and for the private sector. But it is important for researchers, scientists and users to work, not in a spirit of competition, but with a spirit of collaboration.

These are exciting times for India. It has grown at a healthy rate of 8-9 percent in the last five years. The global slowdown has slowed the growth rate slightly but there are signs that it would touch 8.5-9 percent again. The country would have resources to spend on R&D and innovation. It is the vision of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that India must spend two percent of GDP on R&D. President Pratibha Patil said, "Let us make this a decade of innovation." It is important to work together to mainstream the 'g' path into the 'e' path in day-to-day governance, and make geospatial information a mainstream activity.

(Based on the speech of Shri Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences, GoI, at NSDI – 9 in Pune, India, on December 22, 2009)