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‘Open data is not free data’

Dr. V.K. Dadhwal
Dr. V.K. Dadhwal
Director
NRSC

The National Remote Sensing Centre is riding high on Bhuvan to provide services, visualisation and open data to more and more citizens of the country. However, open data is not free data, clarifies NRSC Director Dr. V.K. Dadhwal as he talks about the centre’s recent initiatives and scope of work.
NRSC, or the NRSA as it was known earlier, was set up to spearhead the remote sensing data acquisition, processing and dissemination. What was the mandate of NRSA and how has it changed/evolved over the years, especially since 2008 when it was renamed NRSC and turned into a full-fledged centre of ISRO?
The mandate of NRSC (National Remote Sensing Centre) is same as was of NRSA (National Remote Sensing Agency), namely to acquire aerial and satellite data, process the data to usable products, maintain long-term data archive and also carry out application studies at national scale and for user funded projects, and support disaster management information support.

However, a different perspective of planning and initiating activities, which eventually have a larger impact on overall adoption and use of earth observation and geospatial technologies comes be being NRSC. Additionally, a larger emphasis is placed on R&D activities for developing new applications and methodologies.

NRSA had significant impact on adoption of remote sensing technology in the country. It is important to recall that the national forest cover mapping by NRSA led to the country adopting a biennial forest cover mapping programme and identification of Forest Survey of India for this activity. Similarly, in the initial days of Department of Ocean Development, NRSA operationally carried out potential fishing zone identification, which later on led to setting up of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services at Hyderabad. Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture set up a Mahalanobis National Centre for Crop Forecasting (MNCFC) at New Delhi, and NRSC transferred its methodology for agricultural drought assessment to MNCFC.

NRSC has carried out mapping related to ground water prospect for Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, prepared maps on wastelands and wasteland change analysis for the Department of Land Resources, provided near-real time location of forest fires to FSI and state forest departments, worked with the Central Water Commission for setting up their geospatial portal, waterlogged area mapping, monitoring of Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program, tank rehabilitation project and a number of watershed development project monitoring.

Most important is the project on SiSDP, where we have created a data set suitable for 1:10,000 scale thematic mapping, and in partnership with state governments will provide it to panchayats and local planning bodies for use in decentralised planning as envisaged at the central government level. NRSC is also working on establishing a national disaster database for making open the data required for disaster response, which is currently given mostly to government agencies.

NRSC is one of the pioneering agencies in India in adoption and use of geospatial technology. How is NRSC leveraging the significant strengths of geospatial technology in fulfilling its mission and objectives?
NRSA/NRSC has mapped country’s resources at various scales, a number of times. Till now these have remained as maps or atlases in reduced size, either given to funding agencies or to specific organisations on their demand. Current web technologies allow us to do much more and same has been achieved with our geoportal, Bhuvan (https://www.bhuvan.nrsc.gov.in). We have aimed to provide services, visualisation and open data to citizens of the country. It also hosts geoportal for many users. For example the Amritsar Tourism portal for Punjab Tourism, the Karnataka State Forest geoportal and a large number of such initiatives are underway to bring most modern geospatial technologies to organizations as well as citizens.

High-quality imaging remains a restrictive environment in India. Do you think it is stunting the growth of geospatial sector in India?
I do not think high-quality imaging is restrictive in India. Yes, higher spatial resolutions than 1 metre have a set of guidelines. But geospatial sector is much more than imaging. In fact it is the appropriate linking of spatial and attribute data of most recent vintage and available for answering questions, taking decisions which is crucial. Navigation services, which have at their core a geospatial data set, are doing quite well.

Despite the wonderful and accurate maps and images provided by ISRO and NRSC, Google remains more popular with the public. Do you think this is just the question of mindset among our people or is that ISRO has to popularise or democratise its products more?
It is important to point out that domain and usage of Google and Bhuvan are quite different and it is not proper to compare these two. Google has established itself over quite a long period and most widely used feature of Google is its sub-meter resolution images, maps of navigation level and very large point of interest data, a large part of which is crowd sourced.

Bhuvan presents mapping results of ISRO, and one can see land use land cover map at 1:50,000 scale, wasteland maps, maps of landslide and flood hazards. The number of resource layers in Bhuvan is very large and unique in the world. Bhuvan also allows free data downloads, including digital surface model from Cartosat-1 satellite. It is an information-rich portal and gateway to provide results of ISRO mapping activities accessible to users in GIS ready usable WMS/WMTS service.

Lack of data is considered to be a problem in India. However, it seems it’s not the lack of data per se but data duplicacy and reluctance to share by various government departments. What are your views regarding this?
Each government department has a mandate and most authentic data on the mandate theme. However, this may not always be from EO or GIS ready. I do not see this as duplication. Mechanisms such as Bhuvan WMS service allow anybody to consume that data and organisations such as NSDI have been promoting exchange and publishing of metadata and standards. However, it has to be understood that each data preparation takes an effort and diligence to produce. In my experience, the established procedure of appropriate understanding between organisations and sharing of data work very well.

NRSC believes in open data, that is why all satellite data is available for purchase by users. Open data is not free data and data pricing is a policy carried out with consultation and approval at various hierarchy levels in the departments.

Lack of skilled resource and awareness is yet another issue with this sector. Your comments?
NRSC hires staff trained in technology and resource disciplines and during their work they are encouraged to pick up relevant expertise. Various industries feel that education does not provide sufficient skill to excel in job. However, the positive side is that a number of universities and institutes are providing education in various geospatial technologies.

What is the future of geospatial technology in India?
The future of geospatial technology in India is very bright since the awareness of its utility is much higher now than ever before. A number of major Initiatives by various scientific departments of the Government of India such as the Department of Science & Technology, Department of Space and a number of state governments have also started showing results. The commercial and education sector are thriving very well and merging of remote sensing and navigation services is happening very rapidly.