Reflections on the Indian National Spatial Data Infrastructure

Reflections on the Indian National Spatial Data Infrastructure


Ian Masser
Department of Urban Planning and Management
ITC, P.O.Box 6, 7500AA Enschede, The Netherlands
Email: [email protected]

The proposed NSDI for India needs to emphasise on the nature of machinery for coordination, metadata services, capacity building and data integration.

The Indian National Geospatial Data Infrastructure was launched at a workshop held in New Delhi on Feb 5th and 6th 2001. The workshop was organised by the Centre for Spatial Database Management and Solutions (CSDMS) and took place under the sponsorship of the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Space. Co sponsors included the Ministries of Rural Development, Information Technology, Environment and Forests, Urban Development, Surface Transport, Mines and Minerals, and Agriculture and Cooperation. The workshop attracted a large audience from all sections of the Indian GI community and the organisers also invited a number of overseas experts to participate in the discussion.

The centrepiece of the workshop was the report prepared by the Task Force on National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) set up by the Department of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of the Surveyor General of India, Lt. Gen. A. K. Ahuja (Task Force on NSDI, 2001). This sets out an overall framework for a decentralised Indian NSDI based which takes account of the need to maintain standard digital collections of spatial data, the importance of developing common solutions for the discovery, access and use of such data to meet the requirements of diverse user groups, and the need to build relationships among the organisations involved to support its continuing development. With these considerations in mind the report pays particular attention to metadata standards and provision and the creation of an organisational framework which is inclusive of all the stakeholders. To achieve its objectives it recommends that the Government should pass enabling legislation that lays down guidelines for the commitment of the key players. Its authors see the NSDI as a national endeavour towards greater transparency and e-governance and propose the creation of a high level National Spatial Data Commission with a senior Cabinet Minister as chairperson to oversee its implementation. The implementation of such an infrastructure is likely to cost at the very least 1000 crore rupees (ie about $2 billion) and a mix of options ranging from Government funding, public private partnerships, and international loans will need to be considered to make this possible.

It was clear from the presentations at the workshop that the authors of the report had done their homework and were familiar with recent NSDI developments in other parts of the world. Nevertheless it may be still useful to reconsider some of the lessons that might be drawn from this growing body of experience as the Indian NSDI moves from the proposal to the implementation stages.

My own evaluation of the experience of the eleven countries that make up the first generation of NSDIs (Masser, 1999) shows considerable variations in both their composition and the driving forces that are behind them. In practice NSDIs come in all shapes and sizes. Not only are there massive differences between countries with respect to size and economic circumstances but there are also large variations between NSDIs in countries with federal as against centralised administrative structures.

Despite this diversity those involved in the further development of the Indian NSDI can draw useful lessons from this experience. However, it is very important in this respect to adopt a critical stance when evaluating these experiences and to bear in mind that much of the material that is available from the responsible agencies involved does not adequately explain the national institutional context within which they have developed. The extent to which NSDI initiatives reflect such circumstances is highlighted in my comparative evaluation of the experience of Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States (Masser, 1998). Another useful antidote to official compilations can also be found in critical appraisals of national experiences such as the report prepared by the US National Academy of Public Administration (1998) which views the US NSDI from a very different perspective to that of the Federal Geographic Data Committee.

With this in mind I would like to highlight four issues that are likely to need special consideration by those involved. In order of priority these are the nature of the machinery for coordination, the need to develop metadata services, the importance of capacity building initiatives and the need to promote data integration.

The machinery for coordination
This is one of the most important factors in the development and implementation of NSDIs. To be effective, NSDIs must be given clearly defined mandates by their governments. This can be done in various ways: through enabling legislation as is proposed in India, or through the modification and adaptation of well established coordination mechanisms as was the case in the Netherlands. In either case the mandate from government should make clear the driving forces behind the NSDI and create the machinery that is needed for its coordination. This will usually take the form of a high level national committee such as the proposed National Spatial Data Commission in India although some countries have chosen to set up dedicated national centres for this purpose as is the case with respect to the National Centre for Geographic Information (CNIG) in Portugal.

Whatever the form of the mandate and nature of the machinery that is set up for coordinating the NSDI effort it should not be forgotten that its principal task is to facilitate the evolution of the NSDI through the efforts of all its stakeholders. For this reason it is important to try to avoid creating top heavy coordination structures as much as possible and to concentrate on developing initiatives that promote interagency collaboration and data sharing among the stakeholders. Those involved in the coordination effort must also try to find the right balance between long term and short term objectives. In particular they must look for quick winners that produce visible results which demonstrate the potential benefits of the NSDI initiative and help to build up political support for the programme as a whole.

Metadata services
The next most important step towards the implementation of an NSDI is the development of metadata services. This is because one of the biggest problems faced by users is the lack of information about information sources that might be relevant to their needs. Consequently, without appropriate metadata services which help them to find out this information it is unlikely that an NSDI will be able to achieve its overarching objective of promoting greater use of geographic information.

There is also a very practical reason why the development of metadata services should be given a high priority in the implementation of an NSDI. This is because they can be developed relatively quickly and at a relatively low cost. In this respect they can be regarded as a potential quick winner for those involved in NSDI implementation. In practice the development of metadata services is one of the most obvious NSDI success stories. This is particularly evident in the experience of the US National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse project which has exceeded all expectations. The decentralised model that has been implemented in this case has resulted in the establishment of more than 200 national, regional and local nodes. What is most surprising is that 70 of these nodes are not even located in the United States but are to be found in many different parts of the world, particularly in South America (GSDI, 2000).

It is worth noting that there has been a lot of discussion about metadata documentation standards. At the outset of an NSDI initiative it may be useful to distinguish between simple user orientated standards for discovery metadata and more complex sets of professional technical standards developed by bodies such as ISO TC 211. It can be argued that some professionals underestimate the importance of discovering metadata standards such as those developed by the global library community as the Dublin Core. It is also worth noting that the costs of implementing these standards are generally much lower than those involved in implementing even a minimal version of the ISO standards.

Capacity building
The implementation of an NSDI initiative is also a process of organisational change management. Despite this, the need for capacity building initiatives to be developed in parallel to the processes of NSDI implementation is often underestimated. This is particularly important in developing countries where the implementation of NSDI initiatives is dependent on a limited staff with the necessary skills. Hence, the experience of the Portuguese CNIG is interesting as it was recognised that modernising government was one of the most important priorities if effective use was to be made of the new opportunities provided by the development of an NSDI. With this in mind a great deal of effort has been devoted by the national GI centre to equipping public sector agencies and training staff at the central, regional and local levels of government.

Capacity building can be undertaken in various ways. In Portugal it has been integrated with the development and implementation of the NSDI by CNIG. Elsewhere, professional associations such as URISA (US) and AURISA (Australia) have played key roles, as have national GI associations such as the British Association for Geographic Information. The AGI has also been instrumental in creating a Continuous Professional Development scheme to ensure that its members are continuously updating their skills. There is also a strong case for institutional as well as individual level capacity building as there is plenty of evidence that suggests that many local and regional level government agencies experience great difficulties in adapting to new responsibilities imposed on them by central government.

Data integration
It may come as something of a surprise to find that matters relating to data integration come last on my list of issues. This is because the development and implementation of NSDIs involves much more than database creation. This is clearly evident from the preceding discussion. It should also be noted that the potential for data integration is heavily dependent on the specific institutional context of the country involved. Because of the distribution of responsibilities between the different levels of government in the United States, for example, a complex patchwork of local, statewide and federal data has come into being rather than an integrated national database.

The creation of an integrated national digital database is extremely likely to be a very expensive task that will take place over a relatively long period of time. In the meantime, those involved in NSDI development must make efforts to create partnerships with stakeholders that will promote interoperability. It will also, in all likelihood, be necessary to exploit alternative information sources such as remotely sensed data in addition to conventional survey technology. A great deal can be done in this way without incurring the delays that are inevitably associated with conventional data base creation.

The proposed National Spatial Data Infrastructure is a major step forward for India. It implementation will require the active involvement of all the geographic information stakeholders. It is important that those involved in this process build upon the experiences of other countries. In this process particular attention must be given to the nature of the machinery for coordination purposes, the need to develop metadata services, the importance of capacity building and the need to promote data integration.


  • GSDI. 2000. The SDI cookbook,
  • Masser, I. 1998. Governments and geographic information, London: Taylor and Francis.
  • Masser, I. 1999. All shapes and sizes: the first generation of national spatial data infrastructures, International Journal of GIS 13, 67-84.
  • NAPA. 1998. Geographic information in the 21st century: building a strategy for the nation, Washington: National Academy of Public Administration.
  • Task Force on NSDI. 2001. National Spatial Data Infrastructure: strategy and action plan, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, New Delhi.