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Regional focus: South America On The Rise

Deepali Roy
Assistant Editor
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Steady growth in the uptake of geospatial technologies in many countries of South America is creating a conducive environment for the industry to flourish in the region

An increasingly dynamic participant in the world economy, South America is making its presence felt in the global geospatial arena. It has been making investments in geospatial technologies since long, initially for management of its abundant natural resources and extending it to areas like infrastructure and utilities. Here's a look at how the industry is placed in the geospatial ecosystem in the continent and the opportunities and challenges before it.

Active uptake and demand of geospatial technologies are a prerequisite for the industry to flourish. The industry is unanimous that the usage of geospatial technologies in South America has been encouraging with steady growth. Merrill Lyew, International Regional Manager, Latin America, ESRI, traces the genesis of the use of geospatial technologies in South America in the second half of the 1970s, when the Chilean state agency CIRENCORFO (Information Center for Natural Resources – Corporation for the Promotion of Production) acquired GIS licenses for crop monitoring, agricultural policy making and funding, followed by hiring of a consulting company to find the best location for a coal mining city in Venezuela by using GIS, to illustrate that Latin American countries in general are early adapters of innovative technologies.

The early adoption has been followed by sustained growth. Maria Cabello, European Projects Director, Tracasa, observes that the uptake of geospatial technologies in the last ten years in South America has been the same as many other countries world wide. The uptake and growth is not just limited to a few countries but covers almost the entire continent. Peru-based Marino Carhuapoma of IDEASG concurs that the use of geographic information systems has been increasing in recent times in the country especially in areas such as consumer businesses and local government business. The prevalence of geospatial technologies is observed by Chile-based Patricio Llanos, Partner, Geoinformación who informs that geospatial technologies have been used in areas such as mining, forestry, gas, petroleum, water, energy, electric for as long as 20 years ago. Equador-based Ing. Jorge Coronel, CEO, GeoSIMA asserts that use of geocoded data has been growing for many years. Highlighting the growth factors, Coronel says that the trigger for exponential use in recent years has been the launch of Google Earth and Google Maps that make popular the images and coordinates for users such as biologists, engineers and teachers. The need for getting coordinates through GPS was an important factor too. The technology according to him has arrived in South America and now people can see their locations on GPS-enabled cell phones and taxis can find addresses easily. Government agencies are also fuelling the growth, he informs, as they incorporate remote sensing, GIS, GPS in areas like environmental studies. A significant growth factor has been the management of natural resources that the continent has in abundance, according to Merrill.

With South America experiencing a vibrant geospatial ecosystem, the industry gets the opportunity to cater to a wide variety of end users. According to Merrill, after the use of geospatial technologies by the forestry sector in the second half of 1980s, the first half of the 1990s witnessed the extension of GIS to other areas like utilities and transportation. Today, these technologies are not restricted to the public sector but are used in the public and private sectors alike.

Tracasa, which offers cadastral, cartographic and territorial information applications and systems, finds users in the public administration, mostly ministries of economy and finance. IDEASG is dedicated to developing information systems for consumer companies and government institutions, especially local governments. The key markets for GeoSIMA are local governments, environmental services companies and private consultants for its geoservices including cartography, geolocation, surveying and remote sensing process. Social scientists like archaeologists and sociologists also form the user base for GeoSIMA, who are keen to understand how they can put their data on a map and maximise the benefits of geospatial technologies.

A number of verticals in South America are increasingly using geospatial technologies. According to Merrill, while natural resources, utilities, and public services have been the traditional verticals, telecommunications, education and transportation are picking up. Maria is of the view that cadastre, tenancy and regularisation of land, cartography, land planning and use, agriculture and environment services and solutions are the buzzwords in the use of geospatial technologies. Jorge identifies environment, urban planning and oil as the verticals to reckon with. The picture is not very vibrant however when it comes to large-scale projects incorporating geospatial technologies, especially government projects. According to Merrill, as much as the South American countries are early adapters of innovative technologies, in some areas they lag a couple of years behind the trend. He adds that most users are at the project and stand-alone level, very few at the departmental wide usage and much less at the enterprise level of GIS usage. However, there are signs that enterprise GIS is on the rise in South America, says Merrill. Maria concurs that the situation of projects is not too good at the moment. According to her, the governments are receptive only if they have loans or World Bank credits to use and spend. Lack of qualified technical professionals to guide the projects is also an issue. Marino observes that sometimes the government institutions begin with a major project, but after a while most problems arise due to incorrect definition and vision of the scope of projects, as there are no qualified technical professionals in these projects. For Equador however, Jorge opines that the country is witnessing all kinds of projects, including department and enterprise levels for both private and government.

Data forms the crux of any geospatial activity and its availability or the lack of it can determine the success of geospatial applications and services. South America being a large continent, the status of data availability, policies and other issues concerning it vary from country to country. Merrill informs that geospatial data is available, in some countries more than in others and more for urban than for rural areas and within specific countries more for developed than for developing regions. Also, spatial data infrastructure policies and efforts at the national level can be found in almost every country with certain countries being ahead of others in their efforts and data availability.

Patricio believes it is easy to get data in Chile, while Jorge feels that although it is not very difficult to get data in Equador, the problem is that it is very old in most cases. One can buy a map 1:50000 (the national scale) in Equador according to him but is only a black & white copy or a low quality colour copy. An old map also might not show dynamic features like roads. Maria, too, highlights the challenge of getting upto- date information. Data unavailability or lack of updated data however is not a deterrent for the users in benefiting from the technology. Merrill opines that GIS users do not wait for government agencies to catch up with their legislative mandates, and have recurred to aerial photography and satellite imagery to obtain their data.

PPP is often seen to be beneficial in facilitating the uptake of geospatial technologies. In South America. PPP is making strides but not quite at a pace that matches the industry expectations. As Merrill expresses, PPP model is at a beginning stage in Latin America and has not been exploited as those in the private sector would hope for. The big impediment according to him is legislation and current rulings. Another reason for lack of partnerships is that the government wants to do everything, as highlighted by Marino. Maria sheds light on reasons behind some collaborations where they exist, informing that the collaboration exists where there are financed projects to carry out, otherwise it is very difficult to facilitate data. Another reason for the collaboration is that private companies are more adept at developing technologies that are required by the government.

Adequate and trained manpower is the driver of any industry towards growth. Ever since the advent of geospatial technologies in South America, the continent has been giving due attention to capacity building and supply of trained manpower to keep up with the activities. While the initiatives are there, the industry feels there is a long way to go. According to Merrill, GIS in education is starting to pick up, but not as widely spread as to satisfy the demand of qualified manpower by the industry. Several universities from Mexico to Argentina are implementing graduate courses, very few at a post-graduate level, he informs. Patricio too opines that availability is not sufficient. Availability also varies with the levels. According to Maria, while manpower demand is sufficient for low and medium levels, the paucity of availability is more pronounced at high levels. Government policies need to be finetuned to build capacity. According to Marino, there are capable and qualified professionals, but the administrative system is not very conducive to recruitment.

While opportunities abound, the industry is not without its set of challenges. Sound policies fuel industry growth. As Merrill says, the challenge is that legislation is lagging behind the technology. Prohibitive prices of products and inadequate information about products and technologies are also a challenge, according to Patricio. He illustrates that if he is looking for a certain technology, for example augmented reality for GIS, then he has no way of knowing if there is any company working towards developing that technology. Another challenge the industry faces is inadequate knowledge of geospatial technologies and their benefits among clients. As Jorge explains, clients ask for a service or technology but they are unable to use it to the full potential. The heads of geospatial projects are often personnel from political background rather than technically trained personnel and this can impact the industry.

South America has been making rapid strides in harnessing the potential of geospatial industry. The continent has been an early adaptor of technologies and has been striving to capitalise on the start. Several challenges notwithstanding, the geospatial arena has been witnessing initiatives to strengthen its fibre. Escalating technology uptake offers a fertile ground for the industry to thrive and leave its mark on the global geospatial ecosystem just like the continent's economy itself is becoming a force to reckon with in the global economy. The uptake and potential is restricted not just to a few large countries in the continent but the smaller countries are lapping up the technology with equal gusto, offering opportunities for the industry to march ahead across the continent.