Assistant Editor, Geospatial World
One of the early adopters of geospatial technology in South East Asia, Thailand has been steadily incorporating the technology in its various development activities. Here's a look at what's going on in the geospatial industry in Thailand
A hub of Buddhism and world famous for its beaches, Thailand attracts attention from far and wide. It has traditionally been an agricultural economy and is now going steady towards industrialisation. After a roller coaster ride in 2010, Thailand's economic activity is gradually returning to normal. Growth picked up in the fourth quarter of 2010 and the momentum is expected to continue into 2011. The Thai economy closed 2010 on a strong note. For 2011 as a whole, the World Bank predicts that the Thai economy will grow 3.7 percent, a slightly upward revision from its earlier estimate of 3.2 percent.
The political unrest in Thailand in 2010 against the Democrat Party-led government which resulted in the demand for the dissolution of the parliament and later on fresh elections had put brakes on the country's economy. However, the country's recent peaceful political elections would likely revive the economy.
Thailand is one of the early starters in geospatial arena in South East Asia dating back to early 1970s when the National Research Council announced the Thailand Satellite Remote Sensing Programme. In 1991, the Cabinet set up the National GIS Coordinating Committee in 1991 under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Dr Anond Snidvongs, Acting Executive Director, Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency says that realising the importance of earth observation for development, Thailand developed its own earth observation satellite THEOS (Thailand Earth Observation Satellite) with the help of France and launched it in October 2008. It is operated by GISTDA.
High awareness level
With geospatial technology having found roots quite early, awareness about the technology and its benefits is fairly high. With an established geospatial ecosystem, Thailand geospatial industry is very up-to-date and comparable to international standards, feels Dr Sukit Viseshsin, Spatial Products Department Manager, Esri (Thailand) Co., Ltd. Policies too, while not too encouraging, are not very limiting either, allowing space for the industry to grow, observes another service provider.
The maintenance and safeguarding of natural resources and the environment has been a high priority for the country and the Tenth Plan has multiple goals concerning natural resources and the environment, including safeguarding the richness of the natural resource base and biodiversity, maintaining environmental quality at an appropriate level for quality of life and preventing ecological threats. A part of the strategy to achieve this objective is developing a database system and building bodies of knowledge. This includes developing a GIS database and a 1:4,000 information map. The key users of geospatial technology in natural resources are forests, water resources, and environment.
When the Cabinet approved the National ICT Strategic Master Plan 2009-2012, it identified land information as one of the key pillars. The land development laws of the country place emphasis on regular updation of land use maps. Latest geospatial technology, including aerial photography, satellite imagery, LiDAR, Radar, GIS and GPS is actively used in the process. Land data repositories are keenly eyeing digitisation and investing in modern technology to increase accuracy of their data and data collection methods. Land Development Department, for example, is combining new technology with the existing ones to increase map accuracy and land use classification, informs Chatchai Chinavornsiriwattana, Senior Agricultural Research Officer, Office of Land Use Planning and Policy, LDD.
Agriculture has traditionally been the mainstay of Thailand economy and is presently the third largest contributor to the Thai economy after industry and services. Even as the contribution of agriculture to GDP has declined with rising industrialisation, it continues to provide the benefits of rural employment, self-sufficiency and social support. The ICT Masterplan aims to promote and support pilot projects for precision agriculture so that production can be controlled to meet established goals. This will increase agricultural output and quality in communities that are ready.
Utility companies in Thailand are investing significantly in technology innovations to deliver supply efficiently and respond effectively to the demand-supply challenges. The nation's development plans have identified strengthening the utilities as one of the agendas. For Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA), developing GIS applications and GPS data collection is high on the organisation's priorities. In 2012, MWA plans to customise GIS to prepare water network application and integrate its GIS with SCADA, CIS, CRM and using GPS for collecting 1,000 water valves and 2,000 underground air valve and 5,000 cathodic protections, informs Phakphoom Pirachai, Chief of Section, Pipeline System Information, Metropolitan Waterworks Authority.
Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) is strengthening its GIS to manage its vast network. Currently, PEA is implementing the 2nd stage of the GIS Development Project, called GISP.2, informs Numchai Lowattanatakul, Deputy Governor (Governor Office), PEA GIS Project Director. GISP.2 is the part of Power System Development Plan of PEA in the framework of the Thailand's Ninth Plan (2002-2006) which was approved in scope of the operation and monitoring the budget of the project from The National Economic and Social Development Board.
Thailand is one of the early adopters of GIS in municipal governance in the region. Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) began implementing GIS in 1987, starting as a pilot project to coordinate base maps and data with other organisations. Many departments in BMA use GIS to improve their functions, including City Planning Department, Health Department, Sewerage and Drainage departments, Traffic and Transportation Department and Strategic and Evaluation Departments. BMA is using the “Healthy City” development framework, set by the World Health Organisation as a guideline for upgrading Bangkok’s status as one of the world’s most livable cities.
The Tenth Plan focuses on upgrading disaster management and prevention system, emphasising on a disaster management plan that covers time from before the disaster, during the occurrence, after the occurrence and long term prevention measures; develop an in-advance alarm system, emergency rescue and impact prevention and reducing the impacts of physical and infrastructural measures as well as economic and social activity controlling measures in endangered areas. Geospatial technology, especially satellite imagery, is playing significant role in various aspects of disaster management. Recently, satellite images used in disaster management saved about USD 32 mn by checking duplication of displaced victims.
As the country looks to upgrade its transportation system, geospatial industry can expect a number of opportunities coming its way. A draft MOU for the construction of a high speed route from Bangkok to Nong Khai province has been approved. The high speed rail link will connect Thailand to Beijing via Vientiane, Lao PDR by 2015. An extension of the line has also been proposed to continue the line south into Malaysia and Singapore, according to the World Bank. New line for metropolitan mass transit is being constructed, funds for which have already come in. Another one is in the pipeline.
The industry feels that availability of accurate and real time data is a challenge, with the available data often being fragmented. Lack of standards affects the prospects for the industry. Also, in the absence of clear data policy, it is not easy for private companies to access data. There is also a lack of clarity on the availability of data — data is often available, but users are not aware of ways to source it. Data sharing among government agencies and making them work together is another challenge, feel industry players, with an absence of policy on data sharing. Vendors also feel that decision making within government departments regarding implementation of geospatial technology in their processes can take inordinately long time.
Both vendors and users feel that political uncertainty as a result of the turmoil that the country has witnessed in recent times has resulted in a shift in government priorities and in-flow of funds in effect slowing down the geospatial industry. Funding of big projects has been significantly impacted and several projects are on hold at discussion stage.
In April 2011, the Thai Government announced its plans to launch the country's NSDI portal by 2012 which will serve as the national gateway for spatial information and pave the way to "Spatially Enabling" Thailand. The National Committee on Geo-Information has appointed GISTDA to host the NSDI portal. The system is being developed by upgrading an existing GISTDA's GIS clearinghouse demonstration programme established in 2009.
Rise of the private sector
Even though government remains the big investor, the private sector is rising. Top management is getting to see the benefit of technology, especially enterprise GIS. One reason is industry competition, says Nampol Laprawit, Managing Director, Triple I Geographic Co. Ltd. Companies are looking for tools that help them gain advantage over competition and are recognising GIS as one such tool to save costs and improve efficiencies. The government is encouraging GISTDA to develop the use of satellite data among private players, informs Dr. Anond who adds that businesses are preferring value additions, not just raw maps.