Home Articles The data dilemma of Indian geospatial industry

The data dilemma of Indian geospatial industry

 

Can we bifurcate geospatial industry into pre-Google Earth and post-Google Earth era? May be, maybe not! Google Earth did indeed give new dimension to the geospatial technology and the affiliated industry in the country, but the popularity did not act as a catalyst, at least not immediately, for the government to free imagery or mapping from security concerns. It took years of perseverance by industry, development agencies and NGOs to convince the government that imagery and maps, if used constructively, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of any task – be it governance, development, disaster management or even security of the nation.

Indian Geospatial Industry

The potential of geospatial industry is tremendous in India. The India-special edition of GIS Development (now called Geospatial World) in 2010, had proclaimed, “If all Indian geospatial companies pay heed to the internal demand, there would be so much work that India will not be able to attend to offshore opportunities for the next 10 years. This is the geospatial opportunity for India.”

India enjoys several advantages in this domain. Successive governments, both at the Centre and many states, have supported the growth of geospatial industry in the country. For example, if Delhi introduced Delhi Geographical Spatial Data Infrastructure Act 2011 making it mandatory for every government agency in the capital to access, use and share information from Delhi State Spatial Database, Gujarat Government has initiated plans to give the country its first geospatial technology park. India is also recognised throughout the world for its IT skills and space programmes. Plus, it offers an excellent infrastructure and expertise for collection of geospatial data. Little wonder then that major trans-national geospatial companies have a strong presence in India. There are also more than 35 institutions providing degree and diploma courses in geospatial technology and applications in the country. That’s besides CBSE joining hands with Rolta to provide geospatial technology vocation course for XI and XII class students. The future of the industry in the country certainly seems promising.

Policies

National Map Policy 2005

The National Map Policy 2005 provided an innovative approach to deal with the country’s security concerns (security is often cited as one of the major reasons for not making data easily accessible to private sector). For the first time, maps were segregated into two categories – Defence Series Maps (DSMs) and Open Series Maps (OSMs). As the names suggest, DSMs are meant to cater to the demands of security agencies and OSMs are for civilian use, that is, all those areas which are ‘vulnerable’ from security point of view are not covered in OSMs. These maps are available in 1:50K for public use.

It has been six years since National Map Policy 2005 was unveiled. Since then, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds, thus once again, giving rise to demands for a change of policy.

“The national mapping policy implemented in 2005 is definitely a positive step for geospatial industry in India. However, it has not been able to match the surge in demand in the last few years for large scale maps, driven by various geospatial projects such as R-APDRP, NLRMP, urban mapping, city gas distribution, etc,” said Rajan Aiyer, Managing Director and General Manager, Trimble India, adding. “As a result, users are forced to create various geospatial data themselves (or rely on data available from foreign sources), duplicating the efforts in many cases and also compromising the data quality. The national mapping policy needs to address the new customer needs for large scale maps in urban, semi-urban and rural areas.”

There is, however, a growing realisation among data repositories to address this demand of the industry.  For example, Geological Survey of India (GSI), which is the premier earth science government organisation mandated to collect, disseminate and advise the government on all policies related to earth sciences, is planning to come out with a new dissemination policy.
A. K. Malviya, DDG-IT, GSI, says, “There has been persistent demand for 1:50K geological maps of GSI by various organisations. GSI is soon coming out with a dissemination policy and shall make these maps available to the user agencies.”

Remote Sensing policy

The government of India recently released its much-awaited Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP – 2011). The new policy does away with restrictions on all remote sensing data up to one meter resolution, that is, all satellite remote sensing data of resolution up to 1m will now be distributed on a non-discriminatory basis and ‘on request’. The 2001 policy required data up to 5.8m resolution to be protected. Meanwhile, for data better than 1 m resolution, private agencies would require clearance from an interagency High Resolution Image Clearance Committee (HRC) while government bodies would be able to obtain such data without any further clearance.

“The new remote sensing policy certainly is a significant milestone towards free availability of all data of resolutions up to 1 metre. This will have beneficial uses in various industry segments such as survey, land records, infrastructure, energy, disaster management systems, census, revenue etc. More accuracy implies better decision support systems,” said Aiyer.

Although the change has brought cheers to the industry, it has also raised their expectations. As Sanjay K Agarwalla, CEO, Integrated Digital Systems, puts it, “The new policy does open up a couple of verticals and technology offerings. As a user, the internet/public domain geospatial offerings are my benchmark and to this extent more needs to be done.”

Adds Aiyer, “A natural evolution would be towards sub-metre accuracy especially in densely populated urban and semi-urban areas. Many state-of-the-art GIS applications demand such accuracy levels and so we will still be following the curve.”

But given the security issues involved, it is unlikely that the demand will be fulfilled soon. Harsh Sharma, Addl. Vice President, BSES Yamuna Power Limited, explains, “At present, we (private enterprises) are not allowed data from government satellites. After 26/11 attacks, government has made it mandatory for us to route all our applications for obtaining data through government agencies and that is not an easy path.” Given the complexities involved, many companies are obtaining data from various foreign satellites and routing it to India through their companies abroad. Sharma adds, “Today, every satellite in the world can track us and has our images. Better resolution images of India are available in our neighbouring countries but we cannot get access to them, even for developmental projects.”

Meanwhile, the policy is silent on these issues. As an industry expert puts it, “There is no discussion on the process and approval of high resolution data published by international organisations on internet. Data availability on internet may have higher threats compared to data given to users for defined purpose through a defined screening process. Moreover restricting the access of data to internet users from India will not help, if the users from other countries can access India’s data over internet. The policy needs to take a pragmatic and holistic view in this regard.”

Challenges:

1) Latest and updated maps: “Your map is of a poor quality/resolution and do not reflect current topographical changes,” this is a major complain that users like Agarwalla face from their clients. As he explains, “The challenges faced by geospatial industry in today’s world are of a different order. Pre-Google Earth era, geospatial datasets were perceived and created by scale (1:1 Million, 1:250K etc). However post-Google Earth era, Google Earth/Bing have become the benchmark.”

2) Turnaround time: The turnaround time can be anywhere between two weeks to six months, depending on who wants the data and of which place. As Malviya says, “GSI periodically updates and publishes revised editions of maps, the periodicity depends on the need of the users. In future, plans are afoot to reduce the turnaround time.”

3) Too many data repositories: There is no single window where all the information can be obtained. For example, if a user requires information about topography and demography of a place, he has to approach Survey of India and Census of India respectively. The two have their own procedures in place and would provide data in their own time frame. “The overhanging issue is the availability of data under one umbrella. Information is scattered and varied and have to be collated very frequently. It has become extremely challenging,” explains Aiyer.

4) Availability of trained manpower: Given the pace at which this industry is growing, the demand for skilled labour is likely to overshoot the supply. Organisations are thus aggressively employing their resources to build this capacity. “We should do the in-house capacity building, hence, we are giving funds to state governments, especially the revenue training institutes or administrative training institutes,” said Charanjit Singh, Director, Land Records, Department of Land Resources (DoLR). DoLR is also planning to set up a National Institute of Land Administration. “At present, there is no single institute in the country on these lines. We have got approval from the Planning Commission,” adds Singh.

Malviya adds, “GSI has its own full fledged training institute with different centres spread all over the country which caters to the training needs of the department.”

 

Demands/ Requirements:

1) Single regulator: One of the ways suggested by industry to overcome the existing challenges is by bringing in a regulator, on the lines of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI (TRAI played a significant role in revolutionising telecom sector in India). “We need a single public agency with a mandate to formulate geospatial policy as well as engage private organisations,” said Agarwalla.

Agrees Sharma, “Instead of government agencies, there should be a regulator which should look into the distribution of data by ISRO or other satellite sensing agencies. It should decide whether the requirements of users are genuine or not. After all, if we need images, then they should be made easily accessible to us.”

 

2) Public-private partnership (PPP): PPP is seen by many as an inevitable way to overcome issues like increase in turnaround time or collection of information.

“We should go for PPP projects. We should tap the resources which are available in the market,” said Singh. He heads DoLR’s ambitious National Land Record Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) under which all land records in the country would be made digital. “Most of the work in this sector is being done on PPP basis only. Most of the private vendors are doing the work except in a few states, that too, at few places,” he adds.

However, not everyone agrees with Singh. “Outsourcing of work is a practice in certain areas such as IT, publishing and printing etc., but the geological subject as such is a specialised one and requires professional approach, so it is not open to private players for baseline geological mapping data collection,” said Malviya.

 

Even as the debate goes on PPP, Agarwalla raises a very important point when he says, “Even before we talk about public-private partnership, we need to talk about public-public partnership. For most of my users, just the map or census data by itself is not good enough. So can Survey of India and Census of India partner together?”

Conclusion

Given the dilemma that the government is facing vis-a-vis security and development, it may not be easy for policymakers to satisfy both the security agencies and the geospatial industry. But if the country has to gain from the prospect of development facilitated by geospatial technology, government will have to devise a middle path which provides a win-win situation to all. As experts from industry put it, “Policy needs further change to allow private industry to gather and sell/ share generic geospatial data. This will open the window for better quality data to get disseminated for the users at more economical cost. This will further increase the usage of geospatial data and related applications to become more popular, thus giving impetus to the Indian geospatial industry.”