Prof AR Dasgupta
Managing Editor (Honorory)
Of late several issues have been raised at various fora about India and NSDI by experts and media outside the country. Many of these are valid but then a view from over ‘there’ can miss the reality over ‘here’. India’s NSDI is caught between a rock and a hard place. Everybody agrees that spatial data, which includes maps, are essential for planning and monitoring in a country where development is the key word and speed is the essence. On the other hand, we are concerned that our enemies can use the same data for destruction and mayhem. Unfortunately, the most acceptable solution to this ambiguity is yet to be found. It is not a bureaucracy versus technology issue. India has used technology, especially space technology to ‘leap-frog’ to modern systems at least twice. The first was when it used satellite broadcasting to expand the TV network from four stations to all India coverage in a few years; the second was when India chose remote sensing to get a better look at its resources. Herein lie the roots of the map policy imbroglio.
Indians are terribly map starved. Maps still remain ‘official documents’ and unavailable to the public, a hangover from the days of the Raj. It is therefore not surprising that the bureaucracy is not comfortable with the call to free maps. This call came with the easy availability of satellite based remotely sensed data from Landsat in 1976 and subsequently from our own IRS. The call became intensified when GIS came into use and digital maps were needed. Beginning with an attempt to ‘regulate’ indiscriminate digitisation, the map policy now seems to be morphing into a regulatory body. Indians have been looking forward to a solution that will satisfy all parties. Will the National Geospatial Data Authority (NGRA) be the solution? It is important to note that Indians are nothing if not highly innovative so if they are thwarted in one direction they look for alternate routes – NGDA or no NGDA. Therefore, Google is not ‘persona non grata’ among the Indian public. There may be the odd Public Interest Litigation asking for Google Maps to be ‘banned’ as terrorists have used it to zero in on Mumbai but a scan of the public contributions by way of user defined places in Google Maps and Wikimapia, to name two sites, shows their actual popularity. Remote sensing has made the map hunger more intense and Google grasped this opportunity to democratise the technology. Crowd sourcing is doing what no amount of ‘policies’ and ‘authorities’ will do. It is creating data which people want. Yes, there are errors but then errors can be corrected. Ron Lake’s comment that most SDIs are focussed nationally and that this is upside down thinking rings true in this context. Today, there are many SDIs in India. If you look at the grassroots, you can see that a number of databases have been created by professionals as they began to experiment with and master the technologies of remote sensing and GIS. What is needed is to bring these efforts together in a loosely coupled network that can work at the professional level like Google Map works at the public level.
That is what the regulatory authority needs to work on. It is not just about technology and data, it is about wanting to share data – a desire that is not quite so apparent at the professional level, be it government, industry or even the non-government agencies. Sharing will need attention to details like standards and interoperability at data, systems and application levels. This brings me to the real problems, which are not addressed, in the cacophony about ‘policy’ and ‘authority’. Even if we do get the NSDI, who will man it? There is a dearth of trained personnel. Geography education in India is in a parlous state. The lack of maps and the fact that geography is treated as a social science results in the technology and applications being driven by the IT professionals. Geography educators needs to realise that it is a hard-core science and the knowledge of geography, mathematics and IT is the combination needed to take the applications further. Issues like standards and interoperability cannot be appreciated in their totality unless the professionals have a strong background in physical geography and IT. It is this lack of geographical education that gives rise to ludicrous actions like a PIL against Google Maps. The litigant neither understood technology nor found anyone to advise him properly on the finer aspects of legal liabilities vis-à-vis geospatial data. The aspect of digital rights, legal liabilities and other such non-technical issues are not being addressed adequately. Only the security issue is prominently discussed in the most primitive terms – what to ban and what not to ban – rather than in a more sophisticated manner by considering an approach of calibrated access.
Industry is taking a limited view of the opportunities. They are looking for opportunities to sell software, digitise maps or fly aerial surveys. There is more to be done in terms of planning, monitoring and execution of projects. Convergence with mainstream IT for CRM, business process re-engineering, back office operations are a few that spring to my mind. I doubt if the NGDA is considering these opportunities, as it seems to be biased heavily towards governmental applications.