Prof. Arup Dasgupta
It’s that time of the year when editors emulate astrologers and attempt to predict the future. However, as making predictions is a risky endeavour, I shall therefore restrain myself to creating a wish list instead. What would we like to see in 2013? Well, inertia being what it is, it would be great if we could at least begin to move in these directions in 2013.
The one major activity that must pick up speed is societal applications of geospatial technologies. The Rio+20 declaration has made this a political agenda. The tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Sandy have added an element of urgency. Not very far behind are the very basic needs of energy, food, water and shelter for a vast majority of the human race. There has to be a better connect between these needs, the technological solutions and the unique capabilities that geospatial systems can provide. One of the solutions that have become a part of life is meteorological and oceanographic satellites. They provide invaluable data for weather prediction, sea state and navigation. This is shared and there is no charge on the data or on the analysed information as it is considered to be for ‘public good’. All meteorological and oceanographic satellites are scientific satellites and therefore publicly funded. Why then are we so obsessed with the commercialisation of remote sensing satellites when it comes to land?
The events of 2012 have shown that the so-called commercial satellite services depend heavily on public funding. Countries use public funds to finance their land remote sensing programmes and sell the data, ostensibly to recover the running costs. Why is then direct and free access to data from such space programmes denied, particularly to the nongovernmental organisations and the research community. Why is meteorological data free but land remote sensing imagery is not, given that both are for ‘public good’ and supported by the taxpayers’ contribution?
Governments play Big Brother by using remotely sensed and other data for their development programmes. These programmes provide ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions and do not address the needs of individual beneficiaries. Modern ICT systems do allow the generation of personalised information.
The entire LBS market thrives on this philosophy but when it comes to the social sector, this seems to have been ignored in spite of efforts like public participatory GIS. If urban dwellers can locate a desired restaurant using their mobile phone and the services of an LBS provider, why can’t this be done for a farmer looking for help on a drought resistant crop variety? “The World We Want,” as outlined by the Rio+20 declaration, has to have open access to data which can be used by developers to create individual user-centric applications which can be accessed on mobile phones. This is a vast market waiting to be served. The technology for such applications and their delivery exist in full measure. High resolution imaging satellites, automated data analysis and mapping, the cloud and handheld devices are a few of the technological tools already available. Standards have been developed and are constantly being upgraded as new technologies emerge. However, barring a few examples, the efforts to harness these technologies remain within the realm of governments. SDIs must begin to serve the public directly as well as through mediated services implemented by the government and private service providers.
Such services will require convergence of systems at a much higher level. At the technical level, we still see a compartmentalisation of remote sensing, GIS, surveying and mapping. In reality, satellite remote sensing is also used in photogrammetry which is a mapping activity. GPS used for LBS is also useful as a surveying tool. We need to move away from such compartmentalisation and consider all these technologies as parts of a geospatial ecosystem which need to be used in an integrated manner to create solutions. Similarly, geospatial systems are a part of a larger ICT ecosystem. We also need to see integration with the mainstream management and governance systems.
Management and governance are subject to regulatory environments which are unable to keep pace with the fast-changing world of ICT. Many governments still rely on denial to control what they consider to be inappropriate use of information. Recent events have shown how social media can be used to mobilise human resources. Longterm efforts like Open Street Maps have shown the power of people to create maps. During disasters like Sandy the social network has been very useful in creating a supporting web. The citizen can become a sensor and collect vast amount of data very quickly which is beyond the capacity of a government department.
One of the ways of achieving integration is through integrated capacity building. Geospatial systems and techniques should become a part of domain-oriented courses. This has happened in disciplines like geology and civil engineering. It needs to be extended to all other domains where geospatial technologies are used or can be used. In particular, it should be a part of the civil services training programmes. It is heartening to see that rudimentary geospatial training is becoming a part of school education.
The Internet world has put the individual firmly centrestage in terms of interactive information gathering, storage and delivery. The year 2013 should see the emergence of the individual as the focus for geospatial information in a similar manner. The passive, amorphous and faceless ‘beneficiary’ or ‘user’ should be replaced by millions of persona, each with their unique characteristics, needs and capabilities. Interacting with them will be the major challenge to industry and governments. Are you ready?