We tried to work out what was needed in UK rather than simply copying anyone else’s. Although, of course, we have spent a lot of time seeing what other people in the world were doing.
Prof. David Rhind
Vice-Chancellor, City University, London
- Tells us something about the evolution of UK National Geospatial Database?
We tried to work out what was needed in UK rather than simply copying anyone else’s. Although, of course, we have spent a lot of time seeing what other people in the world were doing. It does not have a problem as U.S. has, e.g., in consistent map coverage and framework. In Britain we have that.
Our problems are more about the ease of access to information, knowing what information is held by which government departments, raising awareness among, especially decision makers, who are not always familiar with the importance of what Geographic Information is. So we steered a National Geospatial Data Framework to try to resolve these particular problems. We have two major projects, one of which is near completion. First one is to set up a Data Locator facility, clearing house, if you like, that is going on well and is based on regionally agreed international standards.
The second project, which is our main project, is to try and harmonise the boundaries, the areas, for which both statistical and administrative data are collected. These are collected by many different organization, giving different boundaries. So we are trying very hard to find a way to reconcile all of them. Besides all of these, we decided we would not have a very grandeur, huge NSDI. We went for pragmatic solution as we thought, we could deliver rather than grand scheme, which was going to solve problems of the universe.
- Is your data entirely government data or you have input from private agencies?
Within U. K., the bulk of geographic information is still collected by government at different levels like, local government, especially the Central government and number of government agencies of one kind or another. Knowing what exists, let alone what is available, and under what different policies that are held by different government bodies. Our main aim is to get all the things in consolidated form and try to make it available to general public. But it simply cannot be done through the government. The private sector is becoming increasingly important. Not just British private sectors but, of course, there are many multinationals that are collecting information on Britain by satellite remote sensing, by variety of available means. So one view that we took from the very beginning that we have to have private agencies involved in the National Geospatial Data Framework.
- Having the details, applying the data, how are the financial modalities worked out since you have something like Data locator packages?
Data Locator is essentially free. Initially, we had problem raising finance to set up the NGDF. To begin with we were paid a small sum of money by various government departments who were on the board office. That proved quite difficult because all government departments were short of money. In the end we had the money for building the Data Locator and other projects by competing in government competition for innovation, which would help government in the years to come. Then we got a significant sum of money and built the Data Locator into which the government departments and all other bodies who wished to outputting details of their data of the standard specification. The government has welcomed private sector input recognising that the private sector are very important drivers of the success of the economy of the government.
- What could India’s NGDI initiative learn from UK’s National Geospatial Data Framework?
I am not sure if India can learn very much from anybody. You have to make up your mind. Initiative differs considerably from country to country. They may have the same title, they may use the same words but what is most important is the different areas on which different nations work. Sometimes painful experience that we had over the last years is to keep the bureaucracy to minimum, do not set impossible expectations or targets because if we do not achieve our goal, everyone get disillusioned and no one wants to play. Hence, I said concentrate on the things that are most important to you and do the very best your can.
- How do you equate the UK map distribution model with that of USA model? Which model would be more applicable in India?
That is not an easy question because there are no right answers. First of all there is a myth that there are two models. In fact there is gradation of different models. Quite a number of government departments in Britain, operate on a free distribution model. They will charge for a paper copy, but if you get it through Internet, it is absolutely free, equally in the US. It is not true that all government bodies do not charge for information. The central government is in that situation and makes the information available simply by copying which is almost free on the Internet. But many of the states do charge for information. So, there is a myth that there is one model here and one model there. The disadvantage is that some people do not have enough money. We would have liked to differentiate our prices more but there are legal constraints on doing that, especially through the European court. So there are downsides to the model, however, there are a number of upsides. First of all if the users are paying, they have much more influence on things like what data are collected and how they are collected and how they are made available. They will not wait for many years if they are paying for that. You have to become very focused on the customers and there are various other advantages. You can list 5 or 6 advantages on each side. Steering your way through all of these is, I think again something, which has to be done in relation to other national policies. Geographic information is just one element of government policy. There are many others as well. So some models can be treated which I think straight through all of these. I have recently been in China. Chinese have been very proud that they have a model, which is half way between U.S. Federal Model and British one. I suspect that is true of many countries as well.
- Coming to security concerns of the country. Recently the entire UK has been covered by Aerial Photography and the data is available to the public enterprise. How exactly are the security concerns handled in the scenario?
Concerns I think, about security, are reducing over the past 50 years. In 1945, there was a great concern about the security and a number of key features were not put on the ordnance survey maps. As ordnance survey became more and more free of military, and when the last military officer left ordnance survey in about 1984, it became more and more of a commercial enterprise and government became less and less concern about security. If you can get information from satellites, American satellite, Indian satellite, it begins to raise a question whether it is very sensible to hide? The security now is not so much about the geometry, but on the levels of geometry, say what this building is? But security consideration now for us is much less as they were 50 years ago and they are very small.
- What is the mode of GIS education in UK? What are the various schemes for financing GIS education?
I think GIS education is growing very much in Britain in number of universities. Our university have everything from short to long-term courses. When I was in the previous university we had 2000 students who were doing the short-term course but now there are undergraduate degrees in GIS and there are number of Masters degree in different aspects of GIS. The greatest number of people trained in GIS comes through modules of geography degree, surveying degree and a number of others. I think we see some interesting changes. In the past most GIS education had been very technical. Even in my own university we have created a new masters degree to take this forward based on distance learning. The future of GIS course is to move away from this very technical orientation. In my own university we get a large fraction of our revenues from students. We get one quarter of revenues from government. This means we have to be market focused. 10% of all of the courses in universities last year were completely new courses. 20% were revised substantially in that year. It means we can introduce new modules, new courses, although our students will go somewhere else. I think that module is the one that is coming in different parts of the world, and I welcome it. Because by education we are creating the future, skills of students, the orientation they have. What they do when they leave universities will be going to have a huge effect for innovation in industry and government and other parts of employment. We have a huge responsibility to shape and reshape our education courses to meet these needs. Certainly the GIS is very good because it gives you break in many areas, many different application areas that forces you to understand some real science. You must understand some business administrative work in it and many other things. We must be leading that by changing things, the subject areas and education more importantly. It is sometimes difficult to find finance to do all these. But in my own university we take some of the money aside for new innovation. That is how we do it.
- Are there any scholarship or any government help?
Yeah, student fees are the biggest issues in our country at the moment. Our government has brought in the payment of those by all students. In practice, only 1/3rd under-graduates pay the full amount, about 1000 pounds per year. Another 1/3rd pays no fees at all. But in post-graduate level most students pay their fees. The fees for different courses for postgraduate level vary a great deal. So if one is doing masters in Business administration, from a world-class university in Britain, one pays very high. If one is with a poor university, he pays less. If one is doing an undergraduate work, for most people, they do not pay very small amount of fees. But this whole question of student funding is important one. There are major studies going on in British Universities at the moment about funding. We do not have enough money at the university, so we should find way to bring enough money, so that we can develop more research, we can update facilities and so on. At the moment it is working reasonably well. But like many other parts of the world, we are looking at how to do things in future.
- While we are moving towards knowledge society, what is the role of Internet in this?
Internet has change my life completely. I can now research and find out what happened at different parts of the world. I can, e.g., write a book with one quarter of the effort that I would 5 years ago. I can also find out what is going on, what new information is available. It is tremendous, I am sure which can be applied to other people also.
- In emerging trends of e-learning, where you do place GIS education?
I think our experience, like everyone else in the world, we do not know this answer at the moment. Many web-based courses failed and others are continuing for a long time. So it seems that most students require face-to-face activities, as well as web based material. So Britain’s open university has always been into distance learning technique that also organises local workshop seminars where people can meet face to face. In my own organisation we have four or five different modes being used for distance based learning. Some are web based while some are paper based. We still find people like to come together, meet face to face. You can understand this in our business schools. The business school in the city of London we can get in the governor of the Bank of England, and so on. So there is a big draw when they come in. People come to meet, see and talk to these people directly. But I feel surprised by how much people want to come and talk, not just to the teachers but also to the students. We have number of our courses for working groups mostly. Works very well in some cases and not so well in other cases. What we are trying is experimenting the different models and I believe that is true for most university around the world. I suspect the different modes of learning that we require different kinds of courses for different kinds of students. We do not have a blueprint yet, but we know that the web will be crucial, very helpful for finding information. It is not good for regular and quality information but we do not know quite how it will be central to education in the future