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250 years of SOI: Complete digitization and a user-friendly geospatial bill coming
Dr. Swarna Subba Rao, the Surveyor General of India

As the national survey and mapping organization of the country, Survey of India, completes 250 years of serving the nation, the happiness on Dr. Swarna Subba Rao’s face is palpable. Taking the podium at the Esri India User Conference 2017, the Surveyor General of India declares to thunderous applause, “We are celebrating this achievement with several technical programs, starting next week with Geospatial World Forum at Hyderabad.”

The path to this achievement may have had its fair share of roadblocks, but it’s the demands that have arrived with the digital age that have forced Dr. Rao to pull his sleeves up. “This transition, which has taken place in the last decade, has not made my job any easier,” he laughs. “There used to be occasions when people would be happy with even five-year-old maps. Today, they want maps of yesterday. And if they are allowed to have their way, they would want maps of tomorrow!”

Dr. Rao recalls the lengthy, detailed discussions SOI would have with its clients for any project coming its way, taking its own sweet time to deliver the results. “Today, if the rail network needs to be extended by 100kms, and I tell them I would provide the map by next year, they will never come back to me. Now, I have to talk in terms of ‘weeks’, and sometimes even ‘days’.”

Detailing how clients today only want maps that are GIS-compatible or GIS-ready, Dr. Rao adds, “People are not just asking for data these days, but solutions. And since the SOI map is an authoritative document that can be produced in the court of law, it is a huge responsibility on our shoulders. We cannot afford to go wrong in any of the map sheets.”

On digitization and real-time data collection

250 years of SOI: Complete digitization and a user-friendly geospatial bill coming
A hard copy map produced by SoI

The average age of the employees at SOI today is 55 years. This staff started their careers with hard copy maps. The workflow involved passing the map sheet from office to office, with corrections being made at every stage. Today, if this methodology is adopted, SOI would not be able to complete its plan of mapping the entire country at 1:10,000 scales even in the next decade. “We require complete automation of our workflow with the help of information technology. We need customized software on the management and administration side as well,” insists Dr. Rao.

“The need of the hour is to digitize the data the day it is collected. I cannot afford to send a man back in the field to make a correction; I need to be able to see the data in real-time and get the requisite changes done. Luckily, we have been able to get our employees interested in the digital environment. This has been made possible by adopting the right practices and technologies.” Nonetheless, SOI has so many projects in its kitty that even with a 5,000-strong manpower, the mapping agency has to outsource most of its work.

On Geospatial Information Regulation Bill draft

The Surveyor General is convinced that it is the huge impact made by GIS technology that has made the government, organizations and individuals aware about the importance of maps. “Today, many departments in the Government of India are implementing their programs and processes using GIS. The government is leveraging geospatial technologies in all its flagship projects as well, such as, Smart Cities and Clean Ganga programs,” he points out.

However, if the country has woken up to the power of g-tech, how does one explain the regressive Geospatial Information Regulation Bill draft proposed by the government in 2016? A smile punctuates Dr. Rao’s lips as he responds. “I understand that the draft bill was quite stringent. But, rest assured, the geospatial policy that will come up will be very user and industry-friendly. The realization has come that a lot of relaxation is required on our part, and this message has reached the decision makers also,” he promises. Well, now, that’s a relief!