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Space as an Extension Service, Hype or Hope?

In 2014, after the new government took over, the Prime Minister tasked the Department of Space to appraise the ministries as to how they could make the best use of Space technology. A cinch I thought because DOS has a very good hold and a string of successes on space technology and its applications.

Dawn of a new era

India’s inception in space technology was through applications. The Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, SITE using NASA’s ATS-6 satellite was a landmark in community TV broadcasting. 2400 remote villages in six states were connected through ATS-6 and homegrown satellite direct reception TV sets to studios of Doordarshan which broadcast educational programmes for schools and development programmes for the rural community in local languages for one year. On August 1, 2015 we shall be celebrating the Ruby Anniversary of SITE. Yes, 40 years ago ISRO and Doordarshan pioneered an experiment which led to the boom in satellite television broadcasting to the remotest corners of India. ISRO follow this up with Gramsat for developmental communications and Edusat for formal education programmes. Both included ‘talkback’ by which the audience could ask questions and interact with the instructors in a ‘live’ mode.

Data needs to be unshackled. Please address the elephant in the room – India’s geospatial data policy.

ISRO has a rich heritage

Cut to the ‘80s, as ISRO’s remote sensing programme took a major leap with IRS-1A, in parallel a utilisation programme was started along with major ministries to sensitise them on the applicability of satellite imagery in their areas of work. The National Natural Resources Management System, NNRMS was set up under the aegis of the Planning Commission to ensure that the IRS satellites would be used on a regular basis. The NNRMS has several Standing Working Groups which oversees these applications and are chaired by the concerned ministry and serviced by DOS. Many other mission mode projects followed, all conducted with the active participation of the concerned ministries and States, like National Groundwater Mission, National Wasteland Mapping Mission, Remote Sensing Applications Mission, Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development, National Resources Information System, National Urban Information System and the latest, National Resources Census. Every State has its own Satcom and Remote Sensing Centre which uses space technologies for both development communications and resources management.

But, why it takes a year for a meeting?

The question to be asked, therefore is why then do we need yet another national level meeting in which DOS will have to enlighten the ministries about the use of space technology in their work? What is expected of this meeting? A supplementary question is why it took DOS more than a year to organise this meeting considering that there is already a mechanism like the NNRMS? This meeting seems to be off limits for the media and industry, therefore one can only surmise on the outcome.

Most certainly the National GIS will come up for discussion. The four parties who have major stakes in this are DOS, DST, DIT and MoES. Each will try to grab the leadership role and come out with a massive action plan. In this melee DST needs to be reminded about its NRDMS (Natural Resources Data Management System) project and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, NSDI for which they have a Government Order, a CEO and a web presence through a Clearing House. National Informatics Centre of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, DeitY, too has its GISNIC tagged on to its DISNIC (District Information System of NIC) and a web presence through yet another Clearing House. DOS has NRIS and NRC and claim its Bhuvan as the last word in web presence and India’s challenge to Google. If the National GIS was to rise like a phoenix out of the smouldering remains of these earlier efforts one might be tempted to clap and say ‘bravo’ except for the fact that after being incubated by the Planning Commission it was dumped on MoES who gave it away to DST. So where is National GIS? Or more importantly why National GIS?

National GIS will be promoted as yet another panacea for all the ills besetting India’s natural and man-made resources management. It envisages a heavy dose of centralisation via an equally heavy dose of technology

National GIS: Past its use by date

National GIS will be promoted as yet another panacea for all the ills besetting India’s natural and man-made resources management. It envisages a heavy dose of centralisation via an equally heavy dose of technology – servers in the cloud, big data, yada yada. National GIS will centralise data and applications will be developed by a central brains trust culled from individual ministries and departments. In short, National GIS is an idea not only past its use by date, it is to resources management what communes were to agriculture. Strong words?

Then, consider the way management is evolving. Firstly, centralised control is passé because one size does not fit all. Imagine the result if forest management of the Silent Valley is applied to the Dangs. Any resource management system must factor in local situations and requirements. This calls not only for distributed data but also distributed applications driven by local experts. Secondly, this is the age of the crowd as in crowd sourcing and crowd funding. It means finding out what the citizens want not assuming what they want. It means making the citizen an active participant in the planning process. For too long all the players have treated the populace as some kind of dumb entity whose good they must work for. So we have District Plans, targets and social impact analysis – lots of reports but the ground reality remains the same.

Who is answerable for natural disasters?

Why is it that in spite of all these efforts disasters like Uttarakhand and Jhelum happen? Why are we not able to resolve the issues related to environmental protection and development? Why are our city services failing one after the other? It is because all these systems do not involve the citizens. Instead of treating the citizens as passive beneficiaries we need to consider them as active participants. The Prime Minister avers that Digital India will empower citizens to become netizens. This implies that there should be meaningful participation by the citizens in the management processes from planning to execution to operations and maintenance. The July 30 conclave needs to address these issues. How?

If space technology is to be widely used then the databases and applications must be distributed down to the panchayat level because the nation swears by Panchayati Raj whose vision is to attain decentralised & participatory local self-government through Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The job of planning, implementation and monitoring of resources must firmly rest with the panchayats and through them on the administrative machinery of the government. Space can contribute imagery, weather data and the communications needed to link the panchayats to the national network. In this context the departments like DOS, DST and DeitY needs to create standards and standardised processes for data management which needs to be followed nationally. The job of implementation, operations and maintenance of the resources information system should be that of industry. Industry can also do value addition and applications generation. This will provide a great opportunity for the thousands of young engineers and scientists graduating in Computer Science, IT, Remote Sensing and GIS who can be recruited by industry or even set up their own start-ups. This would jell with the present government’s aim to provide jobs and skill India. In fact, there is a huge untapped market existing at the bottom of the pyramid for simple mobile apps which can be used by individuals to interact with the G2C services in both urban and rural environments. Before we get to this utopia there are some issues to be addressed.

Data needs to be unshackled. Please address the elephant in the room – India’s geospatial data policy. In this respect I appreciate the efforts of DOS. Not only have they freed up data up to and including one metre they have also promised free data to PhD students. One could argue for half metre data and free data to all researchers but that can wait. What has been waiting for too long is the Map Policy. Survey of India topographic maps are the only authentic source of base information which is essential for registering space imagery. Considering this SoI has been talking about digital maps from the mid 90’s. In 2005 they finally came out with the Map Policy and Open Series of Maps. Frankly, this policy is so dated that it is laughable. In spite of DST and Survey of India being full time members on the Board of the Open Geospatial Consortium and NSDI which is a part of DST has a GML 3.0 schema ready, digital topographic map data from SoI is supplied in proprietary formats. The OGC WFS standard for digital data exchange is GML but the Map Policy insists that data exchange must be only in jpeg form. The much touted Open Series of Maps suppress height information. Further free paper maps become restricted in digital form while restricted paper maps become secret on the rather specious assumption that digital is more accurate than analogue! Over and above this is the actual availability of digital maps. Till date SoI are yet to cover the whole of India at 1:50,000 scale. Maps at 1:10,000 scale are also hanging fire and these are essential for urban applications.

Develop applications not maps. Most of the projects create maps over and over again with the excuse that the existing maps are not usable due to a host of reasons. Nobody thinks of updating the existing maps at a much lower cost and spending more time and efforts on applications. Other agencies also resort to repeated mapping because government agencies loathe to share data, particularly with private agencies and NGOs. ISRO’s Bhuvan does make available both data and maps. National GIS will again recreate maps creating revenue for NRSC and their value adders whose only job is to create maps from imagery. This is actually leaving the talent available in industry unused. By encouraging and offloading work to industry this talent can be harnessed not only for mapping but also for developing applications. This is where a large number of thematic scientists can find opportunities. Models are needed for specific applications both in rural and urban areas.

At the next level we need applications that can be accessed by an individual. These have to be interactive and should be able to provide decision alternatives and also enable the individual to navigate through the alternatives and make an intelligent choice which minimises his risk. A typical scenario could be that of a marginal farmer seeking advice on the best crop to grow in a given agro-climatic setting considering his own economic status and future expectations. Such applications do not exist and this is a challenging task for NGOs and others who can build up such interactive models using the diverse databases. Many such apps could be available through the architecture of Digital India.

The July 30 meeting must think out of the box. Then, one can hope for a truly g-enabled Digital India, else it will be all hype.