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Transformation of national geospatial agencies in contemporary economy

Change is the only constant. The world is evolving rapidly; everything is getting connected to each other and we are becoming a part of a system of systems. Working in silos has become a thing of the past and collaboration and cooperation has become the strongest driver of fruitful existence. Accordingly, the national geospatial agencies are expected to change.

Geospatial is synonymous to connecting people for larger benefits, and national geospatial agencies world over play a crucial role in facilitating the adoption of geospatial technologies so as to enable higher productivity among businesses, people and the society at large. They have been doing a great job in providing the ecosystem needed for spreading the usage and deriving the benefits of geospatial technologies, but in this rapidly changing digital world, what worked a few years earlier need to be pondered upon and re-strengthened to bring in favorable results.

As the demand and need for geospatial content have gone up manifold, national geospatial agencies have to quickly change strategies to stay relevant in the game. There is a greater rush for accurate maps, regulations on what is being mapped by private players and how to utilize technologies to function more effectively.

The Geospatial World Forum is a renowned platform for initiating enriching discussions among the leaders of the industry, leading to the emergence of intriguing ideas across the table. A one day workshop on the changing role of NMAs, at the conference, brought out unique insights and strategies that the NMAs of different countries could follow to play a more significant role in making geospatial work for achieving sustainable development.

Utilizing technologies in operations: Different levels of adoption

National geospatial agencies world over have understood that they have no choice, but to adopt and adapt to the latest technological advancements in their fields of work. Even though the pace of adoption has not been uniform, there is a positive direction.

UK sets an example by making humongous progress in this realm. The NMAs there are already considering how to get prepared for the next age; how to embrace the technological advancements that the next age will bring in for better functioning.

According to John Kedar, Director International Engagement, Ordnance Survey Great Britain, UK, “Transformation has been a journey, from cartography to data to 4IR, integrating GIS into systems. We are now thinking how we move to the next age; how to use technology like LiDAR, photogrammetry, AI to drive data production from raw data, putting everything on cloud, big data processing. We are now investing a lot of money in 5G networks. We are adopting a ‘what people need approach,’ collaborating with the industry-both geospatial and non-geospatial, getting closer to customers, promoting innovation by helping the small and medium-size enterprises to use geospatial. Our Geovation hubs help people share ideas and help them take the forward leap.”

S D P J Dampegama, Additional Surveyor, General Survey, Department, Sri Lanka shares that they are increasingly adopting technology to provide better maps, which can facilitate better analysis of location for more informed decisions. Talking about digital transformation in case of Sri Lanka, he says, “We have moved from paper-based maps to digital maps. The entire country is now covered in digital maps. We are focusing on analytical processing, digital processing, and even use of sensors. We have started LiDAR-based surveying, and 30% of the country has been covered through it.”

Unequal pace of transformation

While many national geospatial agencies are taking lead in carrying forward the growth story, many others are eager to catch up and to leapfrog into becoming active contributors to their societies and economies in concrete and constructive ways. An important thing to keep in mind here is that not every country enjoys similar privileges in terms of positioning, mindset and resource availability and thus the efforts need to be tweaked in every case.

Many NMAs seem to be holding up. Along with tangible limitations, mindset remains an issue. People usually want to hold onto the things. The infrastructure institutional framework is not able to work as per the changing requirements. The agencies shy away from using data for greater good. They are overwhelmed with the data. They restrain from data sharing. Government data is par excellence, but security concerns pose a hurdle to using technologies for better outcomes. This mindset needs to change for faster adaptation of NMAs.

According to Valrie Grant, Managing Director, GeoTechVision, Jamaica, “Across the Caribbean region, we need to promote the use of smart mobile devices, cloud, UAVs. We are apprehensive, but it is inevitable. We are using Blockchain in land management. But the key challenges remain lack of technical competence, slow adoption rate and lack of understanding among people. We need to bring more awareness about the advantages of digitization to be able to do more.”

The National Mapping Agency of Oman also shares concern over its weak situation. Air Commodore Ahmed Bin Saif Al Badi, Head, National Survey Authority, Ministry of Defence, Oman, says, “4IR technologies are new in Oman. Security is a concern. More awareness needs to be there about the advantages. We need to work towards leading Oman to be smarter. We follow others’ stories, and are trying to develop similar platforms.”

Even in case of Central America, readiness for technology adoption in national mapping agencies seems low. Countries like Germany are leaders in terms of supplying technology, but many of the new technologies are not fully deployed even in the most advanced countries.

India is also plagued with a similar fiasco but is showing positive signs of transformation. Survey of India, The National Survey and Mapping Organization of India, being in service for 250 years, has humongous amount of data available with it. But, due to a stringent mindset has not been able to put to use the same effectively for citizens’ benefit. However, the new Surveyor, Major General Girish Kumar, is geared up to use advanced technologies in the functioning of the NMA and produce more productive results. He shares, “Everything is now becoming location based. Data requirements are going up, and this makes it necessary for national geospatial agencies to bring changes within.”

Evolving public-private partnerships

So, what needs to be done to have a stronger geospatial infrastructure? An important step in this direction is fostering increased collaboration between the public and private sectors.

The national geospatial agencies produce data, but they do not process the data. Private players are capable of doing that, so a mutually beneficial relationship must exist. The government can help the private sector by giving data and private players can help the government by providing them processed data that they can later use for citizens’ benefit.

Public-private collaboration is necessary for growth of the national geospatial agencies and achieving the objective of envisaging public good. As Mark Reichardt, CEO, Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), USA, puts it, “Everyone has a piece of the solution. They must be joined together to solve a problem.”

As Per Vijay Kumar, Vice President and Head Technology, Esri, India, “The private industry is putting a lot of value on the table. It is providing opportunities to develop based on user needs. The public and private sectors complement each other in achieving the common objectives of development.” “The private sector has specialized skills that the government is lacking,” feels, Kumar Navulur, President, DigitalGlobe Foundation, USA.

Md. Abul Kalam, Director Development, Survey of Bangladesh, provides a different insight when he says, “Government has the commitment and the private sector has the commercial interest. Through this collaboration, the public sector can get things done more quickly.”

Clarity above all

Public-private partnership is the need of the hour. However, such collaborations can become fruitful only if the terms of engagement are very clear. What is expected from each entity in the partnership – this understanding is of utmost importance if we are looking for successful outcomes.

In the words of Dorine Burmanje, Chair of the Executive Board, Dutch Kadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency, The Netherlands, “We must understand what we are of each other. We are not always partner. It is important to have the right relationship at the beginning, understand each other. We may not have exclusive relationships with any partner. Many private companies don’t want that. Government is expected to give things away. That does not hold true nowadays. That’s not fair anymore. Set right expectations at the beginning. For public sector the ultimate goal is to benefit the society, but for private sector there is something beyond that. So difference exists, and that’s why clarity at the very beginning is very much required.”

Grant seconds her thoughts by saying, “Terms of engagement have to be very clear. Be very clear what you can and cannot do. Mindsets have to be a part of it. This is very necessary for building relationships.”

Prashant Shukle, Director General, Natural Resources Canada adds to that by saying, “There are structural issues with respect to businesses as well. Big businesses are repackaging government data and reselling. So they are becoming competition. NMAs must propagate behavioral changes. Basically, though NMAs need to change, the private sector needs to change too.”

The definition of partnership has to evolve with time. As Ted Lamboo of Bentley Systems points out, “Earlier partnerships were very transactional. However, there has been a partnership development. Now, we have the concept of ‘Outcome as a service.’ Investments are made upfront, and everyone has a stake, but no gains are expected upfront. As gains come over a period of time, the partnerships stay longer.”

In nutshell, though public-private partnership has to become a crucial part of the geospatial framework, it should not be done mindlessly. Every participant should feel that it is a fair arrangement. Clear measures must also be there to assess whether the collaboration has been successful or not.

Empowering geospatial policies

The lack of concrete policies is an issue that hinders the further promotion and expansion of geospatial technology. Traditionally policies were made by surveyors and geologists for each other. With changing times, policies have to become much more enabling. As Greg Scott, Inter-Regional Advisor, Global Geospatial Information Management, United Nations, puts it, “The governments need to get it done.”

Yasushi Shimoyama, Director-General, Geospatial Information, Geospatial Information Authority
Japan, says, “Japan has a Geospatial Information Act and a Survey Act. The Geospatial Information Act is a basic act that defines the role of the government and the Survey Act defines how to make the survey plan, how to secure accuracy of survey result etc. By combining these two Acts, we are promoting utilization of geospatial information. The local government does not know most about the new technology, and the Information Act provides guidelines on how to use the technology. Government has made agreement with 46 prefectures. The local governments do not know the worth of geo-information. This is where the national agency is helping, making them aware, explain what is the worth of geospatial information.  Utilization of geospatial information is our priority. We need budget and thus we need a policy.”

In India, we have the Remote Sensing Policy, which regulates the acquisition and dissemination of all satellite remote sensing data. There also exists a Satellite Communication Policy, which sets the norms, guidelines and procedures for implementation of the policy framework for satellite communications. What we are now looking forward to having is the National Geospatial Policy.

The absence of a comprehensive policy on the use of geospatial data and technologies had been a contention for the country for some time now. While the central government has mandated the use of geospatial data in developmental activities, especially in 140+ projects, wherein the departments concerned had been asked to closely work with ISRO and its data centre NRSC, a number of old obsolete policies had been hindering the efforts. The National Map Policy 2005 and the National Remote Sensing Policy 2011 are both restrictive and outdated and overrun by security concerns. Further, at present, there are no clear-cut guidelines on data sharing or standards.

The need for a National Geospatial Policy was felt to address these needs and to encourage private players to participate in large-scale mapping of the country. It seeks to put in place appropriate guidelines to address all issues related to sharing of maps and other spatial data.

Land administration is a fundamental infrastructure for the sustainable economic and social development of all societies. A simple indication of properties and boundaries is often adequate to meet basic land administration needs in less developed countries. Therefore the World Bank and the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) developed the ‘Fit for purpose’ approach.  The idea behind ‘Fit for purpose’ is that land administration should be designed to meet the needs of people and the environment. It also should identify the way land is occupied and used within a relatively short time and at relatively low costs. Dutch Kadaster uses the approach to help start-up initiatives for sustainable land administration worldwide. It is an excellent initiative that facilitates land administration in less developed countries by making it be cheap, fast and designed to meet the people’s needs.

Geospatial information has increasingly become important as well as recognized by different authorities due to the efforts made by various working groups of The UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UNGGIM). One of the key achievements of UNGGIM was the resolution of Global Geodetic Reference Framework on 26th Feb, 2015. UNGGIM has recognized since its inception the growing demand for more precise positioning services, the economic importance of a global geodetic reference frame and the need to improve the global cooperation within geodesy. UNGGIM created a Working Group for a Global Geodetic Reference Frame (GGRF), which formulated and facilitated a draft resolution for a Global Geodetic Reference Frame (GGRF), which was adopted by UNGGIM in July 2014 and ECOSOC in November 2014.

At the GWF workshop, Scott reinforced the role of UNGGIM in making joint decisions and setting directions with regard to the production, availability and use of geospatial information within national, regional and global policy frameworks, and encouraged the NMAs to follow the guidelines provided by it for formulating stronger geospatial policies.

With time Sri Lanka has also empowered its geospatial policies. It has moved from ordinances to Acts. It has a Surveying Act and the national spatial infrastructure. As mentioned by Dampegama, “We are spatially enabled. We have data available for anybody. However, the biggest challenge is to make the public sector realize the importance of spatial data.”

So, it can be easily agreed upon that with changing times, the NMAs need to work upon their policies, and Vanessa Lawrence, CB, Senior Strategic Global Geospatial Advisor, Governments and Inter-Governmental Organisations, summarizes the actions to be taken in few words. She says, “We should take what we do to very large organizations and basically help senior people to set their own strategies and communicate with their government. You have to get to organizations in your country and help them understand how they can enable themselves with geospatial. Many organizations say we know what we are doing that, but actually, they are not following standards, policies. Industry expects NMAs to facilitate policymakers.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Korea, The Netherlands – they have the best geospatial policies. Why? Because they have ministerial backing. They have got top-down approach on how things to be done. They go by the law. They have very very clear policies. With that clarity, comes the ability to work stronger.”

“NMAs are actually becoming competitive to government. Let’s focus on government policies and not policies by NMA.”

So to summarize we can say that standards are very important. Standardization helps in moving forward. By adopting geospatial technologies, duplication of work can be avoided to a large extent. However, for reaping the benefits fully, awareness must be increased, and we definitely need more comprehensive policies and higher collaboration among sectors. Leveraging the European Commission’s INSPIRE initiative, the European bloc countries – Belgium, Poland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Finland, have national spatial data infrastructures at an advanced stage. The bloc is also at an advanced stage of earth observation data infrastructure setup. Taking lessons from these countries, the NMAs worldwide need to move forward and take more concrete steps towards transformation in the contemporary economy, collaboration and cooperation being the strongest drivers.

As Dorine Burmanje says, “We are getting more and more dependent on each other. No matter what goal you chose, we have to work together for a better world for our children.”