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Way cleared for faster implementation of India’s NSDI; 4,800 Survey of India maps to be released into public domain

New Delhi, India, 17 February 2007 – India’s National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) mission promises to change the way citizens look at their world. At the core of this dream are plans to forge digital links and construct information highways that place data secreted in official vaults, and as diverse as street maps, forest areas, tax collection and hospitals, within the reach of a PC.

The NSDI scheme aims to use GIS to meld satellite imagery and good old toposheets with data on water resources, flooding, rainfall, crop patterns, civic layouts to produce 3-D digital maps. GIS enables the user and it can be anyone with a PC to fuse several layers of data to a base map of the region and then analyse the information. NSDI will, once ready, act as an online database to maintain such data layers and base maps in an easily retrievable form.

But like many plans, the GIS scheme faced bureaucratic firewalls. It languished for more than two years with various departments reluctant to share data and the Ministry of Defence taking its time to clear 4,800 Survey of India maps. Without the maps, the project wasn’t going anywhere.

Recently an important development has taken place in this context. The officials working on the GIS project at Technology Bhawan in New Delhi’s Qutub Institutional Area received news that some 1,600 Survey of India topographical sheets awaiting defence clearance would now be available for use by the GIS team. Four hundred had been cleared, and by March-end all 4,800 SoI maps, many of them for the first time, would be available for the public domain.

“These maps are part of our 1:50,000 series. As many as 2,900 were part of the open series, but the rest were not meant for general viewing ever before. Now we can proceed with both—the 40 cities project as well as the 1:50000 series,” said Major General M Gopal Rao, Surveyor General of India.

“We are now in business,” added Dr R Siva Kumar, Head of NSDI. First, 40 major cities will be mapped on a scale of 1:1000 and in later phases the entire country will be covered. The NSDI network, explained Dr Kumar, will be able to superimpose all manner of data onto a digital map.

Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said that there will be just a few restrictions on the use of data. “This (the project) will be rolled out through public-private partnerships (PPPs). Anyone, including academics, can use the data. There will be a fee to be paid. I hope entrepreneurs will step forward to set up services for users to access,” said Mr. Sibal. Bids will be invited for public-private partnerships to begin to load digital maps for various utilities.

“Some firms have already expressed interest. The data will be put to different use and commerce can guide its expansion. In any case, there are already 200 firms in the GIS business in India,” said Mr. Sibal. With defence clearance for all 4,800 Survey of India toposheets, of both rural and urban areas in hand, progress on the PPPs is now expected.

“These sheets will be processed further as we already have metadata from a lot of departments and are procuring our main server; we hope to set up the backbone much before the end of the year,” said Maj Gen M Gopal Rao, Surveyor General of India.

– Benefits from March-April
NSDI would be able to begin delivering benefits by March-April according to reports. Websites will be announced which will allow users to access all the 4,800 Survey of India maps where at the click of a mouse geographical and physical data can be superimposed.

As things stand, data will remain on servers run and placed with separate departments. Digital and cable connections will allow the central NSDI facility to access this information and process it for different uses.

NSDI partners include Geological Survey of India, National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land use Planning, Forest Survey of India, Central Ground Water Authority, National Resources Census, National Hydrographic Department and National Natural Resource Management System.

The NSDI web-user interface will provide open access of the information processed by the project. But further access to its metadata, data about data or a cataloguing system, will be secure. The metadata server will be the brain of the system and guide access and use of the NSDI agency server which contains the spatial data.

Once the NSDI metadata is ready, government will look for commercial contracts for uses like vehicle-navigation and specialised map-making. The metadata bank will be useful for government departments as Major General Rao points out “even official agencies are sometimes unsure where data they need is. Now it will be in one place and according to standards and protocols that all departments and agencies are familiar with.”

Some of the objectives that NSDI will look to achieve are national coverage of all forest maps, land use, groundwater and wasteland maps, pollution data, meteorologically department’s weather-info and department of Ocean Development’s sea maps. To this will be added information from agencies like Bureau of Economics and Statistics and National Council for Applied Economic Research.