A Synopsis of the Indian GIS Industry

By Ganapathy Venkatachalam

_Technological progress is perhaps the most important source of structural change in an economy, because it alters the mix of products, industries, firms and jobs. A market perspective of the technology gives a better view of the demand and need for any such technology. In an attempt to better understand these issues, this article explores the current status of the GIS industry in India along with various challenges facing the Indian geospatial industry.

With increasing globalization and the integration of various economies into the international world economic order and the World Bank taking interest in formulating liberalization and structural adjustment programs, public finance and fiscal policy have acquired a new dimension. Governments are taking more interest in investing in technologies and applications for the future, leading to opportunities for growth. Therefore, the role of individual governments is more prominent. With increased emphasis on better policing system, India could form a potent force and facilitate its industrial development.

India in GIS
Today, questions of how to make a profit and sustain a competitive advantage are frequently asked by every type of organization. Many of the technological barriers to enterprise deployment of geospatial data have been broken and the organizational "champions" of this technology must take the steps necessary to empower their entire operation with "location intelligence." Two interrelated factors are driving the spatial market today. One is the notion that geospatial data is no longer a specialized type of information available only to GIS and CAD experts. Rather, it's becoming part of the enterprise dataset, so that many people who have previously not had access to spatial data can use it. Second, if more companies want to share these data across their organizations, they must ensure that it is available in an open architecture-computing environment.

Some of the technologies that most spatial advocates agree are driving innovation in our applications are:
  • Database Technologies
  • Mobile Computing
  • Sensors
  • Standards and Data Sharing
Emerging Applications
Applications like vehicle tracking are seen as a huge potential with government willing to invest in such applications, the recent example being municipalities of Hyderabad and Vijaywada. Also with versatile applications like RF-based vehicle tracking getting attention (as recently a pilot project was launched based on the New Delhi- Jaipur highway, with real time data on the fleet of vehicles which can also be accessed by clients on the Internet), new avenues for companies are opening up. Not only vehicle tracking, last year the municipality of Bangalore launched a GIS-based property assessment, which was the first of its kind.

Recent initiatives by organizations like NRDMS (National Resources Data Management System) taking up national level “Natural Resources” mapping is seen as a major step for the potential growth of the industry. International cooperation has also seen a new dimension with India collaborating with Iceland to incept an "Earthquake Forecast Center."

Indian GIS Policy
For a long time many felt a need for a major change in the Indian map policy, which was recently obliged. Survey of India, the premium authority which possesses the onus of defining and maintaining a map policy, has recently introduced bifurcated map policies for civilian as well as defense applications.

Defense Series Maps (DSMs) - These will be the topographical maps (on Everest/WGS-84 Datum and Polyconic/UTM Projection) on various scales (with heights, contours and full content without dilution of accuracy). These will mainly cater to defense and national security requirements. This series of maps (in analog or digital form) for the entire country will be classified, as appropriate, and the Ministry of Defence will formulate the guidelines regarding their use.

Open Series Maps (OSMs) - OSMs will be brought out exclusively by Survey of India (SOI), primarily for supporting development activities in the country. OSMs will bear different map sheet numbers and will be in UTM Projection on the WGS-84 datum. Each of these OSMs (in both hard copy and digital form) will become "Unrestricted" after obtaining a one-time clearance of the Ministry of Defense. SOI will ensure that no civil and military Vulnerable Areas and Vulnerable Points (VA's/VP's) are shown on OSMs.

The map policy has received a mixed response, as some feel a necessity for further clarity on the policy, as during the recently held one-day seminar on “Geoinformatics For Socioeconomic Development” The panel, which included heads of various organizations including Dr DP Rao, NK Agarwal, GS Kumar and others, felt that, “The new map policy, in its present form, is grossly inadequate in meeting the growing needs of industry and infrastructure development and hoped that the government would rework on it.”

Challenges Ahead of the Development in Indian Industry
Privacy Issues: With extensive use of personal information for demographic analysis, issues arise concerning the proper use of such information. One other area being mobile-based tracking, where issues related to individual privacy and the misuse of personal information can be of a concern. Also, increasing satellite imagery resolution can be seen as a threat for personal as well as national security, especially in the absence of global policy.

Sustained Growth: With increasing introduction of new companies using geospatial technology, the GIS industry needs to sustain its growth, so that small to medium-sized companies can compete equally. This is sometimes referred to as the "squeeze-syndrome." High-end companies try to squeeze the low-end companies to make more profit. Partnership is one way to survive, in addition to specialization in niche solutions.

Storage and Depository: As the flow of information grows, more initiatives need to be taken by the Indian government for digital information preservation, the prime example being the U.S., where in the Library of Congress has given the responsibility to develop one of eight national initiatives for digital information preservation to Stanford and the University of California-Santa Barbara. The Stanford/UCSB team will form a National Geospatial Federated Digital Repository to design an infrastructure and collect materials across the spectrum of geographic formats. The digitally manufactured materials to be collected and preserved will range from earth images taken from satellites (Landsat), to other cartographic content from university, corporate and government resources, as well as websites. The repository will preserve content vital for the study of history, science, environmental policy, urban and population studies, census construction and analysis, and other fields requiring U.S. geospatial information. The following issue was raised in the recently held "NSDI-V Workshop," where the need for a national repository of spatial data was strongly felt by all the participating departments and the urgency to quickly operationalize it was stressed.

Open Minded: New applications and areas where GIS can accrue specifically to India need to be identified. The government needs to invest in these new ideas and encourage public/private partnership. Of significant interest is real estate and urban planning where the government needs to play a much more major role in investing and prioritizing of such activities.

Policy: Flexible and evolving governmental policy, which helps the needs of the industry, still keeping in mind national and security interests of the country. Security cannot be a secondary issue.

Open Source: Open source has its own pros and cons. The introduction of applications like Google Earth has created a sense of awareness about the capability of satellite imagery combined with GIS, which has created more usage of GIS but has also raised concerns about the availability of sensitive data. Hence, not only in public domain but also the governmental outlook needs to be attended upon.

Challenges are not limited, but with the GIS industry growing in importance and entering new domains, the GIS industry needs to lead and not follow.

It is imperative for any technology to create more employment opportunities and make collective efforts to percolate the benefits to the rural areas, especially in a developing country like India. Even with the speculative approach, there is a general belief that spatially referenced technologies will continue to grow in importance, not only in the realm of research advancement, but in the commercial arena as well. It is important to our understanding of GIS applications to explore the relationships between commercialization and the scientific inputs driving technological development. There is a strong need for an in-depth study to be undertaken to understand the current trends in the Indian geospatial market and to make an attempt to define the future roadway for a steady growth in the industry. Most importantly, understanding a triad of science-technology-policy shall be the need of the hour.

Published Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

Written by Ganapathy Venkatachalam

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