A View from Over There - India and NSDI

By Joe Francica

Conferences billed as events for the "world" are often populated by bureaucrats who enjoy the sound of their own voices, but offer little substance. You see the so-called leaders of worldly professional bodies with wonderful PowerPoints, but little power to their points. For five days last week I listened intently to speakers at the Map World Forum (MWF) in Hyderabad, India to see if the event would herald a step forward for GIS or a missed opportunity for the advancement of global cooperation.

The theme, oft-repeated by the various ministers and other notable speakers at MWF, was "GIS for the Common Man." This is an intriguing concept in a land of over 1 billion inhabitants. Were they talking about Google Earth (GE) or applications that were the result of hard GIS work done in the mapping departments of government agencies that benefit all citizens? Google was decidedly "persona non grata" at the event and perhaps in all of India, as a result of revelations that the Mumbai 26/11 terrorists used GE in planning the attack. Representatives from Google Earth were not in attendance this year, after having played a major role in the conference two years ago. Still, the enormous benefits of tools like GE and Microsoft Virtual Earth are recognized by India's minister of Science & Technology and Earth Science, Kapil Sibal, who is making it a top priority to fly the largest six cities of India to acquire 3D data for use in Virtual Earth within the next three years.

Another "high-ranking" Indian government official said that the country should "leap frog" to the next generation of geospatial technology. He said that this was possible in India because the country had little investment in some of the traditional GIS solutions and legacy systems that have perhaps already been adopted by more developed countries. This astounding pronouncement suggested how little coordination had been present among government agencies in the past and how much money it might take to correct past deficiencies in technology adoption.

The challenge for India is a politically driven map policy caught between full democratization of data and a highly developed bureaucracy fixated on the perils of free and open availability with the ensuing security risks. The desire for a more open data policy is certainly present in the country. The technology is available, and even the distribution challenges can be overcome. But inertia is the friend of government inaction and the good words of politicians only get you so far. In an interview with India-based Geospatial Today Magazine (February 2009), Sibal said that a separate and independent Map Authority will be established to deal with data. In the same interview, he addressed the problem of restricting data access on the grounds of security saying, "Wherever the nature of data is sensitive, supply of that data will be regulated. In certain circumstances, it will not be allowed to be disseminated. But by and large, 90 percent of the data doesn't fall into that category. So there should be no problem." And so, if only to provide a local farmer with a map of his land, GIS for the common man may yet be possible in this country where roads and housing complexes mushroom seemingly overnight. The expansion that has occurred in just the two years since my last visit here is impressive, with a new airport open and operating and new highways and major high-rise apartments under construction.

This leads to a second topic: Many countries have initiatives for developing a common set of methods, practices and standards that become the foundation for managing and disseminating digital geospatial data - a National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDI). Sibal is suggesting as much by creating a Map Authority, a body comparable to the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC)and Europe's Infrastructure for Spatial Information for Europe (INSPIRE). I sat in on a session on NSDI and was astonished at the challenges the SDI leaders have to overcome. Many were in attendance and spoke, including Bas Kok, president of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure (GSDI, Europe); Derek Clarke, director of Surveys and Mapping, South Africa and convener of the International Cartographic Association Working Group on Mapping Africa for Africa; and Dr. Dato, deputy director of Surveying and Mapping and rector of the Malaysian Geospatial Data Infrastructure organization, MyGDI.

Kok's challenge is implementing the European Union (EU) approved vision, and as importantly, making certain that he is working with the NSDI bodies throughout the world.

Ron Lake, president of Galdos Systems, speaking about the situation in the U.S. said, "I have a problem with the word ‘data'…no one knows what it means. Most SDI in the world is focused nationally. MyGDI and [NSDI] in Canada began as national initiatives; I think that's upside down. We need to begin in urban areas, because that's where we live." Lake suggested that it is at the city level where most of the work of building a spatial data infrastructure resides and that's also where the problems of pollution, city building codes and other business processes intermingle. "Very few cities of the world have as-builts of the whole city. Even if they do, they don't have integrated business processes to maintain that model over time. So, we need to focus SDI at the local level," said Lake. He also explained that cities deal with a rich variety of data from building information models, to computer-aided drafting data, and now real-time information from sensors that are revealing how quickly even urban environments change. Lake suggested, "We need to think of SDI as a collaboration framework in which the act of collaboration is incorporated into the SDI…Think of SDI as a dynamic kind of thing…Because we've focused on national level information, most of the SDIs look like a library (a catalog where you can find out about data), but there are not a lot of cases where when someone makes a change that data is not immediately available to everyone."

Clarke elaborated on several of the challenges facing NSDI in Africa. He provided a litany of barriers including the lack of political support and funding, a lack of policies and legislation, insufficient implementation of standards, the need for a strong NSDI champion, and in his case on the African continent, nations in conflict.

And so, at the conclusion of the conference, these two primary themes - making certain that the technology benefits a larger part of the population, and ensuring that the technological infrastructure exists, along with the political will to make it happen - were certainly comingled for a common purpose. It is a decidedly difficult task to achieve these goals simultaneously. However, the priority of each major NSDI organization that I heard, and certainly that of the Indian government, was to move proactively to accomplish both goals at once.

Published Friday, February 20th, 2009

Written by Joe Francica

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