GIS Technology: An International Market of Enormous Potential

By Joe Francica

If you want to take a glimpse into the future market potential of geospatial technology growth, look toward Asia. In the 25 years since I was last in India - back when the Survey of India was still doing everything with paper maps and satellite image processing computers were locked behind government doors - the mindset of its leaders has changed. What I saw this time was a market of enormous potential for geospatial software, data and services, provided government policy continues to evolve.

Let's be clear. The changing fortunes of India revolve around money and economic development. India can't compete in a global economy without a much better developed infrastructure: better roads, better utilities and better schools. Geospatial technology can help the country get there and the top leaders in the Indian government have articulated a vision that supports the country's ambitious growth plans. If you listen to my interview with Sibal Kipal, the minister of Science and Technology and Earth Science, you'll hear this view first-hand.

InfoTech: The largest GIS services company in the world?

GITA Director Bob Samborski at Infotech's offices.
India, and specifically the cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune, have a concentration of software and computer network support companies setting up campuses for their workers. While in Hyderabad, I toured the offices of InfoTech Enterprises Limited at the invitation of Mr. N.J. Joseph, vice president of Marketing. GITA Director Bob Samborski and I (at right) saw first-hand where hundreds of workers (below) were supporting projects including database updates for Tele Atlas and attribution of a digital network for KPN Telecom, a Dutch telecommunications company. InfoTech is ISO 9000 certified and operates two eight-hour shifts, six days a week. InfoTech currently employs 1,900 data management resources and 300 software resources (consulting, application development, implementation services) trained as civil or mechanical engineers, providing GIS support using systems such as Smallworld, Intergraph and MapInfo. And this was only one of InfoTech's buildings; the company is looking to expand its facilities soon, as it takes on more work from companies outside of India.

Infotech's offices
InfoTech is only one Indian company expanding its GIS services. InfoSys Technologies Limited, one of the largest IT outsourcing companies in the world, is also providing GIS services, as are many smaller companies with headquarters in India. Support for our publication, for example, is provided by GISbiz, a Tennessee-based company that maintains a staff of 25 people in Chennai, India.

In his address before the Map World Forum in Hyderabad, InfoTech Chairman B.V.R. Mohan Reddy said, 'The whole of GIS now centers around an enterprise architecture. We also believe that the value is in data, data accuracy and data completeness as we move forward. Enterprises face a greater need to understand location. GIS is therefore no longer a complex technology of domain specialists. GIS is now demonstrating its value across the enterprise.' Reddy went on to discuss how Indian telecommunication companies and utilities now use this technology across their enterprises. At New Delhi Power, GIS is a backbone for the ERP and billing systems. Reddy said that GIS is now the front end of the company's enterprise.

Indian Transformation
In the past ten years, Hyderabad has been transformed into a 'high tech town' which boasts the 'Cybercity' and 'Hitex' neighborhoods. As enclaves for technology workers spring up among shanty towns, the standard of living is raised among all citizens. Progress has been supported because the labor pool is large and expenses are low, in comparison to pay scales in more developed countries. A larger, better-educated workforce raises taxes for infrastructure projects and thus creates a need for GIS technology to manage the growth. It is a scenario being repeated all over India.

However, there is a problem. The demand for educated GIS professionals will far outstrip the supply. India is actually exporting its brainpower to countries like Malaysia, and the Indian government realizes it has a 'capacity building' problem. More training is needed in geospatial technology to support a growing number of projects inside the country. This was a recurring theme of the conference and it's a theme being reiterated at conferences I've attended in the U.S., as well.

The enormous growth of GIS in India is the result of some relaxation of government control of its data. Geospatial data, though not necessarily widely available, are more accessible. Several private companies that provide aerial surveying have complained that they cannot obtain permission to fly. The government still controls the acquisition of imagery and other data. That mindset may soon be changing. I spoke with one person in the Indian government's Ministry of Communication and Information Technology who is responsible for posting election results on a map of India on a website. Though somewhat fearful that other officials might step in to shut down the site, the department pressed ahead; there were an enormous number of people hitting the site for information. Success stories like that illustrate a demand for more open and accessible digital geospatial data.

Dr. Krishnaswami Kasturirangan, a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament, called GIS a 'public utility.' In his address, he articulated a fundamental understanding of using GIS in helping to improve the economic development process in his country. It's clear that the vision is being developed from the top down in India. Some government departments are affecting the way in which infrastructure projects are planned and they are looking to democratize data as long as certain security constraints are in place. Though these decision makers are extremely tuned into the needs of the country, they are also keenly aware of the limitations of their capacity to affect change. Still, with such a large part of the country as yet underdeveloped, GIS will play a major roll for years to come in helping this and other countries build an economic foundation through more efficient use of technology.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle
It may be more correct to say that geospatial technology, not just geographic information system software, will capitalize on the need to support a demand for location-based information. We are in transition as a technology sector. We are growing rapidly from one which has been supported by professionals to a broader, more informed user community that will demand greater access to geospatial information through different types of software solutions, Web services and consumer products. And the growth potential for GIS in countries like China and Russia is impossible to measure, given their similar needs for infrastructure development. These countries have yet to fully open their markets and unleash control of geospatial data.

But the genie is already out of the bottle. Satellites orbit the earth collecting more data of higher spatial resolution. Who will use them? How will they be used? We just can't measure the potential right now. Even the Russians, through a government supported company like Sovzond, want to market satellite data. The result will be a borderless market for information to a global community. The world will benefit; GIS will benefit.

Published Friday, February 2nd, 2007

Written by Joe Francica



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