The Elephant is Ready to Race: Geospatial Data Initiatives and Perspectives from India - Part 2

By Murali Krishna Gurram, Nooka Ratnam Kinthada and Gilbert H. Castle

India encompasses one-sixth of the world's population, has a ubiquitous cultural commitment to education and achievement, and is on the cusp of being an economic superpower. This paper summarizes the remarkable, parallel growth of India's geospatial technology industry with respect to its economic growth, in two parts:

Part I - The background and history of geospatial information in India, plus a look at the existing map policies and constraints (published last week)

Part II - Evolutionary changes, and conclusions (
included here)

Evolutionary Changes
The demand for geospatial data and services in India is tremendously high. Large scale, high quality geodata at the city level is especially the need of the hour. Yet this is the one area that so far, for various reasons, all the concerned government agencies have neglected. Instead, they confine their interest to regional level mapping.

Intensive and consistent economic activities, coupled with technology developments in the country, have made certain sectors grow much faster than expected. Remarkable growth in infrastructure, urban planning, transport, mobile, municipal management, insurance, banking, public safety, retail, real estate, etc., have created an unprecedented demand for the extensive use of geospatial technologies.

Undoubtedly, the launch of Internet-based Google Earth image and map service, which provides location specific information at desirable scales, has proven to be an excellent alternative for the data problem. No matter what the accuracy and details it provides, Google Earth has been welcomed as the best alternative for base maps/topographic sheets, which also provides coordinate information for geo-referencing. Thus, Google Earth solved the problem of heavy dependence on SOI topographic sheets.

Moreover, increasing dominance of private players in the field has completely changed the scenario. Indeed, the assumption is that private players are outpacing the mapping services provided by the government agencies. A report published on the Indian geospatial industry in 2008 estimated that the geospatial data industry is growing at a phenomenal rate of 65% annually, and that the overall market accounted for Rs. 5,900 million (US$118 million) during 2006-07. The report also pointed out that Rs. 3,974 million (US$80 million) was spent on data acquisition and services (Gateway Media, 2008). These figures illustrate how lucrative the market is and its importance to the geospatial business community worldwide.

Some positive gestures from the government (for example, NRSA giving permission to private flying agencies to undertake aerial photography) have encouraged a lot of other new players to enter the market. This move substantially benefits the geospatial industry in the country, in terms of availability of more aerial photography as well as lowering costs. NRSA's innovative efforts guarantee high quality and diverse data products. Also noteworthy are ISRO's achievements in designing multiple-payload carrying and deployable low cost space craft, fuel efficient micro satellites, reusable space components, etc., giving reason for optimism about increased data availability.

Increased use and dependency on geospatial data by public and private sectors have been the main thrusts behind the initiation of huge projects like Bhuvan (India's answer to Google Earth) and Bhu Bharathi (country level cadastral and property ownership mapping project) by the government. There has been a steep rise in public and private sector spending on geospatial data projects.

With its reliability, power and efficiency, GIS is gradually growing its presence at all levels of governance. Moreover, it has been identified as the only solution for the much coveted transformation towards e-governance and auto-governance systems.

National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)
India is ready with a new regulatory body whose purpose is to address issues concerning geospatial data, technology and their use. NSDI was initiated with the vision of "National infrastructure for the availability of and access to organized spatial data, and use of the infrastructure at community, local, state, regional and national levels for sustained socio-economic growth" (ISRO-NNRMS-SP-75-2001). NSDI's digital "warehouse" will organize the geospatial data across themes and scales to provide the user with easy identification and access to the same. NSDI’s interactive portal has numerous options available to search the required data based on certain criteria. The user can also search the data based on the metadata provided for the corresponding geospatial data.

The NSDI framework emphasizes user access to high quality and classified location information which is essential for making proper decisions in the business sectors. The framework aims to provide an invariant geo-reference system for any given location by taking into consideration various vital accuracy parameters, such as elevation, mean-sea level, geoid, spheroid, projection system, etc. The initiative is also aimed at interlinking various small scale, standard projection system geo-datasets, as well as those at large scales (1:10,000 and above) with variant local projection systems.

Additionally, NSDI creates a common platform for various participatory agencies, to help these agencies in exchanging their valuable data repositories. The end user will also benefit substantially from this policy, as it is highly difficult to coordinate with different organizations simultaneously for the required data. As an example of increased data availability, SOI has transformed the projection parameters of 1:50,000 topographic sheets covering the entire country, from Everest spheroid to WGS-84, and users can obtain these base map data without any restrictions (ISRO-NNRMS-SP-75-2001).

Notably, the NSDI initiative has had a positive impact on the nation as a whole, saving enormous amounts of time, resources and effort, since this step completely checks the act of data redundancy; that is, many of these agencies are funding programs for creation of the same data, several times.

NSDI specifies the standard data schemas, models, protocols and transaction elements required for any geodata to be kept in its warehouse. NSDI also specifies the unified classification schemas for different themes. And to avoid any discrepancies, NSDI clearly specifies the standards that need be followed for the creation of metadata, which are in line with the existing international policies.

A sea change is evident at all levels for the creation of "GIS ready" data. However, there is still a concern regarding the availability of classified vector data, as the majority of these data are in raw or analog form and need to be classified and digitized to be GIS ready. A key challenge for private players is to establish the required infrastructure and find the skilled manpower to convert, extract, integrate, manage and disseminate the data. Because they are recognized as a back office for high quality geospatial data conversions and application development at low cost, it is very important for government, semi-government and private agencies in India to encourage and promote quality Geoinformatics education in the country, which caters to the demand of the industry.

There is no standard price policy in place, as there is no proper coordination between the concerned agencies. Moreover, no concerned agency has the data marketing or distribution system required to proceed in a professional way.

Everyone is aware of the fact that map data available in India have been generated through disparate funding of various projects with distinctive objectives. This adds difficulty to the task of bringing all the data to a common platform for integration. Consequently, procuring the data pertaining to the same time, aspect or theme continuously for the entire country is difficult. The challenge for government agencies is to fill these gaps, so that the data become more meaningful and coherent. Moreover, a concern arises over the availability of historical and time series data, and maintaining the consistency of data at all scales and levels across the country is imperative.

Though NSDI provides a common platform for sharing the data between different participatory departments, there are no specific guidelines available, and so it is not clear how these organizations are to exchange the data efficiently. Some participatory organizations are not even aware of the fact that they have huge amounts of precious data in their cellars. People are not aware of the datasets and at times custodians of these data themselves are unaware of their existence (Taragi and Balakrishnan, 2007). Recognizing the value of the data that they have and bringing them into a desirable format for exchange is definitely going to be a challenge for these departments. Accordingly, coordination and collection of geospatial data themes such as meteorology, oceanographic, forestry, ground water, environment, soils, etc. generated by the concerned agencies is certainly going to be a daunting task (Express Computer, 2000).

Though NSDI has standard specifications for data conversion procedures, protocols, schemas and models, it does not address the issue of guaranteeing the data quality and accuracy that may be the by-product of data conversions according to given specifications. Development and adoption of compatible interoperable systems and networks which support and are capable of easily exchanging geodata with the existing systems is also a very important aspect that needs to be addressed.

A further complication is that no consensus exists on making certain portions of data available free for public access. This again leads to a big debate. Some sections argue that the government had already spent resources in compiling the data and a fee needs to be charged for them, while the other section argues that the data have been procured using the tax payers’ money and they should be made available for free.

Nor is there clear definition and regulation on the intellectual property rights of the value added information (Nirmalendu Kumar, 2004). Following the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, majority sections of society and government have an apprehension that any move by the government to allow public access to map data will prove detrimental. The geospatial community is of the opinion that this is a misconception, and that the government needs to take certain measures to curb these activities. The geospatial community thinks the situation is similar to dealing with illegal arms; instead of denying access to everyone, government has to come up with proper mechanisms and stringent laws which effectively deal with people engaging in unlawful activities.

In this regard, NSDI has already made some progress restricting map data access by designating territory as "sensitive (defense)" or "open." While the areas categorized as "open" will give map data access to the public at all levels and scales, data access is denied for the areas which have been identified as "sensitive (defense)." No consensus has yet been reached, though, on the issue of what map scales can be made public.

While it is important to have map policies which best serve the people and interests of the nation, it is also a challenge to make sure that the policies are coherent and compatible with the existing international map policies and intellectual property laws.

India is at the threshold of overwhelming transformation as the nation prepares for globalization and further technology advancements. Intensive economic activity and urbanization are the main drivers of unprecedented growth in various sectors which are highly dependent on location information. This, in turn, has created huge demand for geospatial data, technology and services. Realizing the need for policies which address the issues faced by the geospatial community and industry, the Indian government has initiated the NSDI. The NSDI is a much-appreciated effort, which makes the geospatial industry more comfortable and compatible with international trends. At the same time, NSDI has not addressed various other issues which are still considered to be the bottlenecks for the industry. As everyone acknowledges that "change is the result of an evolutionary process," no doubt the Indian NSDI initiative will advance the aspirations of the geospatial community all over the world, and in particular in India, in the new millennium.


Express Computer (2000): Indian GIS Industry Aims for the Sky. Indian Express Group (Mumbai, India).

Gateway Media (April, 2008): Indian Geospatial Industry Survey 2008, p.p. 141+

Kulakarni, M. N. (2008): Availability and Accessibility of Geodetic Data in India, GIS Development

S. V. (1999): Restrictions on Maps in India: An Anachronism that needs Removal, March-April, 1999

Manideep Saha (November, 2007): Opportunities and Challenges in Indian GIS Segment,, Nov., 20, 2007.

Nirmalendu Kumar, (2004): Geospatial data Policy - A Perspective and Issues Before India, Map

NSDI Discussion Document, ISRO-NNRMS-SP-75-(Jan, 2001): National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), Strategy and Action Plan.

Taragi, R. C. S. and Balakrishnan, P., (2007): GIS data sharing lessons from Qatar nationwide GIS, GIS Development, 2007.

Published Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Written by Murali Krishna Gurram, Nooka Ratnam Kinthada and Gilbert H. Castle

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