The Elephant is Ready to Race: Geospatial Data Initiatives and Perspectives from India - Part 1

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 (included here)

Part II - Evolutionary changes, and conclusions (to be published next week)

Global Trends in Geospatial Technology
Rapid advancements in technology, especially in the realms of data management and dissemination systems, the Internet, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) - and in particular geospatial systems - have completely changed the face of the world today. These developments, in turn, have heralded a new era of technology transformation, from traditional data sharing and analytical systems to high powered and superior 4D analytical systems.

Moreover these developments, together with the emergence of Web GIS application technology, have proven to be ever more efficient, interactive and intuitive in providing real-time solutions by way of combining highly important elements: location intelligence, map data rendering and interactivity. Above all, location intelligence has become recognized as fundamental to informed decision making.

Gradually declining cost curves versus ever-ascending benefit curves have made the implementation of geospatial technology inevitable, in every space. In other words, "The usage of spatially referenced data and GIS technology with the ability to support decisions at all levels of society has truly spread over all sectors today" (Express Computer, 2000 and ISRO-NNRMS-SP-75-2001).

The same aforementioned reasons necessitate the use of geospatial data in all kinds of Internet applications. Sudden, rapid escalation in the demand for geospatial data pertaining to all geographic aspects across all continents, countries and sub-divisions at different scales has created a huge challenge for geospatial data suppliers. These suppliers - government agencies, private business organizations, NGOs, etc. - are, in fact, realizing the enormity of the importance, opportunity, benefit and task ahead.

A majority of the Western and European countries, and some other developed countries in the East, have long been able to regularly procure and secure comprehensive geodata sets in various formats, and smoothly convert between formats for noble use. However, that has not been the case with other countries, especially China and India, the two most populous countries in the world. For various historical reasons, when compared with the aforementioned countries, China and India did little in this regard.

Coincidentally, China and India are the two countries now undergoing major transformations and making great strides in terms of economic development. This highlights the imbalance between the demand for and supply of geodata, which is required for further progress.

Trends Within India
Sixty-three years after getting its independence, the democratic republic of India is coping with many new challenges. India's remarkable and inspiring growth story began accelerating during the 1990s. Improving health, wealth and education strongly supported by entrepreneurial and innovative activities, in turn, resulted in upwardly spiraling economic activity, human migration and rapid urban growth. Government spending in the social sector for human development has grown rapidly. Subsequently, more people joining the middle class have fueled more demand for food, commodities, goods, space, infrastructure and natural resources.

Gradually, civic and administrative bodies have realized that there is a need for transparent, efficient, easy-to-use, understandable and interactive management systems to help them in proper planning, administration and monitoring programs. At the same time, competition has been ever increasing in business, service and financial sectors - all over the world. There is a consensus among all these organizations and communities that these challenges and requirements can only be met with the extensive implementation of mapping technologies and systems. As a corollary, when highlighting geospatial technology as a means of solutions for various real-world problems, having high quality data is absolutely essential.

History of Geospatial Information in India
Until a decade ago in India, government departments and agencies were the only source for geospatial information. Departments involved in research activities for concerned domains were also given the responsibility for creation and maintenance of all related thematic map information.

Map Data Agencies
Several ministries, departments and agencies have had lead responsibility: Survey of India (SOI), National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organization (NATMO), Department of Space (DoS), National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEn & F), Department of Ocean Development (DoD), India Meteorological Department (IMD), National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning (NBSS & LUP), Central Ground Water Board (CCWB), Department of Science and Technology (DST), Census of India, Geological Survey of India (GSI), Forest Survey of India (FSI), National Informatics Center, etc. These agencies have branches spread across India where they carry out research activities in the concerned domains, and simultaneously create and maintain geospatial information on respective themes (
Express Computer, 2000 and ISRO-NNRMS-SP-75-2001) . These agencies, by undertaking projects like the National Natural Resource Management System (NNRMS), have generated enormously valuable databases for the entire country. The following sections will give details about the important agencies in India which have been involved in generating the nation's comprehensive geospatial database.

Base Maps/Topographic Sheets - Few government organizations in India have authorization to survey and publish base maps/topographic sheets pertaining to various themes at different scales. SOI is a very old government organization (established in 1767) and is still evolving due to its importance as a survey and map publishing agency. SOI is responsible for providing information in hard copy as well as digital map format by means of conducting surveys on Indian Territory at regular intervals.

These SOI maps are considered as the base maps; any mapping project must take them into consideration, as they provide the means of reference for any image and other map data. In many cases these SOI maps merely serve the purpose of location reference, as they were surveyed decades back and are available only at small scales (i.e., scales at 1:50,000 and lower). As the demand has increased for base maps of urban regions at higher scales, SOI has also started publication of these maps at such scales.

SOI is also responsible for managing the geodetic databank. This databank primarily deals with various reference elements which determine the accuracy of geospatial data at any given coordinate (M. N. Kulakarni, GIS Development, 2008).

Image Data and Aerial Photography - The NRSA, an arm of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Government of India, is authorized for satellite data acquisition and dissemination. NRSA has one of the best earth imaging satellite constellations in operation, continuously providing digital data at all possible spatial/spectral/radiometric/temporal resolutions and ranges. NRSA provides not only data pertaining to India but also data pertaining to all other countries. NRSA is also authorized to acquire and disseminate data captured by the satellite systems of other countries.

NRSA is the only authorized agency in India that can carry out aerial photography operations. This includes flying, data capture, and dissemination for the use of the same in photogrammetry and any stereo/3D information extraction projects.

Vector GIS Data
- The EIC, the MoEn & F, and the NIC are the prominent organizations providing geospatial and other socio-economic themes pertaining to various informational aspects at different scales. These two organizations have been given the responsibility of collaborating and coordinating with other peer agencies for integrating, streamlining and distributing spatial as well as non-spatial information within the country. The agencies have compiled huge inventories of data for dissemination at their discretion.

Existing Map Policies and Constraints
Most of the existing map data and dissemination policies in India are old, having been framed decades back to meet the requirements of that time. The policies do not even cover a majority of the concerns which are in existence today. This situation often leads to confusion, misinterpretation and denial of data accessibility to certain sections of users (Kulakarni, M.N., 2008).

In India, the government has a policy that classifies map data as documents of secrecy (Shrikantia, 1999). Tight control of government over acquisition of geospatial data in India (Manideep Saha, 2007) is, indeed, considered to be one of the big roadblocks for the development of the geospatial industry in the country. Interestingly, it is completely against the latest government act in force - the "Right for Information Act," which advocates giving information access to the public at all levels.

Procuring the base maps/topographic sheets from SOI was, itself, considered a "big task accomplished." SOI is the only agency that generates base maps in the country and obtaining SOI's permission was compulsory. It was a tough, time-consuming process to get through SOI's procedures in order to get the high precision reference maps (map scales at 1: 5,000, 1:12,500 and 1:25,000) due to policy reasons, which were framed decades back. However, the situation has changed dramatically after the release of Google Earth and map applications.

NRSA is one of the agencies doing its best to answer the demands of the geospatial industry in India, and also the world, providing required information in the form of digital image formats. Though the products are relatively cheap when compared with other international competitors, there is a notion that the product price has to come down to much lower levels to give more incentives and momentum to data users.

EIC and NIC are very successful in procuring and integrating the data pertaining to each aspect at all scales, but they are unsuccessful in streamlining and disseminating the same for required agencies and other end users, which is the prime objective.

There is also a concern for protection of legal rights when distributing the data in the digital format.

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 16th, 2009

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

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