The Third Geospatial World Forum Focuses on Data Policy for India

By Joe Francica

The third Geospatial World Forum, formerly the Map World Forum, in Hyderabad, India was a decidedly more India-focused event than that last two, held in 2007 and 2009. There are three reasons for this focal shift. The first is that the growth of GIS has led to more conferences in more international venues, thus offering a greater choice. Previously few opportunities existed for conferences in emerging markets, but that situation has changed. The second reason is that GIS has expanded in India and more professionals are now focused on solving the challenges of infrastructure growth within the country. Therefore, more mid-level Indian professionals attended the event while fewer executives from geospatial companies or organizations were in attendance. The result for India is a conference where political issues can be openly discussed, such as the regulations on geospatial data (see below), while technology products and services are also exhibited.

The third and perhaps most important reason for the focal change and growth of this event is concern about restrictions to acquiring geospatial data. Regulations and government policy restricting access to remotely sensed data are still in place. The inability of private companies to collect geospatial information via airborne platforms is hindering the growth of data product availability. Indian remote sensing satellites collect data for the government only. This is an unfortunate situation. As such, there is a high degree of interest in the expected changes to Indian government policy.

Kapil Sibal, the honorable minister for Human Resources Development, Science and Technology, Earth Sciences, Communications and Information Technology, spoke of opening access and changing policy but this sentiment had been expressed in years past, as well. (See his address to the conference delegates.) Company executives from both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have urged the Indian government to change the policy because they are not allowed to sell data in the country. These companies would like to make high resolution satellite data available to all people.

The Indian government regulates and monitors:

  1. The ordering of high resolution satellite imagery by its citizens; a government certificate is required before ordering
  2. The distribution of high resolution satellite imagery to its citizens

The urgent issues which require geospatial data cannot wait much longer for the Indian government to act. Issues surrounding environmental sustainability, health, population growth and infrastructure development are looming and policy change is needed. That change is expected but the timetable is unknown.

Other issues of importance, including climate change and the environment, were also discussed at the conference. Shailesh Nayak, secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences of India, noted that the greatest challenge of this century is climate change. "[Climate] Changes can best be explained by a map or spatial information. Man has been challenged to explain this relationship using spatial information…We need to build climate services," he said.

 Keynote speaker, Dr. K. Kasturirangan of the Planning Commission of India, reviewed the future of GIS for India, illustrating the need to continue to develop a nationwide GIS system in the context of a national spatial data infrastructure. He detailed how technology would benefit infrastructure development and emphasized the need to educate more people in the applications of GIS. Atul Dev Tayal, joint managing director of Rolta India, pointed to the growth of the GIS industry in India. He noted that half the world is still not mapped, which offers immense opportunity for India to offer and profit from its expertise. To that end, commercial service providers in India have formed the Association of Geospatial Industries (AGI). The mission statement emphasizes that "AGI has been formed with an objective to serve and pursue the common concerns of geospatial industries in the filed of policy advocacy,  capacity building, model code of conduct and business practices operating in India and world towards raising profile and facilitating business development of geospatial companies."

Kapil Sibal is an individual with a vision for India and a goal to drive geospatial information to the citizenry of the country. "India will be leading to find solutions for the world using geospatial technology," he said. Certainly this is an aggressive vision. He expects that geospatial information will be integrated with a variety of industries. He looks to open up data availability, so that at least 80-90% of data collected within the country should be available, given certain security concerns, which is always the caveat expressed in presentations about remotely sensed data.

I spoke with two Indian-based geospatial solution companies, each with over 1,000 employees dedicated to GIS services. In both cases, frustration with the Indian government policy was palpable. The regulations, though loosened in recent years, are vague and put these companies at risk of violating national security policy. The government recently announced plans to map the entire country at 1:30,000. The individual from the Survey of India responsible for this project was insistent, in a public address, that any and all proposals from commercial companies to complete this task on an aggressive timeline would be appreciated. So, while there is the need to have commercial companies involved in government mapping projects, policies will have to change just to meet the expectations of the government itself.

The responsibility also rests with the people of India to support policy change. Several Indian delegates made it clear to their international visitors that pressure from outside the country was not appreciated. In this largest of the world’s democracies, it’s likely that change will eventually come, but perhaps more slowly than first hoped.

The conference drew an estimated 2,200 delegates in a large exhibition hall with approximately 60 solution providers and government agencies present.

Published Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Written by Joe Francica

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