NATIONAL GIS: Setting agenda

Jul 2013 | No Comment
Dr Mukund Rao identifies Top 10 Actions required for National GIS in India

Dr Mukund Rao

is Adjunct Faculty at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore Adviser, Karnataka State RS Centre, Bangalore and is also an International Consultant in EO, GIS and Space. He had been the Member-Secretary of National GIS Interim Core Group; Principal Investigator at NIAS for the DST Sponsored Project on National GI Policy and Chairman, Karnataka GIS Task Force of Karnataka Knowledge Commission, Government of Karnataka

The significance of National GIS

I think the time is just right for National GIS (National GIS Vision Document, (2011) http://moes.gov.in/national_ gis.pdf) First, as a nation we are witnessing tremendous progress and will economically grow manifold in the coming 5-10 years. With such high growth, society will demand very high efficiency in governance and quality services and government will have to depend upon very efficient and guaranteed methods of nation-building and bringing equity in quality of life for people with efficiency, transparency, speed and compassion. Immense amount of Analytics will be called for. Support information systems have to be READY-TO-USE and not “get organised” in a project and take months to get results. Governance will have to be anticipative and futuristic and be “one step ahead” of the people’s demand. This is where GIS becomes extremely important and most relevant. GIS could easily address the multifarious issues of ready GIS-data availability, spatial analytics, multi-parameter visualisation, what-if and scenario simulations – all of which will have to be the drivers for determining best development options, integrated approach to spatial planning and bringing scientific rationale to development and governance – at the same time being transparent with scientific GIS-Ready data and participative for citizens.

The second aspect is to see what is happening in the GIS eco-system today in India. Even though the nation has a history of Survey & Mapping, years of Imaging and many years of GIS activities, the usage of images/maps/GIS has yet to be impacting and meaningful. An organisational “responsibility” focus is essential for National GIS – which will bring the much-needed thrust to GIS activities with a mandate for making easily available/accessible upto-date, seamless, nation-wide GIS-Ready data and allowing any number of GIS Decision Support System (DSS) applications for governance, citizens and enterprises. The visualisation of Indian National GIS Organisation (INGO) is something unique. It is only this mandated organisational focus that will make National GIS activities continuous, service-oriented activity – thus, very much ensuring the responsibility and accountability for National GIS.

The challenges before National GIS

The biggest challenge is already behind us – that is getting the concept debated/ discussed and endorsed. This has happened very efficiently – thanks to Planning Commission efforts. Almost all ministries (in centre and states), GIS industries, GIS academia etc have been consulted and a wide-range of discussions have happened. These led to the Vision document for National GIS in September, 2011. Even after the Vision has been published, Indian government has undertaken various consultation exercises for financial and programmatic strengthening. So, now the issue is not whether “National GIS is required” BUT “when National GIS will become operational”.

The policy needs

National GIS will need innovative policy instruments – quite different from what is available today in the five individual policies. Thanks to a study sponsored by Government of India, we have conducted a study in National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore where we have analytically determined a holistic GI Policy that not only aims to institutionalize National GIS BUT also visualises a larger, vibrant GIS eco-system development by which national GI excellence, industry participation, academic thrust in GIS and nation’s commitment to citizen for GIS is propounded. After a national-level workshop, wide-range of consultation, questionnaire-survey and our own analysis, we have prepared a comprehensive first-ofkind policy report which includes a draft of the National GI Policy (Perspectives for a National GI Policy (Including a National GI Policy draft) (2012) – http://www.nias. res.in/docs/R11-2012-GI-Policy.pdf). The report has already been submitted to Government and would become major input for approval, sanctions and further eco-system positioning for National GIS.

Top 10 actions for National GIS

Technically, one challenge is organising the National GIS Asset – that is seamless, nation-wide and is GIS-Ready. Now, user demand is “driving” National GIS (and thus will contain what users want) rather than the spectrum of data generators providing “what they have”. One still does not have a National Spatial Framework in India that “marries” the image, the administrative boundaries and geographic frame into one common, accurate and authoritative framework. This has to be organised for the first time in digital GIS domain for India. Similarly, bringing in myriad sets of survey data, available maps, tabular development data to be geo-tagged and linked, cadastral data etc is a challenge – a voluminous challenge. Designing and developing an updation cycle and creating a “GIS warehouse” for the GIS Asset will be essential.

Creating an environment for GIS Applications – many for the government (and thus regulated access), some for citizens (and thus in public domain), many customized and published by citizens/ enterprises (maybe in commercial domain) etc and managing them is something that India will be doing for the first time – there is a learning-curve here. Establishing the infrastructure and systems is not a difficulty and can be easily done – but what will be more challenging is to make all these elements “work together” and establish an operational framework by which GIS Data and GIS App services become a reality, as envisioned. There would be critical policy, access and licensing issues that would have to be positioned. Of course, keeping the “total system” chugging along and making National GIS embed into the nation’s information and governance regime (so that it comes to be “embedded”) will be a long-term challenge. But it is because there are many of these challenges – though looking “mind-boggling”, that is driving many in India and motivating many GIS experts to contribute/participate and make this GIS eco-system a reality.

I think the TOP 10 actions I would recommend are as follows:

#1. Prepare the National Spatial Foundation (NSF) Dataset. I think I would start with this immediately as this is the most crucial piece for National GIS. I believe that if we have to develop an authoritative and responsible National GIS Asset then we must plan, design and develop the NSF with utmost professional and determined finesse. Just like when you construct a building, the foundation is crux and critical – if one gets the foundation in error then the building does not have longevity and intended use. Let me explain this to your readers. In a National GIS system, unlike when one develops a project GIS, India has to be correctly and asaccurately represented so that every inch of India is reflected correctly – in terms of its coordinates, distances, area etc. This is easily done by geographic referencing all information (like in an Atlas the coordinate grid does). While this looks easily doable – the complexity comes in when different “primary source” data are put together. In India, all information (maps or tabular) are referenced on 4 basic platforms – either on a satellite/ aerial image (which is processed and supplied by NRSC); or, on a SOI OSM reference (which is supplied by SOI); or, from a survey instrument like GPS/ TS etc; or, on an administrative frame of villages/taluk/district/state (which generally is from Census or states). Thus, in any GIS (and also in National GIS) the features/layers are all based on one of these 4 referential primary source. Now, if one does not have the spatial geometry across these 4 sources standardized/referenced then the GIS Asset can have across-errors that would compound to differences in coordinates for the same feature referenced – thus, locations of features, distances and area measurements would come out differently – leading to user confusion. We have seen this happen in earlier GIS projects – but when National GIS service is accessed by citizens, government and other users then they would be “confused” and soon disenchantment can happen. To avoid this, the key is NSF where a “onetime effort” is made to standardize the reference of Image-based coordinates; SOI OSM based coordinates and GPS/ TS based coordinates. They key here would be to use the best-accurate Indian administrative boundary frame from SOI OSM, the best-resolution image frame for India (which is corrected using GPS based GCPs) and “marry” these 2 together to create the foundation – so that this foundation can easily assimilate the features coming out from satellite images or features of SOI OSMs and also survey data – and the administrative frame too. This way the NSF will become the basic frame for any GIS data – and should form the base of all Image, OSM and survey activity – so that any GIS data emanating from these follow the same spatial reference. I also feel that this NSF (which will be a set of features in GIS Ready form with additional metadata on National Tie Points) AS A TEMPLATE should be freely and easily available to anybody to use – thereby ensuring that other GIS data can also be ingest into National GIS.

#2. Define, parametrise and document National GIS Standards. The task of preparing the National GIS Standards – a suite of technical standards and protocols for National GIS need to be immediately taken up (actually, this can be right away initiated) that will allow easy GI data creation and organisation – especially guidelines for surveying, mapping and GIS database organisation, publishing GI in National GIS and ingest guidelines, access to National GIS, , QA/QC standards for GI, publishing protocols for GIS applications on National GIS DSS service, sharing of credits/ value for GI and applications and other related procedures required for GI generation, sharing and usage in the larger context of National GIS. These standards procedures and protocols should ultimately enable government, private and individuals to “contribute” to GIS Asset, provide effective GIS applications services and also for easy usage/access to National GIS data and GIS Applications.

#3. Gather, prepare and organise the presently available GIS features for whole nation – atleast the basic layers that can be either extracted from SOI OSMs OR extractable/ updateable from latest satellite images – like administrative boundaries upto villages, roads, rail, drainages, landuse/landcover, city-boundaries, water bodies, terrain etc. In my assessment, almost 20-25 features of the 41+ features of National GIS can be easily organised in this manner. Of course, a key element will be to reformat these layers into GIS Readiness and then adjust these on the NSF – thereby creating the first level of National GIS Asset.

#4. Collate and organise the 2011 Census data (and also past 2001, 1991, 1981 census data) on village level to National GIS village layer – so that host of census data can be “virtually converted” to map views. Of course, this task looks easy but will be challenging when past census referencing is done – especially to see and view changes. Similarly, any other attribute data that are on an administrative frame and available with ministries/agencies etc can also be considered and included. This action, if done properly, can become the first simple GIS Application base and enable geo-tagged attribute data applications for many agencies/citizens etc.

#5. Source GIS ready data from public and private sources – especially POIs and other map data. Crowd-sourcing of GIS data needs to be built-in and allow citizens to engage and provide GIS data on the platform. After careful vetting and converting to NSF, these data can also become a part of National GIS Asset. A large volume of data in this nature is available and should get onto the platform.

#6. Merge #3, #4 and #5 (ensured that these are on #1) and organise the National GIS Asset Version 1.0.

#7. Initiate a consultation process across government ministries/ states/industries/citizens/academia etc to identify key GIS Data and Application services with functional detailing – as this will depend on GIS Asset availability (which would be just what is available from SOI OSM maps and satellite images) and also time required. However, maybe 10-15 key GIS Applications – few ministries; few citizens Apps need to be taken up on priority basis and development of the Application DSS taken up. At the same time, the development of National GIS Data service can be standardized and developed. Some key GIS Applications I feel are critical would be for Planning Commission to monitor the sanctions/progress/ status of each and every 12th Plan project/schemes on National GIS; for NDMA and others to “force ensure” Emergency Management Plan formulations; for Urban Development Ministry to undertake City-Development reviews based on National GIS; monitoring of MNREGA works using GIS on National GIS Platform; water availability and demand analysis across the country; Key Village/Taluk development indicators development with comparative analysis etc. I also feel that a National GIS Dashboard at key decision-makers (say, if PMO and Cabinet could call on National GIS to review and visualise decisions OR Planning Commission henceforth reviews Plan proposals only if they are “put on” National GIS OR situational awareness visualisation is done on National GIS in case of disasters) would help a lot and this must be worked on. If the benefits of National GIS are amply worked on and visualised by key decisionmakers then I think success would be more profoundly achieved. But this will require a lot of hard work.

#8. Design a protocol for private enterprise GIS Data ingests and GIS Applications services so that a clear role and path for private enterprise-driven GIS services emerge. National GIS must consult industries and experts to make this protocol and enable private enterprise to also “ride” on the platform and offer services.

#9. Organise a state-of-art and robust National GIS Platform – the system on which the National GIS will operate. Here, caution is required to size and scope it correctly to ensure performance and reliability and security of GIS data and applications. Best experts in the country must be involved to design and architecture this Platform – which requires good backbone of servers, storage and networking to be efficient and robust.

#10. Work on adoption of National GI Policy – which should aim at building a long-term road-map for India to be at fore-front of GI and also for assured/mandated GI services for the country. Of course, implementing National GIS can be the vehicle for the policy implementation and a short-term goal and focus. The National GI Policy enunciated in the NIAS study needs to be taken up for vigorous consultation and strategy-development – moreso within government and also outside. With more debate and discussion, the GI Policy text can be refined and improved and can then be taken up for adoption in India – through an act of legislation.

Of course, the above 10 actions that I list are “high-level” – in the sense, each of these would have a range of sub-actions that need definition. In addition, apart from these TOP 10 actions, planning for the full-scale National GIS Asset and covering wide range of Apps must also start right away – these would take time and must be well-planned. There would be many other actions of linking with States; creating eco-system that helps National GIS; keeping the GIS Asset updated; operations of National GIS etc that would required addressing. Thus, I visualise that there would hundreds of actions required for National GIS to ultimately operational and successful. Based on my own experiences in the GIS scene in India, I feel that there is one very critical action – to me this will impact how actions unfurl in coming times. The need is to draft a small, dedicated, committed, technically excellent and empowered team of experts and charge them with the responsibility of organising National GIS. This team must first architecture the whole National GIS system elements and network with existing agencies/ organisations to draw on national strengths already available BUT align each of these to the common goal. The Standards and Protocols must be properly defined and documented – further debated and firmed up. A sound preparatory and design activities will help in effective implementation as per planned tasks. In my view, this is the most critical and most important task that needs to be done and is top of all. The nimble and highly agile team must make it their mission to “give all” for National GIS – for they will have to cross and overcome many, many challenges – technological, bureaucratic, administrative, organisational and even cultural variations that may look “obstructing” but have to be unfurled out to achieve the goal. There would be many organisations involved as data generators, users, administrators, monitors etc – they have each to be made to see the same goals and success; there would be intricate procedures to be followed – transparency has to be maintained at high order BUT speed also will have to be maintained; there would be motivational issues of people/individuals but “smoothing out rough edges” will be called for; and many other challenges. The team must realise that implementing National GIS will be a class-room in “techno-management skills” and a learning experience (I feel that such an experience nations like India can only provide). A single individual will be least important but the “sum of all individuals” will only make success. So, dedicatedly this team must move on – only with one aim to make National GIS operational.

National GIS is an “over-arching system cutting across existing s ystems” and thus complexity is “core embedded” in its inherent character – after all, integrating human, technological, social, cultural, competitive and temporal dimensions is a difficult task but not impossible.

Schedule, budget and official approvals

As I know from publicly available information, the National GIS is part of Indian 12th 5-Year Plan (draft of which is available at http:// planningcommission.gov.in/plans/ planrel/12thplan/welcome.html) – thus official approvals are already there. I am told that specific programmatic approvals are in process of being obtained – I really hope that we now take the major step of initiating and launching National GIS. Similarly, for Karnataka-GIS, I think the state Government of Karnataka would also obtain its state programmatic and financial approvals and implement, in tandem with National GIS, the Karnataka-GIS.


When we completed the visioningof National GIS, many of us feltthat this may be seen as addressingnational needs and questions regardinghow states should look at their GISrequirement would be relevant. Atthe same time, we also realised thatthe success of the National GIS willbe “exponential” if states needs ofGIS are also met – after all states aremechanisms for delivering governanceand are “more closer” for delivery tocitizens. So, thanks to the Governmentof Karnataka, we took up a taskforcestudy to “logically drill-down”a GIS system for state requirements.We conducted state-level discussionsand workshops and stake-holder/usermeetings and determined that stateneeds of GIS would need much morethan what would be in National GIS– in fact, we clearly documented thestate-GIS needs for different sectorsand citizen interfaces as a designinput.That is how the vision documentof Karnataka-GIS and the User NeedsAssessment report for Karnataka-GIS have come to fore (Reference:Karnataka State GIS Vision Document(2013) – http://karunadu.gov.in/ksac/documents/KGS-VISION%20DOCUMENT.pdf; GIS User Needs andStakeholder consultation report forthe state of Karnataka (2013) – http://karunadu.gov.in/ksac/documents/KGIS-STAKEHOLDER-BOOK.pdf). Nowwith the vision of National GIS andKarnataka-GIS, we understand what itKarnataka-GISwill mean to develop state systems –and how the dove-tailing to NationalGIS would happen. Now, we see a GISSystems of Systems – meeting state/central government needs, citizenneeds and also enterprise’s needs.What I see is that many states alreadyhave some key elements for NationalGIS – especially in terms of GIS data.If these can be aligned and structuredto NSF and organised state-wide thenwe shall pieces of National GIS gettingorganised – what needs to be done isto technically GIS-stitch them into anation-wide GIS Asset. Further, if State-GIS are organised, they not only achievesome key goals of National GIS but alsotrigger a set of GIS Apps at state-level– which we have documented are verydifferent apps than what is visualized inNational GIS for central ministries. Thus,(State)Karnataka-GIS can become fi rstratevehicle for quickly and systematicallyorganising an aligned GIS that manifestsas National GIS. This has now beenformally presented to DST to bring inthe coupled alignment of Karnataka-GISand National GIS – and this has beenwell-appreciated. When the Karnataka-GIS was presented to DST, we gatheredthat other states are also being primed tothink to align their GIS tasks and makethe contributions to and participatein National GIS. I am sure that the“sum” of all state-GIS must mesh intoNational GIS achievement – apart fromtaking GIS within state governance.



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