“Public Good” of geographic information

Jun 2016 | No Comment

How important it is for good governance and citizens

Mukund Rao

Member Secretary, Karnataka Jnana Aayoga, India

In just few decades, Geographic Information (GI) has made tremendous and lasting impact on global society – almost every citizen of the world and every government now depends on GI for their day-to-day life and for governance, respectively. GI has become a part and parcel of many human activities and there are many examples of how society have benefited from use of geographically referenced (or geospatial) data.

What has triggered this wide and rapid dependency of society on GI? To me the most significant trigger has been the technological advances brought about by satellite imaging, satellite based positioning and rapid proliferation of digital and computing technologies. Of course, added to these “triad” has been tremendous advances in survey technologies – which have modernised and automated surveying – from ground and aerial (both manned and unmanned) platforms using many new “principles of surveying”. In fact, a new “GI Metrics” now allows measuring/collecting varieties of relevant parameters – from below the ground, far away from an object, of insides and outsides of buildings; obtaining nuances of objects (shape, size, angles, height, changes, quality, status etc) which hitherto were un-measured. Every “information” on this Earth and of relevance to humans is slowly becoming “GI” by intelligent geo-tagging and “coordinate-association” – almost without knowledge of average humans. These advances in technologies have caused a “GI explosion”. Thus, every census data of demography, every social security number, every credit card transaction, every developmental data, every family data, every enterprise and business, every building/property, every tree and forests, every peak, every civic service and every… is becoming “geo-tagged” and is GI. In coming years, humanity will only know “GI” as every information will be wily-nily geographic/location tagged – a sort of a “GI world” will come upon us and can only entrench into every society and encompass all of humanity.

Is this GI revolution characterised by “orchestration” or “evolution”? It has simply been a process of “evolution” – of advanced technology and human entrepreneurial spirt that is causing this GI scenario in the world. GI is now widely available to citizens and nations. Advanced digital data analysis, data fusion, data mining and data analytics can now crunch volumes of GI in no time and generates new perspectives of society or human activities in geographical domain. On top of this, improved data communication technologies, including the revolution of the internet, have made it very easy to deliver large volumes of GI across any part of our world to users on a nearreal- time basis. At same time, large scale hardware implementations (e.g. Cloud Computing; Global Servers) and smartphones with embedded GPS chips have brought the reach of GI to every citizen’s hands. Advanced and new capable software process GI and ingest critical geo-spatial information into varieties and varieties of GI applications – millions of applications have sprouted up based on GI. This technology advancement has enabled instant access to GI very easy and has enabled many “mission-critical GI applications” – not just for nations, society but even to individual citizens. GI applications are now on the desk of citizens across the world; desk of any manager in governance; desk of any industry and desk of every policy-maker of the world.

There is another scenario to keep in mind – all of these revolutions are being innovated and happening in different nations – these are not anymore restricted to nationalistic connotations and boundaries. Though many governments are actively involved in these GI enterprise, it is corporates that are at vanguard of this new “borderless” GI revolution. This aspect is making the GI a transnational, commercial and citizen oriented activity – substantially complemented by national and local activities within nations. Thus, the GI regime is global but also national – in a complementary way and this is posing tremendous challenges to nations and societies to adjust and align to. Best practices at international level, at and within national levels and also for local levels of society have yet to emerge for addressing this pan-boundary regime that is already in position.

What will this “GI world” mean and how will this augur for society and its people? While one is already getting a perspective of this “GI world”, we are yet to grapple with this vast amount of GI of everything on this Earth (and nations, too) and its impact on humanity (in general), nations (in specific), to communities (in more specificity) and to citizens (by and large). This GI world will bring very new meanings of human behaviour, national development and security and citizen satisfaction – in different levels of intensity and impact.

The first thing that will happen more intensely (it has already started happening) is that all of this GI – which will be computer-amenable, multi-layered and time-stamped will be constantly on-delivery to every citizen’s mobile smartphone, every handheld device, every desktop and every advanced computing system of the world. Thus, every citizen will be assured of GI at any time, at any place and this will augur as an “insurance to citizens and society” that they can access GI at any time – so, no worries (Remember: with availability of information on-line, nobody bothers to keep copies/print/photocopy information (unless essential) anymore – we are all assured that we can at anytime go online and seek and obtain information – so no hassles!!!). This will become an “insurance” to society and humanity and will be a great differentiator to presentday citizens, their families, their work and life-style; any nation’s development, planning and security; bring global peace and harmony (one can easily obtain/have “GI” of any nation/region at any time) – so nothing may have to be required to be hidden or in-accessible (You know about me so do I know about you!!!) and, largely, humanity’s tolerance and acceptance of one-another will become universal. Thus, GI will be like a “leveller” in this world (and in every nation) and for every citizen – thereby, in-equity will be questioned by citizens and nations; argued upon at by levels of humanity and urge to an order of harmony and safer society!!!

The second thing that nations GI will impact is in the tremendous societal relevance and demand that GI will place on Governance – every action of governments will be questioned from within and from outside – why the forests burnt away; why water in a flooded area is not “running away”; how schools are located/sanctioned; how watersheds must be developed; how a ring-road around a city must be aligned; how traffic can best be managed; how pollution of industries are dissipating; which are best areas for power plants and so on… Every nation is using GI for inventory/mapping of natural and man-made resources, improved statistics and data of development, improved equity in decision making and managing disasters and in many other national development and global collaboration activities. Every nation is realising and depending more and more upon GI for supporting governance activities, help prepare sustainable development strategies, involve citizens in participatory democracy, enable enterprises to manage business better and bring geographical knowledge to citizens. Thus, GI is and will be the main form of assist to governance, development of society and citizen activities.

Within India, there are new GI ideas that are front-lined. India envisages to implement a National GIS – a seamless, nation-wide, standardised multi-layered GIS platform that will bring efficient GIS Data Services and high performance GIS DSS Applications for governance, citizens and enterprises. India already has a Bhuvan – serving Indian satellite images and thematic maps. Similarly, many states are largely dependant on GI for their local governance – Gujarat is a classic example that has been talked about. Karnataka is establishing a Karnataka-GIS (K-GIS) – based on EO images, positioning satellites and GIS technologies as a major data and applications service capability for decision support to its citizens. So are Maharashtra, Telangana, Rajasthan and many other states. Even Ministries are banking on GI for their services and governance – good examples of Power Ministry, Urban Ministry and many others are well known. India, rightfully so, is planning and developing largescale national activities based on GI.

The third impact GI is bringing about is “Spatial Analytics” – key domain for “information intelligence” (including citizen-intelligence, society-intelligence, commercial intelligence, governance intelligence, security intelligence and even inter-planetary intelligence) and bringing more “wisdom” to humanity. The “GI intelligence” will certainly serve citizens to reach out to a particular restaurant; make society more equitable to understand that drain-blocks must be removed for flood water to flow away; will make national governments act more responsibly in governance because they would much easier understand “multi-layered disparity” and make democratically-conducive development plans; prepare nations for better internal security; help manage borders of nations/ states/local governments etc and bring many other benefits. With vast amount of GI that is available, coupled with demand for GI-based governance, a host of young, entrepreneurial and dedicated communities will emerge that will take up analysis/churning/ fusion of the GI world and bring new and innovative information and knowledge to citizens, society, nations and the world, at large. This new Spatial Analytics innovation will trigger a new meaning to our actions (as citizens, society and nations) – thereby, making us being better prepared because of vast amount of “GI intelligence” that one will generate and possess.

There is a security perspective of GI – that is very compelling and cannot be ignored but has to be addressed. While all the civil-good of GI for society has been developing, there is a counter side development too – most weapon systems and military system depends upon GI for their operations and strikes. Thus, all defence equipment use the same GI but for military actions (as against governance or development actions that have been mentioned). This is not a new development, in the sense that even in history one has seen that military and defense activities depended on some form of maps/locations etc (the word GI maybe of this century but the principle has always been there). If one looks in history, every nation (I emphasise “every”) had the first control of “GI” for military and security purposes. In fact, all the GI ensemble has originated in military and defense activities. So the principles of GI and science allows one to determine “precise coordinates” of objects and obtain “deeper insights” of regions – both of these without being physically at the objects. Thus, one can easily plan and determine targets to be “attacked” for military purposes – because there is “intelligence” from GI and also the coordinates. These become very important for planning attacks and feeding coordinates to weapon systems… that is where the GI for military has been used always. This military use of GI is still seen as a form of “Public Good” – because it is justified by a larger good of society and based on nationalistic principles.

It is of late that a new scenario has developed with sufficient evidences of GI being used for non-Public Good (or anti-national, cross-border, against humanity etc) activities of destructive nature. There are numerous examples in the world of how disgruntled society have depended upon GI for undertaking their abusive or anti-society and destructive activities. What does this actually mean – if a bad-group wants to “destruct any object” they would also benefit from the GI because it will give them the “coordinates” (and used in their destructive weaponry). It is also clear that by fixing local coordinates of three or more points, one can easily associate geographical coordinates to many feature on a spatial information or map-sketch and convert into “good GI” – which then can be used for destructive purposes. The “bad guys” can also use GI for navigating and locating themselves. Many societies and nations are anxious and concerned about this new character of the abusive use of GI – and are yet to find a way of ensuring that this non-Public Good use of GI can be “regulated” (or maybe, even controlled). It is true that “intelligence” from GI – if it can be used for military purposes (which maybe seen as Public Good) it can also be used for abusive destructive purposes – it is only who is USING that becomes a differentiator. But this possibility, in our troubled world, cannot be ruled out and guaranteed that the case is not so!!!

However, the Public Good of GI is so compelling and over-whelming that it is already embedded into the character of every citizen, every nation and large governance activities. It will be a travesty of humanity to even attempt to control or curb the use of GI because of the possibility of abuse of GI. Even to create a scare/fear amongst the legitimate users of GI and for the good of governance and society and its citizens – this itself will be a great dis-service to free and transparent society of democracy.

The GI juggernaut is in motion and “expanding” all over the world (and in India too). The benefit and Public Good of GI is apparent and clear and will become more vivid, visible and all pervading in coming years. The Public Good of GI must not get dismantled or disabled – for the good of society and every citizen, nation and humanity depends upon it.

This large-scale Public Good of GI must only be encouraged, motivated and further enhanced so that the benefit of GI is available and accessible to every citizen, governance activity and all national development activity. India must not get left behind.

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