Design of NGIS: one size fits all type
National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) is announced by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India in May 2011. This is certainly a bold step in terms of providing the information proactively as Indians have a constitutional backup for the right to information through the Right to Information Act 2005. The NDSAP talks about sharable data and non-sharable data (negative list). The negative list is that which includes the data that is not sharable and would not be available on the public domain. Section 8 and 9 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Right to Privacy upheld by the Honourable Supreme Court of India in its various judgments, will be the guiding factors preparing the negative list. The metadata of the sharable data will be available on a portal (www.data.gov.in). The NDSAP also talks about open access, registered access, and restricted access of data. It proposes for a state-of-the-art data warehouse with online analytical processing (OLAP). The main features of data warehouse would include user-friendly interface, dynamic/pull down menus, search based report, secured web access, bulletin board, complete metadata, and parametric and dynamic report in exportable format. The NDSAP mentions some of the current legal framework available in the country. It also mentions the responsibilities of data owners/data generators/data controllers. It recognizes that the current methods of storing data are as diverse as the disciplines that generate it. Hence it calls for development of institutional repositories, and data centers with specific infrastructure to enable all users to access and use it.
However, the NDSAP fails to talk about metadata standards, data content standards, copyright issues, data pricing issues, mode of payment, participation of various stakeholders, etc. Indian organizations have historically acted in a compartmentalized manner with limited sharing of data or applications not only for citizens and the private sector, but also for other government agencies. What if, some departments do not share any data? The policy is silent about that. There has to be a law for data sharing.
Initiatives for National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) started in the year 2000. After a decade, even the entire metadata does not exist at the NSDI portal so far. Hence there has to be a clear cut timeline for preparing metadata of both spatial and non-spatial data. Metadata standards for spatial data (NSDI metadata ver. 2.0) do exist today. However, the metadata standards for diverse sets of non-spatial data need to be developed in a time bound manner. Along with the metadata standards, data content standards should also be developed for both the spatial and non-spatial data. This is certainly a mammoth task, which requires participation of a large number of stakeholders.
We do not have copyright framework for even a spatial data, which is an integral part of NSDI. Copyright frameworks for both spatial and non-spatial data also need to be developed in a time bound manner. There is a need for pricing policy for both spatial and non-spatial data. Data generators may recover only a marginal cost from the data users. Users from government departments, R&D institutions, academia, and CSOs involved in development should be provided all kinds of data either free of cost or at a nominal cost.
Planning Commission has constituted a National GIS Interim Core Group (ICG) for the establishment of National GIS (NGIS), which released a draft vision document ver 1.0 in June 2011. The vision document envisions that the NGIS will be a GIS system of systems— a seamless cloud computing and networking infrastructure. Essentially it’s a technologically sound cloud GIS infrastructure consisting of a network of data servers, security services, cloud management protocols, disaster recovery and business process continuity system. The vision document proposes a GIS enabled decision support system for governance, enterprise and citizens. However, ICG has extremely poor appreciation of governance. Governance comprises the mechanisms, processes, and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences (UNDP, 1997). Governance is a process of multi-stakeholder involvement, multiple interest resolution (Stewart 2003). The vision document gives an impression that governance is what government does. Governance, in fact, has a much broader canvass than government and envisages the roles of all stakeholders: the state, private sector, civil society, and citizens at large.
The vision document proposes that the NGIS will be implemented by Indian National GIS Organization (INGO) — an organization with a lot of agility but top-down style of functioning. The proposed arrangement of NGIS functioning may facilitate revenue generation of the private sector, and functioning by the government departments, but unlikely to facilitate a healthy governance process where all the stakeholders— government, private sector, academia, Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), civil society organizations (CSO), and citizens could actively participate.
At this point of time, two policies— National Map Policy (NMP) and Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP) exist for access of Survey of India’s topographical sheets and remote sensing data respectively. NMP mandates the SOI to decide issues of liberalizing access of spatial data to users. Other spatial data creating organizations have to abide by the instructions of SOI. NMP does not mention the role of other spatial information generators explicitly. Other spatial data products and services do not fall under NMP. According to section 2 (b) of RSDP, the authority to acquire and disseminate all satellite remote sensing data in India—both from Indian and foreign satellites is vested with the NRSC. Even after promulgating two policies, NMP and RSDP, all the spatial products and services are not covered. A handful of government departments have privileged access to spatial information while others have no access. Even NDSAP is unable to address this issue. Hope the provisions of NDSAP will be modified to overrule this information asymmetry. Besides, India needs to have an integrated information policy incorporating all the data products and services—spatial and non-spatial. The vision document of NGIS also mentions that the access to and use of any available GIS contents must be governed by ‘use principle’ rather than any limiting principle. Hope NGIS succeeds in this endeavor.
Today planning and developmental activities are no more the domain of government agencies alone. Increasingly it has been felt that PRIs, CSOs, and other community based organizations (CBOs) are very effective in implementation of development projects owing to their wide reach and proximity to the end beneficiaries (Singh, 2005). The current arrangement of NGIS may facilitate planning process by the Planning Commission and State Planning Boards, but unlikely to facilitate planning process by PRIs, CSOs, and CBOs. Instead of the proposed design of National GIS, it would have been an interoperable system of systems, which could have leveraged standards and local best practices with emphasis on local data needs and local practices along with data integration at state, regional and ultimately at national levels. There is a need for strong MIS to be built over spatial domain, with all the data entry should take place at transaction points.
The draft vision document of NGIS proposes that administrative boundaries should be available as foundation dataset. Up-to-date, standard, and accurate geo-referenced administrative boundaries, road networks, and landuse/ landcover should be made available free of cost in the public domain. Other foundation dataset like drainage and DEM may be priced.
There is a need for a facilitating agency, which may safeguard the interests of all the stakeholders. The facilitating agency may create a level playing field for different data generating agencies, and provide and appellate facility to any of stakeholders, especially the users.
The overall design of NGIS seems to be top-down, supply driven, data-centric, techno-centric, and ‘one size fits all’ type. Instead, it should be bottom up, citizen-centric, demand driven, information centric, and customized. Since ICG is still in a process of evolving NGIS, hope it would address some of the concerns raised above.