India’s NSDI – Back into the future

Jul 2006 | Comments Off on India’s NSDI – Back into the future

June 13, 2006.

A resolution by the Government of India on NSDI.

A significant step.

Coordinates initiates a discussion. On what was envisioned, and what has been achieved. On challenges ahead.

A time to celebrate. To get nostalgic.

To revisit moments of euphoria and despair.

To remember heroes.

To share their views, experiences and expectations.

While Mukund Rao narrates the story of NSDI in India, we pay our tributes.

A humble tribute.

To those who contributed in this mission.

Bal Krishna Editor


The Government of India has formally approved the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) programme – I told myself AT LONG LAST, IT IS DONE!!! I also heaved a sigh of relief – a sigh which has been weighing on my mind for the past 5 years (from February, 2001 onwards). In that sense of relief – that marked a feeling of achievement and success for the benefit of the country, I closed my eyes and …

The initial phase

My thoughts went back to December 5, 2000 – when the first meeting of the then NGDI Task Force was held in Department of Science and Technology (DST) to consider the National geographic Data Infrastructure (NGDI) programme. Fortunately, a great personality of Indian Space – Dr K Kasturirangan – whom I have the highest regard and respect for, had nominated me to that committee and I met yet another great person – Dr V S Ramamurthy, then Secretary, DST. These two were the torchbearers of India’s NSDI who laid a foundation for a movement that was visionary and way ahead of times. At that first meeting, I vividly recall my first interaction with an ebullient and dynamic personality – Mr Amitabha Pande, then Joint Secretary, DST who is yet another driving force for NSDI. In that committee, I also developed close association with many friends from Survey of India (SoI), Geological Survey of India (GSI), National Informatics Centre (NIC), industry and many other agencies and committed team was formed. Each member was charged and motivated and wanted a good vision for NSDI – un-shackling the Indian spatial data community to contribute to a successful nation-building enterprise.

Soon within two months we had a blue-print for NSDI – NSDI Strategy and Action Plan document. I worked with Mr Pande assiduously to see that ISRO produced a beautiful document for the country. I always believed that NSDI was a programme that had to be owned by all and thus strived always to obtain technical and programmatic consensus for NSDI from all stake-holders. It was not an easy task (in 2001) when the concept of “sharing and owning” had different connotations. I recall the innumerous debates we had – is it NGDI or NSDI; what is the concept of SDI; is NSDI a monolith or a distributed architecture; technologies required for NSDI; organisational structures required for NSDI; sensitizing to the multi-farious drivers of different agencies – binding them to a common goal and many other aspects. But the tenacity of the Committee, and a good leadership role by Dr Prithvish Nag brought all issues to a common understanding. And soon the blue NSDI document was ready … and that was January, 2001.

Looking back, my grand time came when I, thanks to the magnanimous and motivating vision of Dr Kasturirangan, Dr Ramamurthy and Mr Pande, was called upon to present the NSDI Strategy and Action Plan to the Indian Community at the 1st NGDI Conference on February 5, 2001. The Strategy was adopted and February, 2001 saw the dawn of a new dream for all of us – the dream of a NSDI.


Better late than never

july06-photo-6Dr K Kasturirangan
Member of Parliament, Rajyasabha,
Former Chairman ISRO

I must say better late than never. I am happy that we have a system in place to make spatial data available to the users for various specific and multiple applications. Now not only methodologies have to be evolved but
institutional framework should further be strengthened. It is an evolutionary phase. The proposed set up is a good beginning. We have to try out various options as there is currently no standard practice available. The main objective is that it has to succeed in ensuring easy accessibility and availability of multiple layers of spatial data in a standard format.

Having Minister of Science and Technology chairing the NSDC would be advantageous as it would ensure a smooth interfacing with policy issues. I am sure that all the stakeholders will join the initiative. I feel that they are very enthusiastic. There has been several round of consultation to ensure their participation. Participation in NSDI should not be interpreted as parting with data, but as accessing multiple layers of information.


The Ooty high and a dampener

We soon moved on to Ooty for the 2nd NSDI Conference – we in the NSDI (finally NSDI was chosen) Committee felt that the NSDI movement required constant high-profile visibility and focus. Ooty Conference, in July, 2002, was a watershed of a sort for NSDI. Expectations were high and the “iron was hot” (as they say). Six key Secretaries of Government of India (GOI) and about 180 Indian NSDI stakeholders and a fantastic action plan brought a forward-looking Ooty communiqué – which brought the NSDI dream a bit closer to reality. I continued my saga in the Committee of envisioning great things for NSDI and led the NSDI Metadata Standard effort and after excellent interactions with many colleagues – we brought out the Metadata Standard document in a successful manner. At the same time other groups addressed the NSDI Exchange Standard and the NSDI Applications protocol and the NSDI Network Framework – all of which brought out the intense and high-level of technical knowledge and professionalism of the Indian spatial technology experts.

I must mention an important incident that happened at Ooty. I was involved, with the best of ISRO colleagues and colleagues from SOI and GSI (of course, supported by industry), in developing a NSDI Portal that was to be unveiled in Ooty. Our thinking was that once the NSDI Portal was
shown and then unveiled – it would be proof of what NSDI can bring benefit to different stake-holders and we felt that we would have crossed a major milestone then. It was all done and the NSDI Portal was ready for unveiling on July 29, 2002 at Ooty. But, at the nick of time, came a dampener – a query from the Defence to get the clearance for the Portal and its data content of maps. Just one night before the unveiling in Ooty, in a serene Cottage room, it was agreed that the unveiling would be deferred
and that we should work for a formal government clearance for NSDI. So a Powerpoint presentation was made up to simulate the unveiling (but for a few of us the world did not know about this). Even then, Ooty Conference was a great success – the right chords had been stuck and it was decided to get Government Clearance for NSDI.

The development of the NSDI Portal was enhanced and it was to be shown in an important Secretary-level meeting. 18 July, 2003 – I still remember that date. I was closely involved and steered an extremely good and on- line presentation and demonstration of NSDI to a group of Secretaries (we
actually set up a Metadata Server that was accessed on network and data was transferred to the meeting – actually doing a full-scale NSDI transaction). The demo and presentation was a grand success and it was agreed that the country must have a NSDI. Once again our dreams were fired-on – we thought that this time we have it and soon we shall show the world India’s NSDI.


There is no shortcut

july06-photo-7Prof V S Ramamurthy
Former Secretary, Department of Science
and Technology, Government of India

The resolution on NSDI is a first step to make quality GIS database available to the entire country in a structured manner. The cabinet level decision provides an official stamp of approval. The National Spatial Data Committee is to be chaired by the Minister of Science and Technology. This gives not only a political signal but also ensures that the message comes from the top. The major data producing agencies in the government will accept it as a norm. While the realization of NSDI took more time than anticipated, that never frustrated me. In ambitious programmes, it takes time to reach consensus. There is no shortcut to success. The committees that have been constituted have to evolve standards in alignment with international practices. They should also endevour to make the NSDI portal functional.


A dream and a passion

july06-photo-8Amitabha Pande
Principal Resident Commissioner, Government of
Punjab. Former Joint Secretary, Department
of Science and Technology When we thought of NSDI five years before, it was a dream, a passion, a purpose, a commitment and a movement. The whole purpose was to enable easy access to spatial data. There were four critical components of the initiative – standards, centralized access, open sharing of the data and building of partnerships for value addition. It was thought to involve players at every level like states, villages, communities that will eventually lead to the creation of not only NSDI but also SDIs at state, districts and village levels too. This larger vision does not appear to have been fully encapsulated in the recent government resolution. A major drawback is that the National Map Policy still does not allow open access to the ordinary citizens to maps. A willingness to bring map information in the open public domain has to precede the creation of a NSDI.

This willingness is still largely absent within the ambit of the National Map Policy. The present resolution of the government was originally intended to create an overarching institutional framework and an organization which would have sufficient clout to administer and implement policy, and to design policy which would make spatial data infrastructure a powerful tool of social transformation and improved governance.

This needs something far beyond the creation of government committees with little or no administrative and financial powers to enforce its policies.
In addition, it needs professional leadership through a full time CEO who is the convener/ coordinator of both the committees. Such a CEO would also require a core team of committed professionals to assist him.

Without a CEO and a core team, the organizational framework can easily slide into performing bureaucratic rites and rituals. I do not see any sign of how this is proposed and implemented.


The trudge

Then started the trudge ahead – and it has been a long wait of 4 years. What happened between August 2003 and June, 2006 is now history – which some of us know.

Incidentally the proto-type NSDI Portal was later unveiled in Agra in November, 2003 and whatever was developed as the proto-type NSDI Portal was then released as part of NNRMS Portal by the Hon’ble President of India in July, 2004. Madhavan Nair, Chairman, ISRO provided the visionary lead for this initiative; Dr Jayaraman was supportive and my colleagues – Dr Rajeev Jaiswal and Ms Padmavathy and a few other colleagues from ISRO played a vanguard role.

Then came Lucknow in November, 2004 and Hyderabad in December, 2005. While NSDI Conferences became a ritual, progress was slow. Things changed and a feeling of despondency crept in. But many of us had still the fire and passion for NSDI and relentlessly pursued the goal of holding on for NSDI and making it a reality. Here I must mention Dr Sivakumar; Maj Gen Gopal Rao and many of my colleagues in ISRO and SOI, NIC, GSI, NBSSLUP, FSI etc who were committed and never let the “string-loosen”.


Building consensus

july06-photo-9Maj Gen M Gopal Rao
Surveyor General of India

The NSDI movement has been driven by a few individuals of a few organizations. Although it started with a lot of enthusiasm, this slowly waned away. The initial larger participation was slowly taken over by a sense of indifference.

We should understand that processes that need consensus are generally time consuming. The positive thing was that despite all the frustration that was creeping in, the taskforce stayed together. Some of the working groups persevered and due to them, continuity was maintained. Now the government has given an authority and the entire movement is now set to move with greater momentum. We can expect that all the organizations who have participated in this endeavor with great enthusiasm will rejoin with same vigor.

Significant groundwork has already been done. Standards are in place. Interoperability of large datasets is to be demonstrated in September this
year. The misapprehensions of many government agencies have already been resolved. The very fact that many organizations have spoken to each other and agreed to pool their datasets itself is an achievement. The academia is a part of this effort. However, the industry so far has been passive in its response. I look forward for their active participation.

The other area of concern is to involve state governments. We need to think how to get them on board through state level SDI. Survey of India state level Geo-spatial Data Centre (GDC) should act as facilitator for this. Although major data producing agencies are at central level but at micro level most of the datasets are with the state governments. We expect all the stakeholders to put in place their portal gateway for data sharing. Survey of India will soon be setting up a portal to service NSDI. We also need to understand the process of data sharing. It should serve the need user needs with least hassles. The SOI is already in compliance with OGC standards.

The challenge as Member Secretary is the implementation of an action plan within a given timeframe. And also to get all the government partners work at the same pace. Most importantly, it has to be done through consensus. Some of the working groups who could not make progress at the desired pace will be restrengthened.


Despite all, we succeeded

july06-photo-10Dr R Sivakumar
Head, NRDMS and NSDI Division,
Dept of Science and Technology

I have a great sense of achievement. We are very happy as it came the way we wanted it. Although, initially we wanted a legislation but to start with a government resolution is no less. Ultimately we may have to go in for a legislation. We were successful in keeping the interest for NSDI alive despite being ridiculed by many including media at various forums. The consensus was evolved after a series of meetings. We managed to generate interest that helped various stakeholders to participate and contribute. Keeping people together, itself was a challenge. We have great expectations from industry and ready to collaborate. We have done enough ground work for NSDI to take off. The NSDC will soon hold its first meeting to discuss various issues and to prepare a road map. Personally, for me it was a great learning experience to sharpen my managerial and technical skills. I also take this opportunity to thank ITC, OGC, NRCan, Ordnance Survey for helping us to achieve this.


Shaken concepts

But looking back, one thing I can say that somewhere down the line – the basic concept of NSDI – “collective ownership and a good for all” was shaken. I always believed that NSDI was not of one agency – it had to be COLLECTIVE; NSDI was not just for government – it had all stakeholders and citizens were the greatest beneficiaries; NSDI was not a turf-war – it was intelligent networking and collective action for the good of the country; NSDI was not a “take all” – but give some and take some for success; NSDI was a modern movement – it was not just a programme or a project; NSDI was not crafted for a few individuals – but was driven by a few individuals for success and benefit in the country. Somewhere, I personally feel, these issues lost focus – maybe because of delays and changing scenarios – change of people, change of strategies, change of environment and change of technologies. I personally believe that we would have been far ahead of Google-Earth – at least for India.

Parallel developments

I must mention here a very good development that happened at that time and was concertedly driven by the NSDI Committee. It was the New Map Policy. There was intense discussions and debates and drafts on the Map Policy issue – there was overall consensus that a more pragmatic policy was required but the definition of such a policy addressing all concerns took a lot of time. In this activity again, many of our colleagues in Defense, Home and agencies like DST/SOI, ISRO, NIC etc have played a leading role – pragmatism was everywhere on this issue but “nailing” a policy was a tough task. At last hat too was achieved last year when a New
Map Policy has been announced.

In the meantime there were many other developments that spurred the spatial data and applications – India had excellent images from Resourcesat and then Cartosat; India also hosted the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association Conference in Bangalore in February, 2004 (I had the privilege of serving as the President of GSDI in 2004 and 2005; that gave me great insights to the SDI movement all over the world); agencies embarked on creating a wealth of GIS databases and activities etc – all these helped create the right environment in the country.

So things were moving – slowly and steadily but certainly moving.

Let me get back to the future…

Now my dreams are back and once again I dream … soon we shall have India NSDI Portal and we shall have the best of SDI programmes in the world. I believe in this and feel it can easily happen. What are the stakes for the future?


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