Interviews - New

“India should have a new series of maps – Citizen Series Maps”

Feb 2020 | No Comment

Dr Mukund Kadursrinivas Rao

Chief Executive, NIAS Centre for Spatial Analytics and Advanced GIS (C-SAG), National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), India

What is the relevance and importance of this workshop?

Today, geospatial technology extends into virtually all areas of human activity helping to solve different problems, make better decisions, predict outcomes, and discover and explain how the Earth’s environmental and social systems work – efforts are on to see that the technology benefit reaches each and every citizen on this Earth.

In India, GIS based initiatives (or projects) have been undertaken in various departments of the Government; various initiatives in the states; unique GIS applications in private sector and research activities in universities – these have helped to bring good and operational examples of applications of GIS in India. However, in spite of fairly wide usage of GIS as a technology, the full potential of GIS has not been exploited in India as GIS is yet to be embedded into work-flows and practices of Governance and citizen systems – which is very critical so that governanceprocess and decision-making can bring direct benefit of GIS actions to citizens and developmental activities. While GIS data availability was major challenge in the past, it is no more an issue. Today, spatial data is generated in multitude of ways – through satellite measurements and imaging; through sensors on Unmanned Aerial Systems or aircrafts; embedded precise positioning using specialized hand-held devices; underground utilities data collection systems; indoor positions and mapping; mobile systems and Wi-Fi systems based on positions of transmitters; radio-frequency identification (RFID) using networks of fixed detectors/readers; laser imaging matched to 3D geometry and many, many more methods. In fact, world-over society is generating, referencing, archiving and using vast amount of such “integrated” data sets. Datasets are now “time-stamped” – making them amenable to easy change detection and time-analysis. As a result, now we have good quality, real-time access and easy affordability to GIS layered data across the world (and also in India) – particularly, private-sector initiatives of MapMyIndia, Here, Google Earth, ESRI etc are changing the outlook for access and use of spatial and locational data.

India does not still have a profound capability in Spatial Analytics – we still are into basic database and visualisation regimes of what I call “bottom of pyramid of GIS”. We need to maintain a high-level of national capability in this important technology area of GIS and also leverage to be in the fore-front of GIS technology at the international arena.

One of the goals of C-SAG is also to further the knowledge and capabilities in Spatial Analytics. With 2 years of massive data collected, analysed, experimented upon in Agri-GIS and the understanding the importance of Analytics, it was timely to share the knowledge of Spatial Analytics that we and others in the world have with a wider cross section of experts in India and bring focus on this important technology and applications area. To that extent, this Workshop has served an important purpose of C-SAG – this is the first of its kind workshop on SA and DL in India.

I am happy to inform your readers that C-SAG successfully conducted the International Workshop on Advanced Spatial Analytics and Deep Learning for Geospatial Applications during Jan 20-31, 2020. A total of 51 candidates from government, industry, academia and NGOs participated in the 10-day workshop. The Workshop was inaugurated by Dr K Kasturirangan and proficiency certificates were awarded to participants by Mr S Ramadorai on Jan 30, 2020

At the Workshop, you mentioned to Surveyor General about a new series of maps for India – CSM? Can you elaborate your vision on this? shop, you

India has 2 series maps – DSM – Defence Series Maps and OSM – Open Series Maps. Both these maps are under the aegis of SOI and various policies govern its use and applications. Of course, DSM is not available to non-military users; OSM has its own difficulties of updating, datedness, digital amenability, easy accessibility and “controlled restrictions” etc. As a result, a citizen can never even dream of being able to use these DSM and OSM even in his life-time. Many a times I have felt we have kept these maps (and satellite images too) “locked” and citizens has no way of envisioning his country except through “foreign maps and images” (Google, Bing and so on). The small efforts that Indian industries have done (like MapMyIndia) have their own terms for availability and accessibility. Thus, I have always felt that citizens may really not know their country and maps are being denied to them – policy issues are also not helping this problem.

I have always questioned “What does a citizen look for in maps” and in my views, a citizen looks for basic information of administrative boundaries, simple terrain features, water bodies, important city and rural information, transportation features, cultural features, tourism features, governance features and some more (actually in my count a list of about 50 features can be the core minimum a citizen would need and most would be points, some line and some polygonal features). In C-SAG we have done a study and determined that these 50 to 60 features can be easily obtained from public satellite images, Positioning surveys of crowd-sourcing and basic cultural and administrative features from SOI. Further, today younger citizens are well-versed with mapping and imaging technology and can easily populate lots of features from primary and secondary sources – which when vetted and verified can become excellent content for maps for citizens. One will recall that this method and technology of citizen making maps and managing them have been proven already. Thus, I felt that India should have a new series of maps – Citizen Series Maps (CSM) which can be a unique project managed by SOI, with a Citizen Council driving the design, development, management and utilisation solely by and for citizens of India. The CSM can ultimately become an a new series maps that any citizen can access and utilise with authentic boundaries and vetted/verified features which can be updated suing publicdomain satellite images instantly to bring authorativeness to CSM. I am sure that there will be many start-ups and corporates, citizen groups and NGOs, universities and students and even government officers that will be most happy to contribute to CSM. In fact, advanced Deep Learning and AI tools can be used for effective vetting and building the CSM – which I feel can be easily developed in 1 or 2 years for the whole country.

In the Workshop, I personally proposed and discussed the idea of CSM with Surveyor General of India on Jan 24, 2020 and he readily agreed with the idea – the 50 and odd participants also endorsed the idea and echoed that CSM is worthy to take up as a national citizen movement. I also feel that the Government will also like the idea as it has an extremely pro-citizen development paradigm – thus, I requested Surveyor General to discuss with Government for a fast-track project on this. C-SAG has been asked to submit a idea-note on CSM and we are soon submitting the same.

What interface you see between Advanced Data Analytics and Geospatial Applications?

Data plays a critical role in bringing logical decision-making, intelligence and wisdom in society – and citizens are one block of users of various types of data. Today, the world generates about 30-35 Zettabytes (1ZB is 1 Trillion GB) of data annually and this is expected to grow to ~170-200 Zettabytes by 2025. Worldover, thousands of experts are working on ways to deal with this data explosion. Most of these data have location tags and thus we are to deal with voluminous and evergrowing data. Managing the Datasphere is becoming as important as managing the climate/environment, managing economy and managing the social and cultural fabric of society. Development of the Geographic Information System (GIS) industry is due to the incorporation of new and upcoming technologies like Data Analytics, 3D, Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR) in GIS systems. Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation, cloud, Internet of Things (IoT), and miniaturization of sensors are expected to be the catalysts driving the development.

As a result, world is developing robust analytics capability and customised “solutions” – that too in a Big Data model, on cloud processing and deep learning algorithms. Spatial Analytics (SA) is becoming increasingly important as it helps determine intrinsic geographic patterns – patterns of commonality, optimality, suitability, predictability etc and adopts advanced modelling and heuristics of data science and self-learning principles. SA processes definitions of “where”; metrics of distances/area/shape/proximity/ nearness etc; relationships between data by similarity; siting and locating analysis; spatial econometrics; aviation analytics; Spatial Decision Support Systems (SDSS) and simulations using interpolation methods. GIS Augmented Reality provide reality street views; In-Building Mapping where laser and mapping instruments on robots develop indoor maps and data. All of these characters of SA are oriented to “find patterns”; “newer meanings” in data.

It is important that organisations in India apply many of the newer Data Science concepts and tools for spatial data – like R, Python, Tensor, Tableau – using which one can build focussed applications of structured and unstructured data fusion and mashups in GIS. They can power many a new and innovative applications – reaching the last-in-mile, like our farmer in Agri-GIS.

What are the future elements you see of geospatial technologies vis-a-vis technologies like AI, ML, Big Data, etc?

There are 6 areas that the future is charting out in the broad Datasphere. One, Data Management – where big data concepts are defining capabilities to create, manage and access large increasing volumes of spatial data autonomously and build Systems of System across the globe with advanced data access/verification/certification/security at the core as Blockchain technology systems; Sensor Metrics – where Internet of Things (IoT) is slowly bringing an exponential expansion of sensors or measurement systems – all of which geo-tagged, including the ubiquity of drones, satellitebased imaging and under-the-ground mapping, which is making geographic data more readily timely, available and relevant for decisions and analytic processes on any place on Earth; Cloud – the rise of distributed computing and the Cloud is leading led to increasingly flexible GIS systems that can quickly scale both data storage capacity and processing power to answer questions that were previously insurmountable; Crowd Sourcing – with the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets and increasing mobility, citizens and mute equipment are becoming data sources with ease and clarity that is helping creating a quickly shared common GIS view in the decision process; Spatial Analytics tools where the trend is towards adopting modern concepts of data science and sophisticated spatial analytics capabilities across geographic AND other data/ information that can reveal newer patterns, trends, and relationships in ways that hitherto has not been possible AND finally, Deep Learning – where advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence have greatly accelerated analysis of even massive volumes of imagery and geographic data fused with financial, environmental, banking, citizenry, disaster and emergency, natural resources, land, water and many other information.

There have been many initiatives in India like NSDI, National GIS but somehow they could not materialise in way they were envisaged? What could be the reasons?

I have written about this in the past – to me there are 3 important issues. One, is the lack of easy accessibility (whatever data is available is also not easily accessible to users) to most current and granular geospatial data for the country. Data generation must get out of government agencies and must become a private enterprise and become a commodity of easy trading/exchange and commerce. As a nation, our present ability to generate advanced, automated and systematic geospatial data is very limited and is constricted – just imagine, we still do not have large scale base maps for the whole country; we don’t have Indian sub-metre current satellite images for the whole country; high-granular DEM is still not available easily and obtaining UAS based imaging-at-will is even now a “no no”. Other nations have made tremendous progress on the generation of systematic geospatial data – we have constricted our own abilities. Two, the map/image/spatial data policies are even now “restrictive” and not-so-easy procedures that frustrate a user who wants to use geospatial data – imagine that IRS images cannot be ordered online while world-over satellite images are online the very day of acquisition; even now we do not have 2019 updated digital OSM for India (which can be easily done); all public-funded data really is not available on National Portal – in all these and many other areas other nations have progressed far ahead with use of advanced technology and better policy management. I feel we have just “churned and churned” over the past years to ineffect. As a result, I feel that, we have not been pragmatic in building the best of eco-system for Geospatial technology – neither did we create technical excellence in geospatial technology; we have not built best of societal and national applications that benefit governance of society; we did not encourage and build a homegrown geospatial industry system and nor have we boosted advanced research in our universities. In fact, once again we seem to have missed the “bus”!! But the nation moves on – development happens and prosperity and economic growth is happening – sometimes I feel is geospatial technology and applications really that important – I am convinced but the nation seems not yet (like say, mobile technology; railway technology; aviation sector). Maybe we need renewed collective efforts once again!!

When I look back, national systems like NNRMS-NRIS and NRDMS laid the initial ground-break and showed the potential of RS and GIS in enthusiastic demonstrative projects; NSDI attempted to bring along a platform of data generators for easy data exchange and availability of geospatial data – NSDI has just become a small government office now; National GIS aimed to build a seamless, national-level geospatial data and DSS platform but seems to have got trapped in “governmental squabbles” and never took off; newer avatars come up and make some drive ahead – of course, in each of these endeavours we have made some small progress (in some bits) but as a national enterprise in RS and GIS we are left far behind and that is the reason we do not have a national excelling eco-system of government-industry-academia-society in Geospatial sector. On other hand, nations like USA, Europe, Australia, China and others have done considerably, if not remarkably, well and are quite advanced. The best thing for India now would be to turn to the geospatial technology/data/ services offerings from these advancing nations and develop robust application system and then, if possible, leapfrog far ahead in next 10-20 years!!

What is way forward for geospatial technologies especially in India?

In my tryst with RS and GIS of past 40 years, I do feel that some of the government agencies could have distinguished themselves much better in the “national spirit” as far as geospatial technology is concerned – with their turfwars and squabbles they did not help boost or grow an integrated working together in this “integrating field of GIS”. Private sector have “sold products and hours” and faded away when the jingle went off. Academia could never peak to excelling advanced research and just made a knowledgeable work-force. To each his own seems to have been the motto – and therefore each has done some bit but the “whole system” has never emerged.

In today’s parlance, I think a “nationalistic spirit” is even more essential in geospatial technology where the larger national good must be the driver to develop a progressive eco-system that promotes technical merit/excellence and helps develops a goof and progressive ecosystem. The ME must step-back and make for the WE – that will be good for geospatial technology. Ultimately what will count is HAS THE NATION (WHICH MEANS ITS CITIZENS) BENFITTED?? We must work for this now.

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