National GIS: Shaping India
The Planning Commission, Government of India has floated the idea of the National GIS.
It has established an Interim Core Group (ICG) to prepare a blueprint for the development of the National GIS.
With a vision to establish a national “GIS Platform” through an organizational structure of Indian National GIS Organization (INGO).
Coordinates joins the discussions.
The discussions will continue as the National GIS progresses.
We will discuss the need, the rationale, the context, the idea,…
The issues, the agendas…
The road ahead and the roadblocks… To start with, we present here the views of Dr Shailesh Nayak, Chairman, ICG and Dr Mukund Rao, Member Secretary, ICG.
Bal Krishna, Editor
The success of the National GIS would be in its effective utilization for various applications
What has triggered the idea of National GIS?
The idea of National GIS (NGIS) has been driven by the needs of the Planning Commission, Government of India. The Planning Commission looks for lot of information which helps them in the process of planning. The need has been felt to integrate many of these information so that they can utilized effectively for various planning processes and applications. There has been discussion going on for quite some time in the Planning Commission under the leadership of Dr K Kasturirangan, Member, Planning Commission, where GIS is perceived as an effecting tool that can be integrated in the developmental plans and programmes of the Planning Commission. This is how the idea of the NGIS has emerged.
The Planning Commission envisages that the NGIS could become a fundamental component of India’s planning and developmental infrastructure, providing visibility into various aspects of the national economic and governance process, development process, etc and at the same time also bringing value to enterprise commerces and citizen services, truly making it a national system.
What is the role of Ministry of Earth Sciences in the NGIS?
As of now, the Ministry of Earth Sciences has been given the lead-task by the Planning Commission, through the ICG which is a team of geospatial experts, to prepare a blueprint for the development of the NGIS.
We are focussing on mainly three aspects. The first is to understand the user requirements. This will provide the base for NGIS needs. The second important aspect is the availability of different types of data that could be easily organised into a nation-wide GIS and made accessible, and utilized for developing decision support systems for various applications. Thirdly, we are also looking at what kind of infrastructure (considering the tremendous advancements in Imaging/Mapping/Surveying; geospatial databases; GIS applications; IT, computing, etc) would be needed so that national GIS Applications on a standardised national GIS data/information can be easily served/accessible to users for various applications, even for real time applications.
We have decided to undertake all-round consultations – with government, industries, academia and NGOs – and obtain inputs so that a true ‘national character’ can be in-built into the system.
All users/data generators/service providers/researchers/social scientists can participate and “own” the national system. We are debating on the organisational set up required for such a system – the structure, role of various players, and other organisational focus aspects. Many of these issues will evolve in due course.
What are the challenges before the National GIS?
The main focus of National GIS is to position a strong foundation of a Decision Support System of GIS Applications which depend not only on developing wide variety of GIS Application software, but also on the currency of the GIS data/information, its availability/usability in an easy-manner, and how it is presented/served to the prospective users. In this context, I would like to highlight three challenges. The first challenge is to keep the GIS data/information ‘always’ updated and establish a mechanism for this to happen regularly.
The second challenge is to make GIS data/information and applications that any user could easily use it. When the users are most comfortable to use the system, then they will drive it towards success.
The third and the real challenge is developing a GIS system that supports real time decision making – a decision to be taken NOW has to be taken now and must be supported with the right GIS Apps and GIS data. For example, if there is a fire in a large area of a city, then the GIS system should be able to support the firemen in planning and executing rescue operations by providing them the insights of city area, roads, building structures, etc and even integrated with real time video capturing. Or say, if Planning Commission wants to allocate funds for education sector, then the GIS system must be able to provide an analysis of schools in the country, their density, access distances, population served, investment status of each school already made in earlier plans, and so on. So the success of a National GIS really comes when “users” are served what they want in an easy-manner – we are even listing performance metrics for measuring (at any time) the success factor of National GIS.
Does that mean that technological advancements have to be utilized in effective application developments, and NGIS has a role there?
That’s true. In this context, I would like to share the example of Tsunami Warning System. The system has been possible because we have adopted the most advanced and sophisticated technology that has enabled us to get the required data in a reliable manner without any disturbances. Moreover, we must also realise that a range of technologies – measurement technologies, GIS technology, IT, etc may all in a “combined manner” be making these applications successful and operational – thereby, recognising that technology platforms have to be viewed seamlessly and integrated across national applications platforms.
Do you think that data availability will be an issue?
On a comprehensive data level, data related issues are there (just like in any country). A large number of GIS Apps and DSS applications can be easily developed and positioned based on available data sets. To that extent there is not constraint – we have many examples. You know how GPS positioning data is easily available and integrated in India. I, myself, have found GPS very useful while moving around in Delhi when I had not much idea of Delhi roads and streets. One needs to clearly understand the type of data that is required for a specific purpose. One may not use Google maps for cartographic purposes but for common man it is a useful tool. The point I would like to emphasize here is that a lot of applications can be positioned with the GIS data/information are available, and to ensure that the GIS data/information serve the purpose.
How are organizations responding to the initiative of NGIS? Do you also have to deal with data sharing and ownership issues?
We are getting very good response. In fact, there has been increasing realisation in government organisations that data sharing is in the larger interest of society and national development. By sharing data we do not lose but in fact we get access to the data of other organisations as well. The approach towards data sharing is changing.
How is it going to be different from National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI)?
In the ICG, we have debated on this and recognised that NSDI has been an excellent enabling mechanism for GIS standardization and also for generating testbeds for inter-operability. In fact, Planning Commission has clearly envisioned that National GIS is a DSS on a national GIS dataset and thus is unique and distinct from NSDI. In fact, I must mention that the experiences of NSDI and NNRMS – especially in the excellent work on standards, GIS databases and even the various GIS projects that have been done have been considered while defining National GIS. Thus, the NGIS would focus upon developing decision support system on a standardised and updated/maintained nation-wide GIS data/information for various applications.
The nation needs a GIS based decision support for governance, enterprises and citizens
Why National GIS?
I think this is the right time for a National GIS. There are 2 major reasons why I think so. First, see how as a nation we are tremendously progressing and growing and this will grow manifold in the coming 5-10 years. With such high growth, society will demand very high efficiency in governance and quality services; government will have to depend upon much more efficient and guaranteed methods of nation-building and bringing equity in quality of life and best addressing the vulnerable groups of society with care and touch. All of this will require mush different practices and methods of planning, monitoring and development – which must be equitable, fast, measurable and impacting. What will make impact is sound decision-making based on scientific data and mapping aspirations of society by involving citizens and positioning a modern governance system. This is where GIS as an indispensable tool for planning and development becomes extremely important and most relevant. GIS could easily address the multifarious issues of development and also bring an integrated approach to spatial planning. The Planning Commission has been looking at this for quite some time and this thinking of basing planning and monitoring on GIS has been gaining wider acceptance. This is why the idea started and the concept of National GIS (NGIS) has come into the fore. In fact, even as the basic tenets of the 12th plan are being worked out by the Planning Commission, starting the use of National GIS is a good opportunity right now.
The second aspect is to look at what is happening in the GIS-space in India. Even though the nation has GIS activities for almost 20-30 years, the usage has yet to be impacting and meaningful. An organisational focus is now being discussed for National GIS – which will bring the much-needed thrust to GIS activities with a mandate (responsibility and accountability) for the GIS DSS for governance. Of course, it must be recognised that for the GIS DSS to be positioned, India has to develop a nation-wide dataset which is hitherto un-available in GIS form (though map sheets and images area available – which in-turn have to be processed/mapped to make a GIS database amenable for use). This data asset must also be current and regularly updated – then only the DSS becomes reliable and useful. It is thins thinking that Geographic Information of the country is now being seen as an Asset of the country and this national GIS asset has yet to be organised, developed and maintained.
The need for a nation-wide GIS is coming from the decision makes, planners or the users and that, according to me, is a very significant change because user demand will “drive” rather than the spectrum of data generators, GIS technologists and so on which has been a trend till now. NGIS is thus a focus for a decision support system rather than a technology driven system. I must add here that this shift in focus of GIS is happening across the world and not just in India – but I think India will be the first of the few who are already on way of planning and implementing such a system.
What is the proposed structure of NGIS?
Actually, Planning Commission has discussed the need for a GIS internally some time back and for preparing for the National GIS, it has established a Interim Core Group (ICG) and tasked it to work out a programmatic vision for the National GIS based on a wide consultation amongst government, industry and academia/NGO user community. The ICG is also to help the Planning Commission in the necessary apporoval process. Thus, the ICG has presently initiated the activity of preparing a Vision Document for National GIS – a draft Ver 1.0 has been prepared and is being used for a wide-level of consultation which has already started.
As of now, the ICG has envisioned the National GIS as a “GIS Platform” on which GIS DSS for governance, enterprises and citizen services would be offered based on a standardised seamless, (and regularly updated) nation-wide GIS Asset. Of course, there are associated issues of a very user-centric GIS infrastructure that is being envisioned where user “just consumes the services” and does not have to bother about anything at all. The issues of GIS capacity-building and training with research needs in GIS applications is also being discussed. The major thing that ICG is discussing is that an organisational focus is most essential for National GIS and has outlined the characteristics of such an organisation in INGO.
What are the challenges?
The biggest challenge before all of us is to get the concept behind the NGIS well understood – that now GIS has to be user-driven and whatever users need must be met (if possible) ASAP. It is just not enough to say “this is available” and expect users to “struggle” to use and adopt the GIS. To me that is unfair because the technology of GIS has now a tremendous service focus. GIS must be service-ready and must have a customer-centric focus with service as a motto. As I see it, National GIS is a service offering to the nation’s user community so that users could just get what they want. I think that is the reason that the NGIS is being initiated by Planning Commission – which will define what is needed by the nation, as far as GIS is concerned, and all efforts (by data generators, by technologists etc) must be made to meet those national needs. This is very significant shift and we will have to strongly found this “service focus” and cater to whatever the nation wants.
Of course, many government agencies (and private agencies too) are using and building their own GIS in their own way – but I think the time now is to really “integrate” all these efforts to a national goal of a National GIS, even as each agency works for its own agency-goals (be it providing topographic maps for the country or soil maps for the country or high-resolution images for the country). It must be clear that organising a GIS from all these individual map-sheets and images is an expert and process-oriented activity and moreso if the GIS has to be also updated as the country develops and changes happen. The need to align each of these activities to a common, national GIS will bring tremendous impact and will ensure that the goals of government are met and also bring benefit to industry and citizens.
To me, the most important aspect (again based on experience of past) is the organisational focus that is being outlined in National GIS. GIS as an activity has been there for many years now but the need for an organisational mandated focus is increasingly being felt now – which I think is rightfully being considered now. It is only this mandated organisational focus that will bring responsibility and accountability – if something of GIS does not happen somebody will have to answer and make best efforts to meet the needs. No more GIS can be seen as a project activity (which can have a start and an end) but has to be a continuous and service-oriented activity – thus requiring the responsibility and accountability. This concept has also been seen as quite important in some of the recent things that have happened in the country – be they in infrastructure, social security, Census etc. At the same time, the thinking in ICG is that the organisation focus must be to bring performance and efficiency and thus modern methods of organisational development with clearly defined and measurable performance metrics for the organisation must be implemented. The need is to be as effective and as performance oriented and as successful as possible to make India immensely benefit from GIS and also make India one of the best places for GIS activities.
Would you like to say something on the linkages between NSDI and NGIS?
The NSDI movement started in 2001 and I was closely associated right from then (and thus have a very special attachment to it). I have also been studying the SDI movement across the world and according to me, the Indian NSDI has done pretty well (when compared to others). It has triggered and helped initiate a large amount of GIS activity in the country – many agencies have established good GIS projects. NSDI was driven by data-generators and the emphasis was on “sharing” and making data available – a more cooperative effort. These had challenges just like in many other countries too. NSDI has also made good efforts at standardisation (in Metadata and Exchange and others) and most importantly, through its annual meets, has “kept the flag of SDI flying”. I know that NSDI Secretariat also tried to position some good projects. Thus, NSDI has maintained sufficient momentum for SDI attention in the country and has helped all of us to learn and has given us good experience. So, with the way NSDI was structured, I think it has done pretty well and those are very valuable experience to us.
The ICG has drawn on these and many other experiences and it is clear that National GIS is not “duplicating” any efforts – in fact, National GIS is envisioning to fill the many gaps that still exist for a nation-wide GIS DSS for governance, enterprise and citizens. ICG is also clear that National GIS efforts must not be duplicating the work already done in the country – but should build upon those and achieve the larger goal of a GIS DSS for governance, enterprise and citizens. For example, the excellent standardisation efforts of NNRMS in 2005 and NSDI in 2003/2008 have all been studied and after also considering the much recent experiences and technological developments, the standardisation definitions of National GIS are getting defined. I am sure good linkages will be there. Ultimately, the idea is that the country should benefit from a larger value-proposition of a GIS for its planning, development and governance.
What would be the parameters to measure the success if NGIS?
The Planning Commission and the ICG is very clear on this. ICG feels that any new organisation (like for National GIS) must be performance oriented. The organisation must be agile, slim-and-trim but bring high efficiency and performance for success. A measurable performance matrix metrices are being proposed so that at any time the nation can evaluate and measure the progress and the success of NGIS. The performance metrics is not only going to be a set of analytical parameters for the organisation achievement but also for individual staff achievements so that such methods can also help in improving the quality of the work for future.
What would be the timeframe to move to the next level?
The Planning Commission has given the ICG a duration of 6 months. The Version 1.0 Vision document has already been circulated to all the government agencies, almost 50+ GIS/IT industries and to almost 20+ academia/NGOs as part of the consultation process. We have also taken a campaign to elicit specific feedback and inputs from government user agencies. Other consultations/discussions at higher levels are also happening. Based on all these discussions/consultations, the Ver 2.0 of the Vision document would be prepared and will be taken up for discussion in a proposed National workshop – thus, the National GIS Vision would have all the inputs and materials to be taken up necessary approvals and implementation. The ICG is adopting a very open and inclusive process and maintaining transparency in its activities and will go all ends for getting the best of inputs so that the nation gets the BEST VISION for a National GIS. In fact, all of the ICG members are actively addressing specific aspects of the vision and are bringing in tremendous thinking and inputs for discussion. So even now, we are adopting pretty good work methods – just as we envision INGO to be most modern and efficient organisations. As Member-Secretary, I can assure that anybody who has a good idea and a good way of addressing the DSS GIS, they would certainly be discussed and could find their inputs in the Vision.
Once the Vision is made and submitted to Planning Commission as a national vision, Planning Commission will decide what they want to do with it and take up activities ahead.
Any concluding remarks on NGIS?
We have a task ahead of us and we will do the best as effectively as possible. The ICG is aware that the government is very keen and positive for embedding GIS into the planning and nation-building process and I think opportunity is there to work on it and to make it happen. In all the innovations and societal thrust that government is envisioning in the 12th Plan and beyond, I think National GIS will play an important role.
The Planning Commission was set up by a Resolution of the Government of India in March 1950 in pursuance of declared objectives of the Government to promote a rapid rise in the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country, increasing production and offering opportunities to all for employment in the service of the community. The Planning Commission was charged with the responsibility of making assessment of all resources of the country, augmenting deficient resources, formulating plans for the most effective and balanced utilization of resources and determining priorities. Planning Commission plays an integrative role in the development of a holistic approach to the policy formulation in critical areas of human and economic development. An integrated approach can lead to better results at much lower costs. From a highly centralized planning system, the Indian economy is gradually moving towards indicative planning where Planning Commission concerns itself with the building of a long term strategic vision of the future and decide on priorities of nation. The Prime Minister of India is the Chairman of the Planning Commission.
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