In November 2008, the Indian Space Research Organisation, still dizzy from the launch of Chandrayaan-1, came out with a mapping application portal that offers Indian Remote Sensing images, from across the Indian terrain. Less than 10 months later, a 15-member team at the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) in Hyderabad released its Beta version “Bhuvan” on August 12.

Just 50 hours into its launch, over 68,000 users have registered. The general user, who logged in to check out “India’s answer to Google Earth” — a phrase coined by the media — was more than disappointed to find an unresponsive and slow website, multiple plug-ins (to be downloaded separately) and a clunky user interface that is punctuated with hiccups. Those who managed to log in were further peeved because resolutions offered on the maps do not exactly allow you to view your street, or spot your rooftop. Being embedded in Internet Explorer also limits image size compared to the full screen experience standalone products offer.

However, amidst the bouquets and the brickbats, the larger purpose of a portal like Bhuvan is forgotten. Bhuvan, as it stands, makes available freely an immense body of information that is of great academic and research value.

For instance, it offers drought-related information for the past three years (will soon be updated to 19 years) from across the country. Metadata offered includes climate, demographics and historical values. Unlike Google Earth or Wikimapia, Bhuvan’s maps are multilayered — each layer is packed with information ranging from mapping the Golden Quadrilateral to land-use data. Bhuvan’s USP is that it is India-specific and is more useful to society than any other application. Also, given that three IRS satellites are being used for imaging, the data will be updated annually (a major grouse with GE).

Bhuvan cannot compete with other products in terms of resolution — most terrain is mapped at a resolution of 5.8 metres compared to 2.5 metres offered by others. Though resolutions up to 2.5 metres are available, the current policy does not permit making it public for security reasons (sources say this policy is likely to be reconsidered soon). However, when it comes to smaller towns or districts, one must note that GE images are of 30-40 metres resolution, while Bhuvan maps consistently at 5.8 metres resolution.

“Bhuvan is about showcasing, in a graphic format, the immense information that exists with the ISRO and is available on different portals. It’s not even comparable to Google Earth,” says NRSC director V. Jayaraman, scoffing at the constant comparison.

In its current form, Bhuvan is most user un-friendly. Besides putting one through a long registration process, it requires installing a 10 Mb plug-in called TerraExplorer, a product belonging to Skyline Software Systems. It also requires DirectX and MS.Net, both Microsoft products, and runs only on Internet explorer (6.0 and above).

The fact that Bhuvan is vendor locked to Microsoft has come under criticism. The Internet community, which has long moved to free browsers such as Firefox, Opera and now Google Chrome, is miffed at being forced to use Internet Explorer. Further, it is not usable on any GNU/Linux operating system. “We are in our Beta version and all those issues will be ironed out very soon,” promises Mr. Jayaraman.

Bhuvan is being improvised by the day. “In fact, the whole world today is involved in its development, because we are constantly monitoring feedback and ironing out the bugs,” says Mr. Jayaraman.