The need for sharing data

The Government, which continues to play a role in the mapping of resources, has a stake in directing development. In future this may have to be in partnership with the private sector. It is in this context that the need for a national spatial data infrastructure plan was highlighted recently at a national conference on geographical perspectives. L.R.A. NARAYAN reports.

ADVANCES in (digital spatial) technology towards the end of the 20th Century have made us understand our planet better. From ground surveys, to aerial photography, to mapping and satellite remote sensing, there has been further development of technological tools such as image processing and geographical information systems along with global positioning systems. Data can now be processed into information effectively and economically. This means quicker and more authentic decisions. Many now use these technologies, but much of the information developed by various institutions has been their own subject domain. In many cases, these data have not been shared, and the result is shortcomings in planning and implementing development schemes. This is common not only in our country, but in other countries too, and has resulted in a duplication of efforts.

Powerful tools such as GIS and GPS have not been utilised to our advantage. Data and information in digital form as well as in statistical and alpha numerical formats, if shared, would enhance development.

Various subject specialists and departments are now receptive to "working together" for common causes, by finding most socially acceptable, economically viable and technically feasible solutions, although we are still far behind in adopting such a concept.

It is in this context that a conference was organised recently by the Centre for Spatial Data base Management Solutions, (CSDMS), revolving around geographical perspectives, which was supported by the Government and the Departments of Space, Science and Technology, Agriculture, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Surface Transport, Ministry of Mines and Minerals and the Planning Commission. Other States, Central Government organisations, private organisations and individual consultants came forward to participate in the meeting held in Delhi from February 5-6, 2001. A taskforce constituted by the Department of Science and Technology prepared a document called the "National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), a strategy and action plan. Participants from other parts of the world were also invited to present details of their experiences to design what was called "NSDI, towards a Road Map for India".

Till recently, and in particular the latter half of the last century, problems existed especially in connection with remote sensing technology data. No definite solutions to these could be arrived at due to several limitations and the non-availability of relevant information to enable integration and development of alternate development strategies.

Now, very sophisticated and affordable forms of information and communication technology (ICT), have opened up opportunities for enabling sustained growth potential. It is well known that the different natural resources that are available are inter related. In development it must be ensured that the environmental impact is minimal.

Coming back to the NSDI document, the introductory session stated that information technology is becoming "transparent" towards e- governance and that the next decade is expected to see large- scale investment in communication technology in India. In particular, the IT Act has opened up unprecedented capability for sharing data, both in the private and public sectors, which will become unavoidable with "electronic super highways".

Spatial (or map) information is expected to be a major "content". Such information is becoming more relevant for planners at the national, regional or local levels. These maps are now changing from paper to digital form capable of being combined or integrated with other types of data or information with which several people and organisations are concerned.

The document also stated that "a new wave of technological innovation is allowing us to capture, store, process and display an unprecendented amount of information about our country and the earth and a wide variety of environmental and cultural phenomena. Most of this information will be spatially referenced, with not only two-dimensional but also with three-dimensional coordinates to depict its location accurately, capable of frequent upgradation, with satellite remote sensed data in particular and other data sources in general".

In India, the Government continues to play a major role in the inventory and mapping of major national resources and establishing a map information base. Thus, the Government has a major stake in managing these and on guiding and directing various development activities, which in future may have to be in partnership with a private set-up.

It is in this context that the establishment of a national spatial data infrastructure would become not only essential but also necessary. Information possessed by different organisations and different people does not get lost by sharing, but only enhances its utility and value.

The development and availability of spatial cartographically accurate data bases has been one of the root causes of proper development and a GIS based decision-support system. India could boast of being a well-mapped country. Such data, as digital or analogue form, is fraught with problems. Scale is a criteria to be considered along with topographical relief depiction. At present about 5,300 topographical maps on a scale of 1:50,000 with a contour interval and complete coverage of India are available. Besides this, there are topographical maps on a scale of 1:25,000 with similar contour intervals as above completed for more than half the area in the country. However, its availability rather freely will alone make the planned spatial data infrastructure (NSDI) project succeed in becoming an ideal source for use by planners and decision-makers.

The Department of Space has taken the initiative in developing a National (Natural) Resources Information System (NRIS) in digital form. All this sounds encouraging but a national cartographical base that is freely available can alone sustain such an effort (at present it can be considered to be at the crossroads).

Many people think 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 topographical maps if made freely available would help them in delineating a micro water shed, for instance, essentially needed for micro level planning, as prevailing conditions in this country entail such information. However, personally, such delineation is not possible where the contour interval is 20m, and in particular in areas which are rather flat. The streams exhibit a drainage pattern similar to harvest water as it defines the way water would flow when it rains. Therefore harvesting water at a microwatershed needs sound knowledge of natural drainage patterns which can be brought out only if the scale needed is 1:10,000 and larger, depending upon terrain conditions in its physical characteristics. It will not be appropriate to make any assumption and proceed with planning, for that will only lead to inefficient/insufficient information. The creation of such data, where required, needs to be attempted and is possible although it may be expensive and time-consuming. If done, it is like creating an infrastructure that can sustain itself. Small landholders, who form a very large number of the population and who depend on rainfed agriculture stand to benefit. Therefore, keeping this in mind we have to go about creating data infrastructure at different scales and intensity to define land and bring out its three-dimensional characteristics in a manner, conducive to effect planning at the microlevel. This aspect does not appear to have been appreciated by many.

The need for NSDI in our country is essential.

The conference also brought out a proposed framework for NSDI, with as much decentralisation as possible. Details are available in the chart.

To implement the concept discussed at the conference, it was decided to set up a national spatial data commission with a senior minister as chairperson, and an NSDI executive committee at the national level, under the aegis of the Department of Science and Technology. To enable this an NSDI act has to be passed in Parliament as early as possible. A group is already working to draft the act. The document also mentioned the funding necessary for such an activity and the methods to be followed to implement them. It should be stated here that at least now the Government and other organisations and scientific and technical personnel have realised the need for it.