Tuesday, January 6, 2009

India Space Org To Release a Google Earth Killer?

The Indian Space Research Organziation (ISRO) has announced that it will soon release a free online imaging service named Bhuvan (Earth) along the line of Google's two imaging services, Google Maps and Google Earth, but initially covering only the Indian subcontinent.

I missed this news until a friend pointed it out to me a few days ago. It appeared sometime in November and kind of coincided with the launch of India's first moon mission, the Chandrayan-I spacecraft.

Typical of an Indian government organization there is no news of the launch of this mapping service on the ISRO website. I guess they just want to surprise the world.

The Indian media in a swell of nationalistic pride after the successful launch of Chandrayan has dubbed this forthcoming online imaging service a potential Google Earth killer. I thought I would speculate a little on what kind of service ISRO might launch and whether it can compete with Google.

1) Will the images from Bhuvan be superior to that provided by Google?

The Indian media and the blogosphere thinks this is a battle of images and the service that will provide better images will win. I am skeptical, not just of the claim that better images is everything, but that Bhuvan will provide better images than Google.

Here are some snippets from the media:

Imagine if you could count the lions in Gir or fishermen find concentration of fish in the sea, just by dragging a mouse on a computer screen. Space Applications Center of ISRO has just made that possible by an innovation called Bhuvan.

If Google Earth shows details upto 200 metres distance and Wikimapia upto 50 metres, Bhuvan will show images upto 10 metres, which means you can easily see details upto a three floor high building and also add information.

It's clear that whoever has come up with this garbage has never been involved in satellite image analysis, nor has this person seen Google coverage of India recently.

One clarification. Google does not own the images you see in G Maps and G Earth. They license the images from DigitalGlobe who owns the imaging satellites, Quick Bird and World View. For the last several years Google has been providing very high resolution images of Indian cities and surrounds. Not the 200 meters or 50 meters resolution mentioned in various media reports but about one meter resolution. The rural areas are not high resolution yet. They are covered by a 20 meter resolution coverage from the imaging satellite SPOT.

Another claim of superiority of Bhuvan is that Google does not update its images for 4 years, while Bhuvan will provide a yearly update. Below is an Google Earth image of Belgaum, a provincial town in the state of Karnataka.

You can check the date of the coverage for a particular area in G Earth by looking under Layers- More- Digital Globe Coverage. Belgaum has a time stamp of July 2007. Other cities in India are also covered by recent images, bigger metros are covered by images just a few months old.

So Bhuvan is unlikely to compete with Google in image quality or in update cycles at least for urban areas. Bhuvan's main source of high resolution images will be the Cartosat satellite series, whose sensors have the similar capabilities as Quick Bird and World View. If ISRO takes a decision to cover rural areas also with high resolution imagery, then that would be an advantage over the currently available G image service. But faced with competition there is nothing stopping Google from doing the same.

2) Will ISRO make other data available?

The American comedian Bob Hope once quipped about London "Their clubs are so exclusive that even some of the members are not allowed in".

This is the kind of exclusivity that has marked access to Indian spatial data so far. The National Spatial Data Infrastructure, many years in the making keeps promising easy access to base data, but in reality getting hold of it is a tedious process. Check out the dysfunctional data search facility of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure Portal (also see map viewer, so slooooow...) , which is supposed to be the central data clearing portals.

If Bhuvan offer overlays of spatial base data, such as boundaries, roads, natural resources and other locally relevant data, then that will be a significant advantage over what Google is offering for India. Mind you this will not be actual spatial data you can download and manipulate in a GIS, but just images of the data. Even these would be useful information, especially if a query engine is included in the app. Let's see how much data is cleared for use in Bhuvan by the mandarins at the Ministry of Defence.

3) Will Bhuvan be like Google Maps or like Google Earth?

The media in dubbing this a Google Earth killer has not asked this simple question. There is a significant difference between the two G image services. Google Maps is a true online web mapping service. This means that the application resides on a remote server. Everything you see on your screen, the user interface and the imagery is being sent from that remote server to your computer. This makes the application slower, and so no wonder G Maps has a very simple interface.

Google Earth is a Globe, 3D spatial data viewer. It is not a true online mapping application. Yes you have to go online to use it, but only the imagery is being sent to you from a remote server. The rest of the application resides on your computer. That's why it is a 14 Mb download. Google wants to make sure that the complex user interface of G Earth which includes the globe and terrain and tilt viewing and the many options and tools work lightning fast. The best way to achieve this is to install it on your hard drive and access the functionality from there.

Here is a typical example
of a fairly complex user interface that is served out from a remote computer. Play around and then compare the speed of operations of the user interface with Google Earth and you will realize what I mean when I say that online mapping applications are slower than local applications.

No word from ISRO on what the software architecture is going to be like. I suspect it will be a true online application like G Maps. In that case ISRO needs to keep the interface light. Bandwidth is still not that great in India and a complex online user interface will slow the service and discourage users. So then Bhuvan will really be competing with Google Maps and not Google Earth. The attraction of the globe and 3D viewing in Google Earth will maintain its popularity.

4) Will ISRO allow open access to the Bhuvan API?

Maybe the make or break as far as popular usage of this service is concerned and for having any chance at all at eroding Google Maps popular user base. One of the reasons why Google Maps has become a phenomenon is that anyone can get a API key from Google and customize the application. It can be embedded in a third party website and you can add third party data and create mashups. This has lead to some very innovative uses of the service. Its usage has gone far beyond spatial mapping professionals.

Again this might be too radical a step for an Indian governmental organization to take.

In summary, Bhuvan no doubt will offer excellent quality imagery, but as I discussed not superior to Google. It's advantage may lie in offering additional spatial data layers. I am speculating that the service is likely to be used only by a small group of specialists and mapping professionals. I doubt if our government is ready to shed its control freak mindset and allow open access to API. This will limit not just the user base but also prevent creative use of imagery for myriad location based services that are so much in demand these days for urban and rural applications. That means it's unlikely to become as popular as Google Maps.

ISRO says they are going to launch sometime in March. This has been more of a speculative preview. I hope to give a more comprehensive review after launch.

If I get to hear of it that is.


  1. I thought that a while ago they were talking about blocking access to Google Earth so that no one could see details in India because of terrorist fears. Now they want to release something even more detailed? Maybe I misunderstood earlier!

  2. Hi Suvrat,

    This is a very nice critical analysis of the proposed Bhuvan service in comparison to Google Earth. You might be interested in following Stefan Geens' excellent Ogle Earth blog, which covers Google Earth extensively and regularly covers efforts by national entities such as India and France to create "Google Earth killer" products. Here is his coverage of Bhuvan in particular.

  3. Right on! Much as one would love to see a good service providing access to satellite imagery from India, it is hard to imagine that the govt. mindset has changed enough to allow it to really happen! So why do the media and other bloggers get caught up in such hype? Even when there is no hype from ISRO itself apparently? That news report is hilarious - counting lions indeed! And schools of fish! Wow!! So its going to be real-time too?!

    I'd be happy to just get decent access to imagery for researchers to be able to analyze forest cover and other habitat properly, let alone for the general public to count wildlife or find schools of fish! I guess we'll see what actually comes down the pike in March, and will await your review then. Meanwhile, I'm glad DesiPundit helped me find your blog!

  4. Thanks for this detailed analysis. I agree with all of it. The kind of secrecy with which ISRO regards it's data (thanks to outdated colonial policies) is frustrating. I was working as a RA at IIT Kanpur and remember how difficult and expensive it used to be to obtain data. It is highly unlikely that the policy will change so quickly.

    Instead of competing with Google on their home grounds, ISRO should concentrate on doing something that google isn't doing.

  5. @SilverFox : Both points seems correct. Once Bhuvan is launched Govt might decide to block google maps and whenever user sends request to GMaps it might get redirected to Bhuvan.

  6. I hope that this is similar to NASA's excellent World Wind software

  7. Silver Fox- the restriction was a private initiative. The government has not yet talked of blocking Google Earth, though it may ask Google to show low resolution of some areas.

    Ron- thanks for the links. Bhuvan had been widely misreported. some of the "misquotes" are hilarious. Science reporting is very poor in India.

    Gaurav- directing users to Bhuvan from G Maps will be illegal. I hope the government doesn't have any such mad plans.

    Parceval- I agree, World Wind is a good product.

    Madhu- have you tried this service from Min. of Env. and forest. You can buy GIS data from them.

    Vinod- I agree. Mindsets take a long time to change here.

  8. Well, I found this unique experiment called the Indian Biodiversity Portal that uses Google Earth to map India's bio diversity. This seems to be created by Indian scientists. Will they shift to Bhuvan?


  9. Thanks, Suvrat. I'm in the process of reviving research in the Indian region, and haven't gotten around to any GIS/remote sensing stuff yet. The link you provide should prove useful - I'll give it a try.

  10. Which Main?...

    that is a great link. thanks. just a correction in your comment. the service you pointed to has customized Google Maps not Google Earth.