Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mapping India Using GeoCommons

Take a look at this great web mapping application. I could plot spatial data about India in a matter of minutes and make a presentable map and then share the results with like minded citizens.

FortiusOne a geographic visualization and location intelligence company has created GeoCommons - a repository for public domain data. It is a free service. You can register as a user and browse through extensive public domain datasets. This you do through a Finder module. You can then select the dataset you are interested in and either

1) download it as a Shapefile or KML (keyhole markup language) format

2) Read details of the data

3) Plot that data on a map with Maker using a background of your choice (satellite, terrain, streetview, solid). You can thematically plot your results using different attributes from the same dataset just like you can in a GIS. But this one is for free.

You can share the results of your mapping by saving them in your account and distributing the link and by downloading the results as a KML file which you can then overlay on Google Earth or Google Maps or Virtual Earth.

Here's the result of a quick experiment that I did with some India data. I picked up the CARMA (Carbon Monitoring for Action) carbon emissions from power plants dataset and made two maps in Maker. The one below shows energy generation by power plant. The size of the dots is proportional to the amount of energy generated by individual power plants. As I mentioned you can download this dataset and get you hands on data you can use and manipulate in more sophisticated spatial analysis software, but most people don't have access to this.

The distribution of mega power plants mostly follow the coal belt. You can see the largest dots are all in the central and eastern part of the country where most of India's coal deposits are situated.

The second map uses the same dataset but plots another attribute, energy intensity. This is the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of electricity generated. It is a measure of energy efficiency.

Notice that the energy intensity values in the upper range exceed average values for coal plants in the U.S, which are about 1800-2200 lbs CO2/MWh. The CARMA data I downloaded didn't categorize plants according to fuel burnt. Gas is a cleaner fuel than coal and it's a fair guess that these largest plants are coal fired. Natural gas accounts for just about 10% of power generated in India while coal accounts for about 58%. Indian coal power plants are much more inefficient at generating power than the U.S. The National Action Plan on Climate Change has an Energy Efficiency Mission, i.e. a specific directive to improve energy efficiency. It has its work cut out in the coming years.

Now hold on before you get too excited. The datasets for the U.S are vast but for India you get a very limited stock to work with. Contributions to GeoCommons is voluntary and till date I am guessing very few organizations in India using and creating public domain data know about this site. Most of the data currently available is Census data. Why such a bias? Well, this data is freely available from the Census website (site is under construction). It is stored in a non-spatial tabular format. This data has been pulled out from this site by a user and converted into a geographic format. That's easy to do with the tabular census available with the government.

That's because the data is aggregated by administrative units. If you have already have a base map with state and other administrative boundaries (which is freely available), its easy to just attach this tabular data to the geometric data using the administrative unit name as a key. This is not possible with say natural resources data where boundaries cut across administrative units. This type of data has the geometry stored along with other attributes in a special geographic format. And getting this data from the government is a lengthy process.

So how long before we start seeing more diverse datasets on India in social mapping sites like GeoCommons. That does depend upon how quickly the government implements the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, an initiative to provide easy access to public domain spatial data. Off course the availability of this data has to be coupled with government permission to upload these data onto a third party database. Right now I am not sure if having acquired government data whether you can share it using the kind of distributive model that GeoCommons uses. The rules on this are fuzzy and I really hope the NSDI will bring in some clarification of the governments stance on value addition and data sharing and see an end to the excessively restrictive and regulatory mindset that has limited the innovative use of spatial data in this country.

You don't have to wait until the NSDI takes shape to start contributing your own data to GeoCommons. If you are an organization working with spatial datasets and want to share this data, you can right now upload your data to GeoCommons. When you do so you are agreeing to its free use by others under the Creative Commons license. Anyone will be able to use this data as long as they acknowledge the data creators which is you and the data managers which is GeoCommons.

Social mapping, citizen cartography and a data sharing mechanism to initiate civic discussions on problems that have a spatial angle to them all without an expensive GIS overhead.

Try it out.


  1. I just tried it out- its awesome!

    Thanks for the link

  2. Thanks for the great overview. You are correct that GeoCommons is voluntary and looking to the global community to find and share data.

    The only real restriction is that the data has to be publicly shareable. But this doesn't have to be aggregated to any level. You can provide point, or smaller boundary data if that is what you have.

    We would definitely be interested in hearing about any additional data sources you may know about.

    Feel free to start a new topic on the "Open Data" section of our forums:

    Andrew @ GeoCommons

  3. thanks Andrew.

    But this doesn't have to be aggregated to any level. You can provide point, or smaller boundary data if that is what you have.

    Sure. My comment on census data was in the context of free availability of Indian data (publicly shareable). Census data is freely available in a tabular format and because it is aggregated by admin units is easier to convert to geographic format. Other types of data with geographic contexts are not freely available in India yet.