Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mapping India: National Urban GIS

This project initiated by the Central Government to create a city level Geographic Information Systems (GIS) database for 152 cities and towns all over India has a lot of merit. If implemented to its full potential by individual cities, it could knock some sense in the day to day governance of Indian cities and help prepare for their planned growth.

GIS for urban applications has lagged behind GIS for natural resource application in India. There are probably many reasons for this. Institutional inertia, lack of awareness, inadequate city budgets and the high expense of creating detailed spatial datasets; all these or different combinations of these factors in different cities have prevented GIS from playing a constructive role in city planning.

The National Urban Mapping Mission looks to change all this. Funding for developing 1:10,000 and 1:2000 scale spatial datasets will be provided by the Central Government (75%) and the State Government (25%). The Survey of India which is the National Mapping agency will take charge of data creation. There will be deadlines, timelines, capacity building , performance measures... all the corporate buzzwords for successful project management are being pressed into service. The end result will be seamless city level spatial datasets, all relevant information needed to run the city just a mouse click away.

I'm excited about this mission. The experience of using GIS for city planning in Pune where I live has been to put it mildly ... disappointing. There have been various half hearted attempts to use the technology, but the mentality has been to use it to solve isolated problems. There hasn't been a concerted effort to create an integrated city level system which brings together data from various departments and then crucially to embed this GIS in the day to day work schedule of the city government.

And it is the way in which individual cities respond to this initiative that offers the greatest potential for success but also possible stumbling blocks to its effective implementation. Despite this impressive start I have to express my concerns over the long term viability of the National Urban Mapping Mission. I looked through the roadmap document available through their website. It is impressive. There is no question that the Survey of India is a reputable organization and a high quality database will be developed by them. Also importantly there is money set aside for capacity building. Each city will send a few officials to get trained in GIS.

What I want to know is whether individual cities will set aside money from its budget to fund a full time specialist staff to manage this GIS. Over the long term the responsibility of maintaining this GIS will have to come from within the city government budget. The Centre and State are unlikely to contribute any money towards hiring staff and other such sundry city governance matters. So far the way to avoid hiring additional staff has been to delegate GIS as an additional responsibility to city engineers and planners who have ten other matters to attend to.

This could work in the past because GIS played a minor role if at all in city planning. But if these soon to be available new massive datasets and attending software and hardware are to be looked after properly and used to their fullest potential, then specialists will need to be hired full time. Surrogates who will be spending most of the day in their primary job as a city engineer or planner or administrator simply won't be able to act as GIS gurus as well.

I have come across this situation before with the Maharashtra Forest Service. A few years back I had a conversation about GIS with a forest officer. He was frustrated that after spending tens of thousand of dollars on GIS software, the Maharashtra Government made no provision to hire specialists to run it! Instead Forest Officers were sent for training. Now, these are smart officers but their primary duty was to tour the district, make working plans for forest management and attend to other administrative tasks. They had no time left over for GIS work.

This Urban Mapping Mission has been to some extent forced upon cities by the Central Government. But such a top down approach is handicapped by the fact that the Central Government doesn't run the cities. The success of this mission will depend upon whether individual city governments allocate sufficient funding to and allow GIS to play a central and integrative role in the process of city management and planning. Many cities have created good development plans for growth without the use of GIS over the years. But political interference and pressure from the urban builder lobby has seen those plans fail. Technology by itself will not fix the misgovernance of Indian cities. Using GIS effectively means a change in mindset first. Given the chaotic and corrupt history of functioning of Indian city governments there is reason for some pessimism here.

The second question I had was about citizen access to all this data. Will these datasets eventually become part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure? Will they be available to citizens for download (don't mind paying for them, I am not asking for free data, just easy access to it) thus enabling value additions that will encourage a thousand spin off applications to emerge?

That would be the forward looking and mature position to take. I hope our government thinks the same.

Tip: Spatial Sustain


  1. Suvrat, nice article and analysis of the overall situation. Many thanks for that. I am not fully aware about the situation. So granting that, my limited experience in the geospatial industry tells me that there needs to be held certain seminars to raise awareness about what role the geospatial industry may play. A professional consultant (expert in providing guidance about implementation and maintenance of geospatial department) should be appointed to develop strategic business plan at each local level. Organization like YASHADA may play vital role in such situation.
    About the data, I believe all the data that falls in public domain and collected by governmental agencies should be available to public at NO cost. Otherwise what's the use of us paying taxes?? :-)
    But it certainly is a daunting task that our government has undertaken and I wish them all the very best for their endeavor.
    Best Regards,

  2. Sagar-

    I agree on the seminars and hiring consultants part. But the problem has been a lack of in-house expertise within local governments. That makes it difficult to sustain a GIS over the long run, as money and persons are not devoted to it. Consultants make their money and disappear after their contract. which is why I stressed that creating a separate staff for running a GIS is essential.

    i wish all this data were free. certainly if Survey of India is creating this data using government funding it does fall under public domain. The government has already adopted a pay for data model for this data warehouse. I suspect the NSDI will ultimately be a mix of free and pay for use data gateway.

  3. Great Stuff!! I just wish this happens and happens in some decent timeframe. It’s very critical information and will help our infrastructure. Please keep us updated.