Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mapping India: Can The RTI Be Extended To The NSDI

A clarion call seems to have been issued by the high priests of Indian government spatial data--

Resistance is futile...join the collective.

The Borg in this case is the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), an ambitious, much needed, slowly being built but yet to be fully realized vision to enable easy open and quick access to public domain spatial data.

The latest  to join this collective is another web mapping application, this time developed by the Central Ground Water Board. I began this post wanting to review it, but found it agonizingly slow the few times I tried to use it.

Instead I started thinking about the NSDI and what it could potentially do to facilitate a better engagement of civil society with government...more specifically..

can the mechanism of acquiring information through the Right To Information Act (RTI) be extended and modified to these web mapping applications under the umbrella of the NSDI?

Traditionally users of spatial information in India fall into two extreme categories. There are those "lightweight" users who go on the excellent mapping services of Google, on and use the images to locate items of interest, find directions, distances and create custom maps by putting placemarks and routes. The image quality is excellent but the apps have no serious analytical capability.

At the other pole are "serious" GIS users who access spatial data from heavyweight GIS and image processing packages with extended analytical and mapping capabilities. These users are spatial data professionals working in both the public and private sector.

The NSDI will create a third kind of a user....someone who may not formally work in GIS, may not have access to or afford access to a GIS, but nevertheless may want access to spatial data and may want to ask sophisticated spatial questions. The web mapping applications that owners of public domain spatial data must create, will provide a gateway to such user aspirations.

This opens up exciting possibilities for civic groups, NGO's and curious citizens..the third user group.. so to speak, who want to examine and question government on the status of natural resources, urban planning and developmental projects..all areas where spatial reasoning is critical.

Entering a web mapping app via the NSDI it would be possible for example to ask:

1) For a particular me the locations of ground water wells with contaminants above a specified quantity, within a specified distance of a known point pollution source...potentially through the CGWB web app

2)  For Ward X of city Y...prepare a map of lakes and streams and encroachments within these green zones...potentially through the Urban Mapping Mission websites.

3) ...For district X prepare a map of forest land with various levels of legal protection and the location of planned developmental projects within and near these forests...potentially through the Ministry of Environment and Forest website.

There will be some limitations to this kind of approach to information access:

1) The type of information a user may want is not included as a spatial layer in that particular web app.

2) The web app is not equipped with a query engine capable of performing the analysis.

3) The user knows what (s)he wants but does not have the expertise to perform the analysis.

4) The query might encompass a very large area and might run into bandwidth and application performance issues.  why not bypass these limitations which are sure to crop up and enable the user via the mapping application to compose a question, not using the formal query engine but plain language like the ones above... and send them to a designated Spatial Information Officer. That officer - and each public domain web mapping application will have one -  will process the query using a GIS and if required gather information from other sources and send the compiled answer within a specified time line.

The answers would be sent as a map in an image format and associated attribute data could be sent as an excel or a database file. Administrative costs can be charged through online credit card payments or can be sent via a check.

In effect the RTI will be extended to include these public domain web mapping sites as an official application counter for information. 

At present the NSDI and each of the associated agencies do have an RTI officer. But you have to apply to a central office for information. That central office may not have developed the needed synergy and cooperation with its GIS office to efficiently process your query.

I am thinking in terms of a decentralized mechanism wherein queries are sent directly through individual web mapping applications to the spatial information officer in charge of that application and answers to these queries are generated by processing the spatial databases underlying the web mapping app.

I have a feeling that something along these line must be put in place if the NSDI wants to fulfill its promise of open access to data. The first few web mapping sites I have come across do not have truly dynamic query engines that would enable a user to perform sophisticated analysis. Besides, the government may choose to present the pubic with only a limited view of the total data set.

Placing these web mapping sites within the ambit of the RTI would mean that all the information sitting in the underlying databases and not just the subset view presented via the mapping applications will be open to and can be accessed by the public.

Moreover, the spatial layers and associated databases if correctly attributed and structured,  will give results to queries potentially within a few minutes.  So this method will have a huge advantage over a traditional RTI query, the answer to which will have to put together painstakingly from disparate files  which may not yield very well to spatial queries.

Mapping applications under the NSDI will allow citizens to view, browse and query public domain data with a geographic context. Sorting through data this way..thinking of spatial relationships between objects... may inspire citizens to think of new questions to ask and in to new ways of analyzing information. A more productive and open relationship between citizen and government can be forged if the NSDI opens up to these possibilities.

See: Mapping India

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