Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Journey without Maps

India's science laureate , Prof. Jayant Narlikar recently wrote an excellent column in the Times of India (July 28 2007). He writes about accurate maps or the lack of them. For a country obsessed with secrecy, revealing one's true location is anathema. Disorientation is easier to manage. He correctly points out that the word "information" doesn't equate with IT and call centres alone. Our citizens have a right to good geographic information i.e. accurate maps of cities, natural resources and navigational maps. This lack of maps and geographic data doesn't surprise me. Geographic information systems (GIS), the technology for creating, managing and analyzing spatial data is now a crucial component of the day to day work cycle of city, state and federal governments of many countries. In India, somewhere in the labyrinths of our mammoth bureaucracy, there are people whose sole job is to flip through magazines and make sure that boundaries of India in depicted maps are shown accurately. Only then can the magazine be circulated. Way to go India!

But I don't want to sound too negative. Change is on its way. The Govt. of India has set up a National Spatial Data Infrastructure, whose chief aim is to distribute data. They have even set up a website which is going to act as the data clearinghouse, where citizens will be able to query about a location and download available data. I checked out this website called NSDI for India. Looks well made but unfortunately it is an empty shell. All my searches came empty. I emailed them several times, but no reply either. Maybe someday.

There is another site where citizens can get data. This is a data clearinghouse set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forest known as Environmental Information Centre. It is a well designed, easy to use website. Users can specify the location and type of data they want, choosing from an available list. This data is not free. After the list is submitted, users will receive a quotation from EIC. I submitted a list of 7 standard data sets for an area around 200 sq km. The data set would have set me back by around Rs 85,000/-. Sounds expensive, but creating data is the main headache and expense of any GIS project. I think this is a very good resource in a country where good data is very hard to come by.

Finally Prof. Narlikar in his article talks specifically on city data sets. The kind you see in very high end cars in the U.S. and Europe where you can input your start and destination address and navigate using a digital display. Those data sets are enormously expensive to create and maintain since they need to be updated on a six month cycle. In the U.S they sell for tens of thousands of dollars for one city. Personal ownership of the data is too expensive even for Americans, but these datasets have made their way into applications that people use everyday. In India, they will probably be created by big private enterprises not just for car navigation but for the mobile phone market. The market is enormous and location based applications will inevitably be in high demand.


  1. Hi,

    Isn't Survey of India responsible for creating the maps first and then others can maintain database, distribute and do whatever they want, of course by paying SOI.

    The most recent maps available to the public are all based on the survey conducted by the British, unless SOI has released the ones they have been working on. The "updating whole country's maps using aerial photographs" has been going on, but using not so recent photographs, as the they flight was conducted during the first phase of the project, a long time ago (can't remember the year off hand).

    Hopefully CARTOSAT data will be used by SOI to update the maps, and hope they release the maps (digital and paper maps) to the public soon. Cartography is one of the major objectives of CARTOSAT.

  2. Sites like Google Maps and the likes are good enough for the current browsing needs of people, atleast for those parts of the country (and world) for which detailed maps are(and they are) available :)