Thursday, February 5, 2009

Community Science In India Using Web Maps

After my earlier preview of Bhuvan, a Web Map service to be launched in March 09 by the Indian Space Research Organization, a reader alerted me to a web mapping portal catering to the biology community of India. The name of this service is India Biodiversity Portal and it has been built on a foundation of Google Maps imaging service.

I looked through the site to find out who built this stuff. Apparently a group of NGO's, research organizations and Universities approached the National Knowledge Commission for permission to setup this interactive portal. So, this web service can be thought of as a map based wiki where users can not only view and browse and query data but add to it as well.

Here is the Portal Charter:

It will provide a platform for aggregating and sharing data and information on biodiversity by allowing wide-spread community participation.

It will leverage the intelligence of the crowd in generating, soliciting and aggregating biodiversity information.

It will provide free and open access to biodiversity information. All contributed information will be accessible under the Creative Commons license. The license regimes under which each bit of information is shared will be clearly specified.

It will provide explicit and unambiguous attribution and credit the source of the information.

It will facilitate social networking and build an open community of amateurs, naturalists, professionals, scientists, and others who are interested in the biodiversity of India.

We will build mechanisms for aggregating and validating information by the community, inspired by the large scale success of the wiki.

We believe in building a positive, respectful and trustful participatory environment that benefits science and society, and contributes to a sustainable future.

The language is frankly shocking, even seditious. Open and free access.... sharing data and information...... social networking and open community....... trustful participatory environment. I am not used to hearing this!

A few years ago all these terms were an oxymoron as far as spatial data was concerned. I mean how dare you share data and maps with someone else without the government's permission?!

My experience has been more you cannot have that data....... security concerns..........access delayed....Ministry of Defence clearance required........

.....but I just want to map the distribution of amphibians along riverine habitats.....what?.... no I don't think that poses a threat to national security.

.......project cancelled.

Jokes apart this portal shows that scientists and other users of spatial data in India desperately want an open and transparent environment that enables them to quickly acquire, value add, share data and set up collaborative projects that engage as wide a user base as possible. This portal is a reflection of a new mind set which has been missing for so long in this country.

There are collateral benefits of projects such at this one. You often wonder, do you get the public at large interested in science? How do you get people who are not involved in science professionally to inculcate the scientific outlook? Applications like this map wiki is an example of how it can be done. Anyone can come here, browse through biology and environment data layers, get curious about the world around them, ask critical questions about the state of the environment in the location they live, start a project and contribute to building a database (you have to be a registered user) and start feeling more connected with science and the scientific way of thinking. A virtual meeting place that allows citizens ranging from professional users of spatial data to high school students to initiate a much needed and long overdue conversation with the Indian scientific community. I feel one of the most effective ways to raise public awareness and support for science is through interactive projects like this one.

The makers of Bhuvan would do well to take a long look at such emerging applications. I want to stress again that it will not be the quality of images or the technology itself that will decide whether Bhuvan will succeed in grabbing a significant share of users away from Google Maps, but whether users will be able to access the Bhuvan API and customize Bhuvan to their needs and build innovative location data based applications on top of ISRO's images.

It is the openness and participatory nature of applications like this Biodiversity portal that Bhuvan will be competing against.

More power to them.

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