Monday, August 17, 2009

Indian Space Org's First Release Bhuvan Is A Dud

The Indian Space Research Organization just doesn't get it does it?
If it aspires to be player in the innovative and fast evolving world of web mapping applications, then a product launch that got so much pre -launch publicity needs to have a serious wow factor to it. It must shake up old and new users.

Agreed you may not have all the data and all the planned functionality ready but what you present to your audience should at least have the appearance of completeness. You should put out whatever best data you have and make sure all the tools and functions are in working order. Beta release and future potential are all well accepted processes and norms within the software industry, but web map users who have over the last few years become fat on a diet of elegant and increasingly sophisticated products are going to be making a spot judgment on what you have now.
And for this first release of Bhuvan that means ....not much.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Ambuj Saxena beat me to it. He blogs at Devils Workshop and has a nice post on his experience with Bhuvan. I concur with many of his criticisms that Bhuvan has been hastily put together and users are going to get annoyed that it just doesn't stand up to its pre launch hype in terms of image quality and other functionality.
Albeit critical Devangshu Datta in an article on Bhuvan in the Business Standard takes a mellower and longer view and points to the potential of a product like this. I am more apprehensive for reasons I will elaborate later and I feel most users who want an immediate rich and inspiring experience will need some persuasion that Bhuvan can be significantly improved upon.
I just want to go through the four points I had raised in my speculative preview of Bhuvan and then add more thoughts on some of the details of the product and user experience.
1) Will the images from Bhuvan be superior to that provided by Google? - It is going to be a crushing blow to users who having followed the pre- launch announcements would have gone on Bhuvan expecting high resolution images of their cities and homes. ISRO decided to keep its best data away and instead serve up coarser data from its Linear Imaging Self Scanner (LISS) LISS 3 and LiSS 4 sensors aboard its IRS satellite series. That means a resolution ranging from about 24 meters to about 5 meters. ISRO has better data than this. Its Cartosat 1 satellite has been imaging India for the last 4 years and Cartosat 2 for the last one year. That data is 2.5 meters and 0.8 meters resolution resp. The quicker that comes online the better.

Right now Google products win hands down.

The image clarity issue has been a fiasco for ISRO. For months the media excitedly wrote that Bhuvan will be offering images much better than Google. ISRO kept silent and did not issue much needed correctives, thereby implicitly supporting the tripe the media was offering. Then after all this they go and offer us second level imagery. Its enough to turn away potential users in disgust.
2) Will ISRO make other data available? - Yes, Bhuvan has administrative data like state, district and tehsil boundaries, transportation data like national highways and natural resources data like rivers, water bodies, wasteland, and soil. A limited selection but more might be on the way. I have more to say about data later in this post.
3) Will Bhuvan be like Google Maps or like Google Earth? - There was conflicting information on this. The indications were that Bhuvan might be like Google Maps, meaning a true web enabled mapping service. I guessed wrong in an earlier post. ISRO has decided to engineer it more like Google Earth. That means you have to download software. Bhuvan is a local application which gets only images from a remote server. Otherwise the application interface, all the menus, tools and other functionality is being served from your hard drive. This does make the interface more efficient and quick. I've heard quibbles about the 10 Mb download. But I would rather suffer a onetime download and then work with a fast interface than perpetually get frustrated waiting for the entire interface being served over a limited bandwidth.
The less known fact is that the 3D capabilities of Bhuvan, i.e. the app that lets us drape and visualize images in a 3D environment is actually being run from a tool called Terra Explorer a 3D environment geospatial application specialist owned by Skyline. ISRO has licensed Terra Explorer to serve as a foundation for Bhuvan. The rest of Bhuvan functionality is built on top of this Terra Explorer core.
I could not find this information anywhere in the documentation on their website. Ambuj mentioned this in his post. Curiously when I was playing around installing and uninstalling Bhuvan I got a notification .......Terra Explorer uninstalled!
I just had to laugh. So much for the chest beating and boasting that Bhuvan is an indigenous alternative to Google Earth.
4) Will ISRO allow open access to the Bhuvan API? - No indication that ISRO is going to allow an open API for customizing this product. This is a real pity. It will severely limit use of this product as innovators will flock to applications like Google Maps to create complex applications and mashups which means less use of ISRO imagery and data.
ISRO in fact may not be able to open up its API even if it wanted to because that may violate its licensing agreement with Terra Explorer.
On to some other concerns I have about Bhuvan -
a) Performance optimization for Indian users- Google Earth has a great feature. You can work offline. When you first go online and call up images for a certain area, those images at the zoom extent you have seeing them are stored in cache. You can go offline and work with those images from cache. You can't obviously call up any new images but if you are doing concentrated work on only one area you can work offline. ISRO missed out on this feature. Since the software resides on your computer working offline would have been a boon in Indian conditions where connectivity is erratic and where lots of users buy limited download packages from their ISP.
b) Elements of cartography, map layer control , aesthetics- Can we have a visual display of map layers that looks a bit professional please? As of now the most elementary principles of cartography and map layer control are missing. For example the icon for city is the default pin! And it doesn't scale to zoom extent. Boundaries and roads are not displayed with proper line thicknesses and polygon color fills can't be seen. Labels likewise don't scale and are garishly colored. ISRO needs to hire professional map makers and designers to work on this one.
c) Who is Bhuvan aimed at? I am becoming more puzzled by the question of which user community ISRO is trying to target. The fastest growing user base for mapping applications in India are people interested in urban location based apps. But ISRO has effectively shut itself from this potential user base. Currently the images are just too coarse for any meaningful urban visualization and analysis. Getting Cartosat 2 images online will bring images comparable to Google Maps within reach of Indian users.
But a deeper problem awaits. I suspect the Indian government does not have ownership of annotated detailed street maps and city feature layers. Over the years Urban GIS has been neglected by the government. The detailed street maps and annotations you see in apps like Google Maps for Indian cities have been collected by private players and have been licensed to Google. The government sees the need for detailed urban datasets and has launched the Urban Mapping Mission. But it may be years before the mission produces data and Bhuvan gets detailed street maps owned by the government.
The immediate option would be to license street maps from private owners but I doubt they will do that. And again even having detailed street maps will be of limited use to users and developers if they don't have an open API to build value added services on top of this base data.
Which leaves Bhuvan with users interested in natural resources.
d) Will even good natural resources data save Bhuvan? This is the one area where Bhuvan is claiming a clear advantage over Google products and services i.e. availability of Indian natural resources data sets. With this release rivers, wasteland and soil data layers are available for information retrieval. But again I have doubts. They layers are not exclusively found in Bhuvan. For example the elegantly designed India Biodiversity Portal already has several natural resources data sets online which overlap with what Bhuvan is offering. Another government venture Bhoosampada offers land use and land cover data from which you can extract wasteland info again overlapping with Bhuvan.
So I am not sure if Bhuvan can maintain a clear advantage over other services even in natural resources datasets. This problem will get exacerbated when the National Spatial Data Infrastructure brings even more datasets onto the public domain. Non government / private organizations are sure to mine them to create innovative products.
My fear is Bhuvan given the stuttering incremental way in which government works will always be lagging behind.
In summary for your India data needs:
For best imagery- Google Earth / Google Maps
For Urban Data Needs - Google Maps
For Natural Resources Data Needs - India Biodiversity Portal, Bhoosampada, Bhuvan
Also check out GeoCommons for India Census data. Its is another upcoming public domain mapping platform with improving India data sets.
A Beta release does not mean releasing a product which is virtually useless. And given the web mapping ecosystem in which Bhuvan is competing this product is incomplete to the point of being useless. It will certainly evolve and improve in the future and offer a specialized group of users an information retrieval and sharing system for natural resources and village level data but so will other products offering similar services and data sets. I don't see a broad user base for this application.

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