Maps of the world

Geographical Information Systems is revolutionising the present and portend a happier future. Or so we hope in the maps of our minds.

By Rakesh Kalshian
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Maps of the world

With a little tap and a blip:< SANICHAR is a smalltime grocer in the straggling, dusty town of backyard Jhumri Talaiya in Bihar. He barely manages to sell a few dozen bars of soap and detergent a month.

But 1,600 km away in Bombay, a man with a computer is keeping tabs on Sanichar's bottomline sales.

With a few taps on his keyboard, Rajendra Aneja, general sales manager of Hindustan Lever Ltd, India's largest consumer goods manufacturer, can conjure up a map of India on his computer screen. A few more taps and what he gets is a blow-up of a single state among the 25 the country has. Then, in sequence, he summons up a district, a group of villages and the roads and tracks that connect them. Points blip the location of individual shops. If he so chooses, he can pick out Jhumri Talaiya from this cartographic complexity and Sanichar's tiny store as a blob on the map.

Aneja is putting the finishing touches to a system that he believes could transform rural marketing in India. By charting out individual villages and roads on a digital map, he can plot the best way to supply and service a vast network of rural outlets.

His magic wand is a high-tech mapping and decision-making tool called Geographical Information Systems, or GIS -- an organised but impossibly complex collection of computer hardware, software and geographical data, designed by experts to efficiently capture, store, update, manipulate, analyse and display all forms of information with distinct geographical reference.

The basic GIS apparatus consists of a computer, a digitiser that converts information into computer lingo, a plotter (which creates a map on a grid), a printer and, of course, a GIS programme.

Information, of course, pours in different varieties and "languages" -- tables, statistics, aerial photographs of forest and land cover, surface maps or "toposheets", drawn manually using surveying -- both aerial and land -- techniques, hand-drawn maps of plot sizes in a village, pictures, infrared and otherwise, taken by satellites.

Except for the satellite pictures, the rest of the data has to be converted into the binary computer argot of 1 and 0 -- in short, digitised. Satellite data is received in the form of digital tapes. As soon as the other data are digitised, the GIS software begins to crank out its magic. It transforms all information into hundreds of varicoloured maps, each representing a particular parameter -- say, the population of a district.

Marketing is just one of the many applications of this amazingly powerful technology. The febrile GIS landscape, almost likened to an Impressionistic masterpiece, is now dotted with applications in fields as diverse as archaeology (reconstructing an old castle from its ruins); global warming (showing changes in sea temperatures and sea-level rise and their effect on fish movement); navigation (finding traffic-free -- and hence the quickest -- routes in a city); and, surprisingly, philanthropy (determining how much money is donated to the arts versus impoverished areas); wildlife management (how people and animals can live harmoniously in a forest); and telecommunications (how to decongest clogged phone lines); security systems (how to hold mega-events like the Olympics in a crime-free environment); and, of course, rural marketing (increasing sales by mapping rural outlets); mining (its effect on the quality of soil); and, inescapably, war (coordinating troop movements, among other things).

In the autumn of 1992, for instance, the American state of Florida, chronically devastated by tornadoes, was hit by one of its worst hurricanes in years. Howling winds at speeds of over 288 kmph ripped through homes, schools, hospitals and other structures, turning the area into a garbage dump of twisted wreckage.

It was GIS technology that made the seemingly hopeless task of rushing relief to the storm-ravaged areas a huge success. Every day, GIS experts tapped out maps showing curfew areas, trash burn areas, tent cities, Red Cross locations, portable toilet facilities, mobile kitchens, among a host of other features, to help coordinate the flow of goods and services to the hurricane hit as well as assess storm damage to the closest dollar.

Likewise, in January this year, when Los Angeles was jolted by an earthquake of magnitude 6.8 on the Richter scale -- leading doomsayers to crow that the long-predicted quake that would send California sliding into the sea had come -- demolishing buildings, freeways, water and power supply networks, the GIS once again played a cardinal role in disaster-relief management efforts.

The use of GIS has grown dramatically the world over in the '80s, growing from esoteric obscurity to becoming commonplace in businesses, universities and governments where they are used for diverse applications. To get some idea of its sheer compass, sample the following applications:
Determining who uses the most water in areas hit by water scarcity -- agriculture or large cities, golf courses or public parks?

What part of a country should have solar or wind farms?

How are hazardous wastes being transported? On safe roads? In heavy traffic?

How do factories benefit neighbourhoods? What happens when they close?

How much does food cost in inner cities compared to the affluent suburbs?

Where are the heavily-travelled traffic corridors where light rail systems would work?

What is the relationship between the spread of disease and environmental factors, such as agriculture and weather?

Many organisations now spend previously unthinkable amounts of money on GIS and on geographic databases. Predictions suggest that billions of dollars will be spent on these items over the next 10 years. There are essentially 2 reasons for its growing popularity. First, the costs of computer hardware needed for GIS are dropping vertiginously, making it affordable to more users.

Explains A R Dasgupta of the Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad, "Geography is part of our everyday world; almost every decision we make is influenced or dictated by some fact of geography. Fire trucks are sent to fires by the fastest available routes, central government grants are often awarded to state governments based on population, and diseases are studied by identifying areas of prevalence and the rate of spread. Opportunity parallels the need for GIS -- hence its rapidly growing popularity."

Over the past couple of years, India, too, has put itself on the GIS map even though largely with the aim of getting a learner's hang of this versatile but data-demanding mapping and decision-making tool. According to Dinesh Gupta of International Database Management Ltd, the distributor of ARCINFO, the world's most popular GIS package, at least 150 copies of it have been sold in India so far.

"Tracking" the trail of malaria in Gujarat's Kheda district, where the disease is rampant, with the help of GIS is one of its noteworthy indigenous applications. The 2-year study, sponsored by the Delhi-based Malaria Research Centre (MRC), would examine the yearly, village-wise data of malarial cases from 1982 to 1992 and see if it links up with changes, over the same period, in natural factors such as forest cover, surface water bodies, groundwater levels, land-use patterns, soil and terrain conditions and meteorological indexes like temperature, humidity and rainfall. Except for meteorological data, the rest would be in the form of satellite images provided by the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA).

"Once we understand the interaction between various natural factors that leads to an increase in the incidence of malaria, we could plan accordingly to prevent its spread in the area. For instance, an undulating terrain may lead to the formation of puddles or ponds in the rainy season, thus allowing more mosquitoes to breed," says V P Sharma, MRC's director.

While GIS experts track the malarial advance in Gujarat, scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) are using GIS to "tail" the snow leopard and get an insight into how the rapidly, largely tourism-thrust changing geography and ecology of Ladakh can affect its life. They have created a comprehensive map of the Hemis wildlife sanctuary, integrating elements such as vegetation types, the contours and the lay of the land, people's movements and the kinds of animals the leopards prey on, among others factors. Says Qamar Qureshi, a GIS specialist at WII, "Using this information, wildlife managers can take effective measures, such as prohibiting regular hunts of the snow leopard, to protect this endangered animal from greedy poachers."

The WII is also planning to use the GIS to map the biodiversity of the Western Himalaya. The idea is to determine areas in need of protection from human intervention. The World Wide Fund for Nature -- India has an equally ambitious project to map the biodiversity of the entire country. The project is sponsored by the Overseas Development Agency (ODA).

Yet another major application of the GIS at the WII was determining the loss of biodiversity when the Narmada Dam eventually comes up. They analysts took into reckoning indicators such as the uniqueness of the would-be-submerged forests -- in terms of flora and fauna -- the people's dependence on these forests, and soil types.

The National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) is creating a database on environmental pollution using the GIS and remote sensing. Sponsored by the ministry of environment and forests (MEF), the project is aimed at helping various agencies in managing and preventing environmental crises such as oil slicks, deterioration of soil quality because of mining and decline in urban health because of air, noise and water pollution.

These are the big daddies of GIS use. There are many other small decision-making games that Indians are at present playing in the GIS parlour. For instance: NISTADS' project on understanding the decline of the Aravallis and suggesting ways of regreening it; the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay's prospecting for iron ore and groundwater; WII's studies on the effects of the Sardar Sarovar Project on the habitat of the wild ass in the Rann of Kutch; the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing's assessment of fire hazards in the Rajaji National Park, and the IIRS' plan of action for rejuvenating the watersheds in Sikkim.

Evidently, in India, environmental issues are understandably hogging the GIS limelight. Why aren't people using them for other interesting applications, such as nabbing criminals or decongesting traffic? Says Gupta, "GIS in India is still in its infancy and so people are reluctant to invest in it, though many, such as urban planners, traffic and police departments, have shown interest in it. Their main problem, it seems to me, is lack of a reliable database."

The list of applications may sound impressive, but most GIS experts agree that despite its obvious powerful analytical capabilities in solving diverse problems, GIS in India -- and to a lesser extent in the Western countries -- is dogged by several problems.

First, the economics: although GIS technology keeps becoming more affordable and widely available, it is still so prohibitively expensive that only well-funded government departments and large corporations can use it. ARC/INFO, the popular GIS software developed by the US-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, costs not less than Rs 8 lakh. Moreover, anyone wanting to use GIS must have access to a source of digitised data, a computer and trained personnel who are willing to dedicate time to the headbanging task of designing and generating maps.

Although at least 3 Indian institutions have come up with cheaper GIS packages -- the Space Application Centre's ISRO-GIS, in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation; the Indian Institute of Technology's GRAM, and the ISRO's GEOSPACE -- they haven't attracted very many buyers.

Says Qureshi, "These systems do not offer the kind of analytical or designing features boasted of by ARC/INFO or GRASS (Geographical Resource Analytical Support System, developed by the US and available -- believe it or not -- for free). As most of the Indian packages are PC-based, they cannot deal with large doses of information. They are best-suited for training people in GIS." Qureshi's reasoning is supported by the fact that the department of space has recently bought 21 copies of ArcView, the latest version of ARC/INFO.

The GIS is still perceived as a technology that requires expertise and specialised training. "Persuading a block development officer to use GIS is like poking a rhino with a stick," says P Venkatachalam of the Centre for Studies on Resource Engineering (CSRE) at IIT, Bombay. "Most of them are indifferent to the advantages GIS can offer in their development planning process." Likewise, old-fashioned quill-and-divider cartographers find it difficult to make a switch to the new mapping tool.

"But having trained personnel is not enough," feels B H Jajoo of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. "There is little GIS infrastructure, such as printers and computers, digitisers, and satellite imageries, at the district or village level to justify the application of GIS." Even if, as some optimists have suggested, the National Informatics Centre's computer network NICNET, which links all the districts in the country, can be utilised, it would be useless without a dedicated group of people trained in the different aspects of GIS and remote sensing.

The current crisis in NISTADS' GIS unit is a glaring example of the paucity of GIS experts. Five months ago, when Subhan Khan, the unit chief, fell gravely ill, the GIS laboratory found itself without a leader. Five months later, with Khan recovering in hospital, it is still groping for direction. With a couple of GIS technicians left to their own devices, most of the projects have come to a standstill. And the ad hoc head is too embarrassed to say anything about the projects in limbo. Apparently, the funding agencies, such as the department of science and technology and the MEF, have threatened to stop the funding if a progress report for the past 5 months is not delivered.

The funding agencies have other matters to be irritated about, too. The scale of the Indian GIS maps leaves a lot to be desired. The Survey of India (SoI) toposheets, as the maps are called, are mostly available on a scale of 1:50,000. But for many applications, a larger scale is needed. In 1986, the SoI was asked to chart out the entire country on a scale of 1:25,000, but so far not more than 40 per cent of the area has been covered. Even those charts for which the survey has been completed, no maps are available, for reasons unknown.

The paucity of largescale maps is the biggest obstacle in the National Water Development Agency's project to link India's rivers through canals. The exercise would need maps with a close resolution of 5 metres -- which means that an area of 5X5 sq m should be clearly defined. The currently available resolution is about 20 metres, offered by the SoI toposheets. The satellite pictures offer a resolution ranging from 36.5 metres, offered by the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite, to 10 metres, of pictures taken by the French satellite SPOT.

Another problem with maps is the diversity of scales. While SoI's toposheets are available on 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale, the Forest Survey of India and the National Bureau of Soil Survey are busy mapping India's forests and soils respectively on a 1:250,000 scale. Sikkim's forests are an exception -- they are mapped on a 1:50,000 scale.

As if their earlier mandate wasn't ambitious enough, in 1989, SoI was burdened with the extra responsibility of digitising the 1:50,000 scale toposheets. Expectedly, they still have a long way to go. Meanwhile, many of the toposheets have already been digitised by various GIS users. This means that by the time the SoI completes the projects, much duplication may have taken the wind out of its sails.

Data conversion from the hard copy map to an acceptable digital form is a slow, and hence expensive, business. Typically, 75 per cent of the initial (first 5 years) system costs are incurred in the data conversion process. The time-consuming nature of data conversion means that geographic databases get created slowly and information benefits take correspondingly long to be achieved.

Expensive duplication of data must be avoided. This implies that data should be digitised into a common logical data model that can be used by many departments and data-sharing becomes smoother. It also implies that traditional data-gathering agencies should provide data in the digital form that needs no further conversion.

Moreover, data quality (low resolution, low precision, logical errors, out of date) is often worse than initially assumed by the user or than the data-gathering agencies prefer to admit. Increases in data resolution and precision may come at exponential cost. Data quality is important if it leads to information that is unreliable for its unintended use.

While these are real problems and cannot be wished away, it may be unfair to put the entire blame on the SoI. For one, despite its ambitious charter, its terms are dictated by the department of science and technology. SoI's officials allege they have no say in deciding the future of the organisation and feel they should be granted autonomy. A top SoI officer alleged that since the advent of satellite mapping, their importance has been undermined by the scientists. "Therefore, we are given short shrift, both politically and financially. Under such circumstances, one cannot fault the organisation for not providing maps to the public," he said.

Further, if data is available at all, in a country like India where data-gathering is an exercise in shirking (the inauthenticity of the 1981 census will testify to that), you are not sure about its accuracy. Says Khan, "It has been the practice in many departments to doctor the data which might cause them embarrassment. Unless you have free access to information, the GIS has no meaning. It's like a car without fuel."

The use of the GIS for making development plans has its peculiar problems, too. "For one," says G Behera of the NRSA, "it is nothing short of a Herculean task to convince the bureaucracy of the significance of the GIS, or, for that matter, of any new technology. As far as my experience goes, I've come across very few district collectors who evinced any interest in this technology. It's ironic that these civil servants, far from beings agents of change, are the biggest spanners in the works of the GIS."

What is disconcerting is that most of the GIS projects end with the project report. Period. The value of the GIS cannot ascertained till its results are tested on the ground, says Behera. His frustration is shared by most GIS technologists. For example, in 1988, the NRSA did a GIS study on how drought can combated in Haryana's Bhiwani district and came out with an action plan. But, till date, says an angry Behera, nothing has been done about it. And this is not the only example of the government's indifference.

Under the Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development launched by the government in 1988, the NRSA has completed GIS studies for the originally-planned 15 districts. But sadly, says Behera, no effort has been made to implement the action plans suggested by these studies.

The manual processes of geographic analysis using hard copy maps are so laborious that few people are trained in their fundamentals. Similarly, few people are trained in the relatively recent capabilities of the GIS. The availability of skilled people will probably be the greatest on-system use in the next decade. Professional staff training is an essential requirement, and the cost and time for this must be provided if information is to be produced and benefits are to be achieved. The type of person who can use a system without producing spurious or erroneous results needs some appreciation of spatial analysis and a knowledge of GIS functions.

The primary problems to be overcome in GIS implementation around the world are -- hold your breath -- management issues. Says Jajoo, "With some notable exceptions, there is a widespread lack of understanding in senior management of the actual impact of geographic information on government programmes. There is a general acknowledgement that information is a good thing, but little appreciation of the monetary value of adequate and timely information versus the inefficiencies of inadequate or poor information." Explains Behera, "This applies particularly to the value of geographic information, perhaps because, in the past, manual techniques have so greatly inhibited its production. This lack of understanding and direction by senior management can result in piecemeal, inadequately-funded, inadequately-staffed GIS development, with a subsequent risk of over-expensive, uncoordinated implementation and less-than-satisfactory benefits."

Last, but not the least, there is no umbrella organisation in India that looks after various GIS projects in the country. This has led to several problems: first, since there is little interaction among GIS users, no one knows what anyone else is doing. This increases the chances of duplication of effort; second, except for the Delhi-based NIC, there is no other national repository of database.

Says Jajoo, "It's a case of putting the cart before the horse," says Jajoo. "As international agencies, such as the World Bank, are willing to fund GIS projects, everybody is making a beeline for GIS. They don't realise that we still don't have enough reliable database to carry out GIS studies, at least as far as it relates to development, to say nothing of the reluctance of various departments to share information."

To bring about a certain cohesiveness in GIS studies, some enterprising GIS experts have formed a society called the Geomatics Society that seeks to bring together information technologists, including GIS experts, under one chandelier.

While there is no doubt about the GIS' value as a crucial decision-making tool, as has been amply demonstrated in the West, if it is to succeed in India, the policymakers and scientists will have to strive towards unclogging the information arteries of bureaucratic cholesterol. Unless this happens, the GIS may continue to be a purely academic exercise in self-preservation by fund-starved researchers, mapping their own feet standing still while the rest of the world zooms past.

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