Ganga Prize – Bottom-Up Approach to Encouraging Innovation in Applications of Remote Sensing in India

India has a host of large-lucrative-unsolved-problems that can utilize space data as an inherent foundation for technology and business models that provide a host of services in data intelligence and analytics. Remote sensing is one such strong tool for mapping and monitoring the use of Earth from land use and land cover, topography and geology, terrestrial (vegetation) ecosystem, agriculture and forestry, hydrology and climate, oceanography and coastal zone, disaster and natural hazards, resource exploration, development of spatial data infrastructure research, etc. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) operates one of the largest fleet of remote sensing satellites of the world, which provides tremendous scope for scaling the utilisation of the data acquired by these assets.

Despite India having one of the world’s largest Earth observation constellations, there is no national Geographical Information (GI) policy that provides an extensive foundation for downstream applications of imagery. A study conducted by National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) points to the lack of a foundation for effective data utilization leading to the holding back of several applications that can be evolved for the development of the country that can be evolved extensively using the already present IT infrastructure by the private industry/ non-governmental institutions.[i]

ISRO has developed the Bhuvan GIS platform as a tool to provide services to the various stakeholders in the country. A recent study provides ‘Design and Functional Evaluation of GIS Portals’ comparing USGS-National Map, Google Earth, Bhuvan, NSDI, MapmyIndia, Prototype K-GIS, SurveyKhan and NICMAPS.[ii] Quoting the summary of the evaluation of Bhuvan,

Bhuvan is more a collection of available map – more a data-bank – just a collection of old, project-specific and varied data. In our assessment, Bhuvan has just ~<5% of high-value GIS content – rest 95% is just old historical data layers. Bhuvan is far away from any systematic, seamless, nation-wide GIS database that many nations/agencies are offering. Bhuvan Portal has very rudimentary GIS display and visualization. In fact, it does not have any serious ministry/governance/citizens applications OR integrative GIS analysis and Decision Support capability at all. Bhuvan cannot address GIS Decision Support needs of governance issues – like needs of MNREGA, JNNURM, Panchayati Raj, Power, Rural Development, Planning Commission application needs, Urban Development needs and many others. Bhuvan Portal design, architecture and infrastructure is limited and thus is very slow and erratic in performance.’

What are the key challenges?

The challenge in developing the GIS ecosystem of the country mainly include

  1. Encouraging innovation, research for technologists with the ability of scaling applications based on the technology created for the for monitoring and reporting of activities around Ganga and its tributaries.
  2. Appraising a case for the policy makers of the country to consider changes in the current framework for GI policies leading to the overhauling of the current Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP) and creation of a holistic national GI policy.
  3. Creating an environment for private enterprise/non-governmental participation with effective utilisation of space data will create an ecosystem of social entrepreneurship and scalable start-up models for downstream application of satellite based technologies in India.

Given the size of the country and the federal mechanism of functionality, integrating every functionality and data into a single platform by a single agency seems to be a very steep challenge. Instead, one must look to distributed platform development that takes into account the interest of the State governments and Central government separately. Apart from the previous mentioned governance areas there are numerous government novel campaigns such as Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga, Digital India, that can all use GI data for governance and monitoring.

To this end, the country needs a national GI policy that can provide impetus to creating such distributed GIS platforms that can add immense value to governance. While these are top-down approaches to solving this large scale problem, is there a way of choosing a bottom-up approach to developing the sector via focussing on a single large scale problem and eventually making a case for policy debate?

Ganga Prize – Bottom-Up Approach to Encouraging Innovation in Applications of Remote Sensing in India

The Ganga and its tributaries that provide a lifeline for 500 million Indians along more than 2500 km of urban and rural India is the fifth most polluted river in the world. There is no extensive utilisation of space technology that provides an unparalleled means of monitoring large areas for reporting of activities that are causes of pollutants and other unlawful activities for such a case.

Instituting a ‘Ganga Prize’ can act as a catalyst in bringing about changes in the entire Indian downstream services ecosystem and can aid in the efforts of monitoring and reporting of activity in the purview of matters of governance to Centre and State governments around the Ganga river water basin. Such an effort shall bring a bottom-up approach to instituting technology platforms taking into account the dynamic of working with various federal and State government wings (in case of Clean Ganga – Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Ministry of Earth Sciences, specific State government initiatives).

Framework for such a prize can draw inspiration from internationally renowned competitions such as XPrize or more specifically within the GIS domain, the Copernicus competition of the European Union.[iii] More recently the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) driving the remote sensing applications interests of UAE has also instituted a similar competition.[iv]

This bottom-up approach to development of an ecosystem in India can encourage private enterprise and non-governmental organisations to drive effective utilisation of space data for applications that are globally scalable over a larger time-scale. A participatory factor shall also be added for incubators in the country, possible Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) steams/Angels looking to fund such development.

The key to a such as successful bottom-up approach is the look at effective incentivisation for participants. While, monetary awards can be one simple angle to it, ability to run pilots and converting them to partnership projects with relevant government stakeholders. A short and long-term win-win approach has to be inculcated into the design of this so that there the road doesn’t lead to a dead end to participants.

How will this change the current status?

Be it Remote Sensing Data Policy of the Department of Space or the Bhuvan platform or the rights to image and create insights of a particular Area of Interest/market, all of these needs reforms in the country for enabling holistic participation from quarters other than government agencies.

Such a bottom-up approach will provide a success story for a policy maker to drive change rather than force feeding policy changes top-down. To draw a parallel to a certain extent in the recent times, inspiration can be drawn from market spaces such as cab aggregators enabling livelihood for thousands of drivers while the ‘radio cab’, tax structures and other motor vehicle related regulation have evolved on the success of the sector.

References

[i] Mukund Kadusrinivas Rao and K. R. Sridhara Murthi, ‘Perspectives for a National GI Policy (Including a National GI Policy Draft)’, R11, 2012, http://www.nias.res.in/publication/perspectives-national-gi-policy-including-national-gi-policy-draft.

[ii] R. Shilpa, Vilas Chavan, and Diksha Bandil, ‘Report on Design and Functional Evaluation of GIS Portals (USGS-National Map, Google Earth, Bhuvan, (India), NSDI, MapmyIndia, Prototype K-GIS, SurveyKhan and NICMAPS)(NIAS Report No. R31-2015)’, Monograph, (May 2015), http://eprints.nias.res.in/749/.

[iii] ‘Copernicus Masters’, Copernicus Masters, accessed 10 January 2016, http://www.copernicus-masters.com.

[iv] ‘Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) – Remote Sensing Applications Competition (RSAC 2015)’, accessed 10 January 2016, http://mbrsc.ae/en/page/remote-sensing-applications-competition-rsac-2015.