GIS or Geographic Information Systems and other forms of spatial data management and application are increasingly becoming a core component of the information technology (IT) infrastructure of India. This is a time when we are seeing a huge number of businesses integrating GIS technology in their business processes globally, representing a business opportunity for global businesses to the tune of up to $100 billion. However, at such a juncture India must talk about whether it is not just GIS enabled, but also whether it is spatial data enabled in terms of how industry can have access to a spatial data infrastructure that can ensure greater opportunities for its utilization by start-ups and other business processes in India.
It was these and other such questions related to innovation, applications and entrepreneurship in spatial data technology that were talked about in a discussion titled ‘Age of Geographic Enlightenment – An Opportunity for Indian Start-Ups’ on the afternoon of December 14th, 2017 in the Real Time GIS & IoT Summit organized by ESRI India in partnership with the Department of Science & Technology (DS&T), GoI.
In a panel comprising of start-up industry representatives and also Dr. Debpriya Dutta, Scientist G and Advisor at the NRDMS (Natural Resources Data Management System) programme of the DST, the possibilities for nurturing a start-up ecosystem based on GIS and spatial data technology in India was explored. The panel included Dr. Dutta along with start-up entrepreneurs such as Taranjeet Singh of Agnext and others. Of chief concern was whether India does have the infrastructure to support start-ups that utilize GIS and other spatial data technologies.
GIS and spatial data technologies are a relatively new development, and earlier gathering data over geographical areas could be quite cumbersome. For example, personnel from the respective forest departments would have to make multiple field visits to gather data on a tract of forest, and this could be even more cumbersome if one had to gather temporal data over a given area. The coming of GIS made this process much simpler and less cumbersome, although now the problem is one of collation and arrangement of this data into a spatial data infrastructure, as Dutta says, “GIS is nothing without data”. This development could take the utilization of spatial data technologies out of the hands of mostly experts and place them in the hands of a wider public and general work processes.
The connection for laying a spatial data infrastructure and start-ups begins with the realization that given the propensity for innovative use by start-ups, “Start-ups could help achieve the economic benefits of India’s Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)”, as Dutta says. However, India’s SDI is at a quite nascent stage of development and the government still preparing India’s SDI for synchrony with the market.
In this respect, the DST is partnering with the GIS giant ESRI to kick-start entrepreneurship in nurturing a GIS start-up ecosystem in India. Here they are looking to offer solutions that can create opportunity in untapped location-based work processes by nurturing start-ups and entrepreneurship in India. For example, DST aims to start the National Geo-spatial Entrepreneurship Programme and also a geo-spatial entrepreneurship training program according to Dutta for utilizing the economic value of India’s SDI.
The real challenge for India’s SDI is connecting people and motivating them to get involved with India’s geo-spatial data infrastructure. For example, Taranjeet Singh of Agnext, a spatial data start-up specializing in agricultural services says that garnering spatial data in India can be especially difficult when it is not integrated into a spatial data infrastructure but is instead sporadically scattered spatially in terms of data collection centres that use techniques such as remote sensing for example. An integrated geo-spatial data infrastructure for Agnext could for example enable them to pinpoint where agricultural land might be contaminated or find out the location where contaminated food had been grown much more easily. Singh however complains of much lacuna on the part of government when it comes to providing a streamlined interface for start-ups in using geo-spatial technologies.
In an age of societies moving towards formations such as the Open Data Movement, an underdeveloped geo-spatial science in India must move towards greater flexibility and accountability if it is to meet the demands of both business work processes and public meta-politics. In aiming to go for the gauntlet of tapping into inherent untapped location-based business opportunities in India, government must also set aside some procurement for small businesses such that the market bubble increases exponentially, other than easing businesses overall.
Allowing greater access to geo-spatial data for the public also might encourage greater innovation by offering greater opportunity to interface with India’s geo-spatial data technologies. The hurdle as it always remains with technological resources remains the access to control over technologies which is the bulwark for technological opportunity and accountability. It is in everybody’s best interests if geo-spatial information is free and in the public domain such that geo-spatial data itself is subject to institutional checks and balances over its use.