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Wanted: Database of earth's movements

Harichandan A A in Bangalore | December 27, 2004 13:03 IST
Last Updated: December 27, 2004 13:04 IST


Early Sunday morning's earthquake below the Indian Ocean is reminder again of the immediate need for more investments in a national spatial data infrastructure.

The quake, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, set off tsunamis that killed thousands and dispossessed more along the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and Maldives.

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Buildings swayed from Singapore to Bangladesh as one reporter on radio said.

The last time such an earthquake occurred was in 1964 in Alaska.

Precious little has improved in the way the effects of such disasters are managed. Most of the management remains reactive.

That could change if an international effort to which India is party, succeeds in building a network that will monitor and update changes on the ground in huge databases. That store of information could be used by countries to be better prepared for events like Sunday's killer earthquake.

In India, a multi-agency effort is on to build this National Spatial Data Infrastructure. In the coming years the NSDI will yield maps giving accurate information on the country's natural and human resources.

It will also, for instance, help us mobilise doctors, food, evacuation plans and teams efficiently in the event of such disasters. In the long run, this may even be possible before the disaster occurs.

This multi-agency multi-disciplinary effort would generate large amounts of data and information about everything from crop patterns to climate change to demographics, G Madhavan Nair, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation, said.

Europe and North America already have NSDIs of their own, or are well on their way to having one soon. India's efforts include ISRO, the India Meteorology Department, the National Natural Resources Management Systems, the Survey of India, the Department of Census, the National Informatics Centre and other agencies.

The NSDI will be a virtual network of standardised databases (repositories) updated regularly with data collected through ground surveys, aerial photography and satellite-based remote sensing. These databases could be used to generate an accurate multi-dimensional map of any given region.

This will tie the geography of a region to the people there, their education, main occupation and income levels, the natural resources available in the region, the density of doctors and teachers in the region and so on. The list was "limited only by imagination", as K Kasturirangan, ISRO's former chairman, once said.

Such information will help decision making in development programmes of the nation.

There is also a network of networks, the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure, scientists and governments are considering. GSDI, a collaboration of various NSDIs, could show us what we are doing with our planet by generating data on climate change, sea level rise, reduction in biological diversity, deforestation and degradation of forests, land degradation, large scale demographic changes with the attendant social, economic and cultural reactions.

Spatial data is basically data in the form of maps. With the availability of satellite-based remote sensing data and the organisation of spatial databases around a Geographical Information System combined with the Global Positioning System, "systematic spatial information infrastructures can now be built", ISRO believes.

Antrix Corporation, the Department of Space's marketing arm is working on common standards and interoperability of the spatial data infrastructure. Some 20 Indian companies are also involved. Scientists and government officials involved in this work from different countries meet once a year to monitor progress. They next meet in April in Cairo, Egypt.


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