Geographic Information Systems: Applying GIS to fight the pandemic better

May 27, 2021 1:00 AM

Esri is using dashboards, maps and geographic information systems (GIS) to help government agencies monitor the Covid-19 situation

Agendra Kumar, MD, Esri IndiaAgendra Kumar, MD, Esri India

By Srinath Srinivasan

One of the underlying technologies in several of the daily digital services people use today is geographic information systems (GIS). More recently, it has been helping governments tackle Covid-19 for over a year. “In three days time when Covid hit India for the first time, we helped several states establish a control room/dashboard for monitoring the pandemic spread and containment,” says Agendra Kumar, MD, Esri India. Today, National Disaster Management Authority, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Bihar, Punjab, Karnataka, Ladakh and several other state governments use Esri India’s technology in tackling and monitoring Covid-19.

“Epidemic/disease outbreak management has been an important application of GIS,” says Kumar. Even during normal times, it is part of people’s lives in the form of maps, telecom services, utilities such as electricity, water, in healthcare, weather applications and agriculture. On top of available maps, GIS adds different value layers, right from mapping terrain, to mapping utility lines, roads, buildings and tracking weather across various regions. In the digital era, maps are just two-dimensional without GIS and that opens up a lot of opportunities for digital businesses and governance.

One of the interesting aspects of Esri India’s operations is data collection and collaboration. “There are different ways in which we get data. There are government bodies and private players who invest in data gathering and there is open source from both private and public sectors,” says Kumar. It may seem that dealing with all kinds of data makes the company look like the owner of those data but in reality it is not. The cost of data collection and ownership at scale is huge.

“When we work with clients we only look for geographic data and if they collect any other information, we do not take that. Also, we can not do that on our own as it is resource and investment intensive,” says Kumar. “We clean and organise data. We are bound by guidelines set by the state and clients, who are the actual data owners. There is no question of privacy violation or surveillance,” he adds.

Availability of clean and meaningful data is also a challenge in a country like India where billions of data is created and shared across every day. “Agriculture and healthcare are two important sectors where data needs extra care,” says Kumar. This becomes complex when the end user keeps generating data through a client’s product or a service, for which a good chunk of engineers’ time goes into cleaning up the data. The clients take Esri’s technology on subscription basis and integrate it with theirs, which in turn is used by the end user who produces data almost every second of the usage of the final product. All these factors add to the cost and complexity of data and data management.

Esri invests 30% of its revenue back into R&D and India plays a strong role in the development of new products and technologies as well as reducing complexity in the data pipeline.

“Currently there are over 200 engineers and technical staff in Indian centres who have worked on solutions developed for both Indian and global applications,” says Kumar. He expects the Indian market to explode as more and more Smart Cities come up, which will necessitate more talent and R&D.

GIS becomes important in a Smart City on several fronts – knowing the locations of communication systems, monitoring traffic with high levels of accuracy, accident prevention, managing utilities such as water, electricity, implementing healthcare for citizens and many other connected services which were traditionally operating in silos and offline. “We are already working with more than 40 smart cities in India,” he says.

Ride sharing, commute management, visualisation of the cityscape, 3-D maps, helping revenue department digitise tax collection, managing parking, managing highway operations, weather predictions are some of the areas where Esri uses GIS in smart cities.

“The impact of GIS is across cities, organisations and individuals. For instance, using GIS, one can predict how much time it would take to reach a destination in different weather conditions. At an organisational level, this could help companies efficiently run their logistics and cities to manage traffic efficiently,” explains Kumar, talking about the impact.

Esri India also works with various startups. It helps them reach a wider developer base for numerous consumer and enterprise applications. As India urbanises its states rapidly, what has been subtle in our daily usage could become direct in 10 years.

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