How amateur mapmakers are solving real world problems

Oct 01, 2023 11:06 AM IST

FOSSEE, or Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Education, is a project developed by IIT-Bombay and funded by the Ministry of Education

Mumbai: An environment enthusiast, 22-year-old Brinda Kashyap is concerned about the pressures of urbanisation, sewage and invasive species on Dipor Bil -- a permanent freshwater lake and sole protected site of international importance in her home state of Assam. Dipor Bil is protected by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty inked in 1971 with Iran, which provides the framework for conservation and considered use of wetlands and their resources.

Professor Kannan Moudgalya (centre), Mohamed Kasim Khan M (left) and Professor Pennan Chinnasamy (right) at IIT Bombay (HT Photo)
Professor Kannan Moudgalya (centre), Mohamed Kasim Khan M (left) and Professor Pennan Chinnasamy (right) at IIT Bombay (HT Photo)

So, when Kashyap, along with 49 participants from across India, was selected for phase one of the first partnership-driven FOSSEE-GIS mapping internship by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay that kicked off last week, her natural choice was producing a map of Dipor Bil and the threats facing its habitat.

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FOSSEE, or Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Education, is a project developed by IIT-Bombay and funded by the Ministry of Education. The project promotes 14 FLOSS tools such as Quantum Geographical Information Systems (QGIS), Python, Scilab, Open Source Hardware and R to reduce the dependency on expensive proprietary software (legally the property of the creator and therefore a license has to be purchased for use and renewed for a fee) in educational institutions and ensure commercial software is replaced by equivalent FLOSS tools.

During her one-month internship, Kashyap will create a map of the wetland by feeding data such as water turbidity and levels of biological and chemical oxygen demand on QGIS, which is the most popular, free and open source platform. “Freshwater is key for all human needs. Dipor Bil is a dynamic wetland, but knowledge about it is scant. It’s important to understand the hydrological aspects and ecological processes for its protection and conservation,” said Kashyap. Clearing the first phase will bag her a six-month rigorous internship. Toppers of this internship will win a chance to do their final year project at the institute, mentored by its faculty.

In 18 months, this is Kashyap’s second go at producing a map. From February 1-March 28, 2022, she and Mohida Shaikh, both master’s degree students at the Symbiosis Institute of Geoinformatics, Pune, participated in the second edition of the IIT-B-FOSSEE-GIS Mapathon. Employing open source data on rainfall, satellites, rivers, streams and tributaries on the QGIS platform, the duo had created a Flood Risk Map of 24 South Parganas (West Bengal), bagging third position.

Since its inception in 2020, IIT-B-FOSSEE-GIS Mapathon encourages student participants to use QGIS, remote sensing data, state/ district level boundaries using ISRO data, Survey of India shape files, and produce maps to analyse real-world problem statements from agriculture to the Internet of Things. At 5,000 to 9,000 participants every year, the national-level collaborative Indian Geospatial Mapping event is pitched as the largest mapathon in the world.

Genesis of the mapathon

The story of map map-making competition using open-source data and mapping software started with Professor Pennan Chinnasamy’s struggle with data collection. Back in India after a doctoral degree in hydrology with a graduate certification in Geographical Information System (GIS) and remote sensing from the University of Missouri in 2012, he wanted to work in the area of water in rural India.

“Though agriculture utilises 80% water, there was insufficient spatial and temporal data on all major components of the hydrological balance,” said Chinnasamy, associate professor at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA), IIT-Bombay. “Initially it was rainfall data, then it trickled down to scant data on groundwater levels, dam storage levels, river surface discharge levels and soil moisture. Either data is isolated in government agencies, not updated or insufficient.”

In a village, for instance, he found data is collected for any one parameter (be water, soil or crop type) owing to a lack of manpower. In view of problems concerning data acquisition, Chinnasamy believes collecting data needs a bottom-up, and not a top-down approach – the way government officials collect data and present it to policymakers. “But to do the former, we need to build capacity where stakeholders such as students must learn ways to acquire data and use tools and mapping techniques. It’s against this backdrop that a mapathon was conceived as a bottom-up mapping event that first trains students to use QGIS software through spoken tutorials under the FOSSEE project,” said Chinnasamy, co-principal investigator, FOSSEE.

The need to train students on open source platforms assumes significance because proprietary GIS software platforms are expensive -- one license per student costs lakhs and has to be renewed every year -- and therefore out of bounds for the student community.

The FOSSEE-GIS is a vertical of the FOSSEE project, developed at the institute under Professor Kannan Moudgalya, also principal investigator.

Since 2020, the FOSSEE-GIS team has been conducting four flagship events, beginning with the mapathon, which is a pan-India mapping challenge using satellite and remote sensing data, observation data, collected data, and crowdsourced data, among others. Participants are taught to create basic maps using QGIS following which they have to identify problem statements in their local areas. Maps are then created, analysed and certificates distributed. “This is how a bottom-up approach functions,” said Chinnasamy.

Maps and their makers

Since the start of the mapathon, students pursuing undergraduate and master’s courses from science and engineering to architecture; school students, teachers and professors; and government officials have been trained or their skills enhanced to create maps in as many as 25 ‘problem’ areas. These range from landslide susceptibility and hazard zones, land degradation, decadal urban growth, and road networks to potential locations for electric vehicle charging stations, food vulnerability assessment, health infrastructure, and priority population for vaccination.

During the 2023 edition of mapathon, architecture students Aarya Tilekar and Tanushree Tambe along with their mentor Professor Amruta Garud mapped health infrastructure across 15 wards of the Pune Municipal Corporation which showed that healthcare facilities were sound in Pune city but lacked in peri-urban areas. “The pandemic brought to the fore issues of shortage, accessibility and availability in healthcare, and showed that we should be prepared for future pandemics. Mapping health infrastructure therefore is the first step towards this objective,” said Tilekar, a fifth-year student at the Nanavati College of Architecture, Pune.

Another exercise by students from the Madras Institute of Technology looked at crop growth optimisation in the Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu. “Not all is well with agriculture. Farmers lack sufficient knowledge about their croplands,” said T Iesa Mohamed. The four-member team created six maps for farmers to understand intricate details about how their croplands can be protected, crop suitability and soil diversification. Some mapping ideas are also an outcome of lived experiences. From their own struggle with poor mobile networks in some spots, such as the campus of Government Engineering College in Salem.

What started out with an annual map-making competition has expanded to offering internships at IIT-Bombay. To create a mapping ecosystem to solve a plethora of real-world problems, next on the cards is a hackathon, job fair and funding start-ups.

“Job fair is an important objective of this project because students from the bottom 90% of colleges do not have campus placements and have difficulty in finding jobs. At the same time, small and medium enterprises do not have the finances to hold placements and find it tough to recruit people,” said Moudgalya. “Since we have thousands of student participants, job fair creates a platform where the best talent can meet potential employers in one place.”

Economics of geospatial mapping

In October 2022, Union minister of science and technology and ministry of earth sciences Jitendra Singh had said India’s geospatial economy is expected to cross 63,000 crores by 2025 at a growth rate of 12.8% and will provide employment to more than 10 lakh people, mainly through geospatial start-ups. At present, there are around 250 geospatial start-ups in India. The Indian government has also provisioned for a Geospatial Incubator.

Till date, the rural development ministry has mapped over 45 lakh km of rural roads by using 21 data layers of the map, which has digitised information regarding water bodies, green areas, plots and other structures essential for administrative purposes. Additionally, 2.6 lakh gram panchayats have been covered under the scheme of mapping and digitisation. Similarly, several GIS-based pilot projects have been implemented across a range of domains like waste resource management, forestry and urban planning.

With private entities such as food and cab aggregators making investments in maps, the country’s drone policy will also call for a lot of geospatial analysis and precision mapping.

Just three years into it, results have begun to show. The Tamil Nadu Skill Development Corporation has asked for a separate mapping event only for rural area connectivity. “Since they do not have updated data, the corporation wants us to organise a mapathon to fix connectivity between villages and panchayats for transportation, farm-to-fork concept etc.,” said Mohamed Kasim Khan M, national coordinator and senior project manager - FOSSEE GIS.


    Snehal Fernandes is senior assistant editor at Hindustan Times, Mumbai. She writes on science and technology, environment, sustainable development, climate change, and nuclear energy. In 2012, she was awarded ‘The Press Club Award for Excellence in Journalism’ (Political category) for reports on Goa mining scam. Prior to HT, she wrote on education and transport at the Indian Express.

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