Why Nepal needs spatial data centre?

Keshav Bhattarai


Writer Bhattarai

Geospatial technology is all around us: in our phones, in our cars, on the news, in the movies, in our video games, in the classroom, in business, in health, and in politics. Simply put, geospatial technology has almost become ordinary and omnipresent. Geospatial technology that includes Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning System (GPS) have become user friendly.

Despite the technology becoming user friendly, spatial data to address location-specific cases are missing. For example, there is a dearth of information on: a) building (all types of) locations by housing number over the entire country though some numbering has been done along few roads in the Kathmandu Valley; b) population distribution over a geographic area; c) ethnic distribution, and cultural practices associated with various ethnic communities and the levels of incomes among various ethnic communities; d) socio-cultural and economic conditions of people living in various parts of the country in general and in densely settled urban areas in particular; e) various developmental activities and the impacts such developments have had on the lives of people; f) vulnerabilities that communities have been facing from the bulldozing of architectures in the name of development, and the future consequences of such developments on ecosystem services; g) increasing amount of throughputs with the temporarily spillover of remittance economy and the opening of various malls under the influence of globalisation; h) sudden increase in urban areas in the pretext of poverty alleviation; and i) the effect of climate change on the increasing amount of throughputs at local scale, especially in the urban areas, and the ramifications of such throughputs under the global climate change at regional and national levels.

The list goes on and on. Each of these issues needs location-specific case studies and putting them together to see the impact of one development over others to better visualise and make informed decision. However, putting all activities together to generate meaningful information and serve the society in real sense has been a challenge. Certain organisation has to take this responsibility.

Nepal Government often hires a number of consultants. These consultants gather both aspatial and spatial data, and prepare excellent reports, which serve as excellent resources when taken in isolation. Though reports after reports are produced, very few reports incorporate all aspects of human activities that are spatially linked to the neighbouring environment; for example, housing, open spaces, drainages, and roads. In the recent practice, many of these components are standalone. Looking at the past practices, such standalone reports have contributed less to improve the living conditions of people, and there have been wastage of resources to correct problems created by standalone components, especially, the development activities, and people are categorising themselves as “development victims.”

For example, in many urban areas of Nepal, one can observe newly constructed roads are dug to lay the pipes for drainage, water supply, and waste disposal. These activities have drained scarce resources and people have been affected in one way the other. Looking at the case at the national level, after the promulgation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nepal in 2015, many of the local administrative units were consolidated together for various reasons. Among the many reasons, some major were to: a) empower local units; b) meet population threshold to upgrade some local political units to municipalities, sub-metropolitans, and metropolitans; c) develop cluster settlements for rapid economic development; and d) promote various municipalities as smart cities to improve the living conditions of people through the improvement of transportation and communication, proper waste management, improve security and environmental conditions.

However, various developments have created multiple side effects; for example, while urban areas are extended, open areas are encroached upon, road networks are not properly laid, wastes are poorly managed, urban traffic jams have become common phenomena, people are compelled to spend their productive time and incomes in commuting and in room renting, yet, people suffer from multiple problems. Solving these problems should be the beginning step of prosperity which the current government has been chanting in every function and programme.

Spatial data scientists can help assist the government in this first step of development by developing digital spatial data. These spatial data would be of immense help to make informed decision, and serve public, for example, getting land titles online without physically visiting local maal addas (land offices) and paying bribes to intermediaries. However, in the present context, the government of Nepal faces resource crunch in gathering spatial data at finer scale.

The government has been criticised for increasing VAT on various incomes and in the internet that is essential for the dissemination of information. In such a resource crisis situation, implementing mega projects that developed countries like China and Japan have done is beyond question for Nepal. However, Nepal government can utilise many of the educational institutions to gather spatial data at nominal cost. The work can start from higher secondary school students to doctoral students, who can gather spatial data and help all three tiers of governance.


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How to start such an endeavour?

The Central Department of Geography (CDG) is the oldest institutional unit offering education in spatial data sciences such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning System (GPS). With the recent advances in digital technologies, various high resolution information are gathered to address location-specific issues. Faculty of CDG are fully trained to disseminate knowledge of spatial data collection processes. Various education institutions operating within the wing of Tribhuvan University can get training from Geography Faculty and students and join in the endeavour of gathering spatial data at various scales and create a spatial data bank. Such data will help the government to look at every developmental work in an integrated manner that will help solve problems in a sustainable manner.

Current practices of decision making in isolated blocks have impacted other activities because the works are done without proper coherences and spatial linkages. In some cases, attempts have been made to coordinate among different activities from spatial perspectives. Despite such coordinated efforts, many environmental problems have emerged because local level information is not intertwined with the topological information at wider scale. At Tribhuvan University, the Department of Environmental Science is developing various models to solve environmental issues, Computer Science is working to advance various algorithms, Engineering Institutions are developing various models of construction of various infrastructures, Department of Population is analysing demographic information, Department of Rural Development is looking after various models of rural development, Department of Economics, and Departments of Botany, Zoology, Agriculture, and Forestry are doing their activities independently. If these activities are put together, some of the overlapping interests can be performed jointly by using expertise from different disciplines. Such research will not only become sustainable, but will have long-term positive impacts in the society.

However, there is a gap in the coordination. At some instances, the territorial discipline specific barriers also have hindered the cost effective high quality research. Also, despite investment in education, the Government of Nepal has not been able to take advantages from the research of Tribhuvan University. Though the CDG does not have all the abilities such as writing complex computer algorithms and apps, design various development infrastructure like the engineering does, demographic information like the population department has, and information on environmental issues, it can help put together various components at a spatial scale and help the authorities to make informed-decision in: a) demonstrating opological relationships and developing digital information, mapping with reasoning and generating hypothesis; and b) understanding the complex interactions between human and physical systems confronting social scientists and policymakers at various scales.

The Geography faculty can impart knowledge on putting together information of various land use plans that are essential in urban zoning, assessing environmental impact, transportation, vulnerability and risk (HVR) mapping and assessment, designing parks, greenways, and rain gardens such as integrated storm water, LED lighting, solar-powered parking meters and traffic signals, noise barriers. Likewise, geography faculty can impart knowledge on linking historical data with the recent development, the interactions of human, physical, and biotic systems from spatiotemporal perspective, and assess ecosystem services functions.

In the past, uncoordinated developments in various urban sectors have created a variety of problems such as flooding, pollution, waste disposal, and transportation.  Geography faculty and students can help solve problems through classroom learning, an internship, or through service learning process, inform citizens for environmental planning and bring the public and private sectors together as global citizens in fields as diverse as planning, geoscience, business, and education. Geographers can impart spatial knowledge to planners, politicians, economists, and policy makers and can add a brick on the first step of creating prosperous Nepal through digital spatial technology.

The writer is Professor of Geography at the Central University of Missouri; currently, working as Fulbright Specialist at the Central Department of Geography of Tribhuvan University.