Friday, August 14, 2009

Review of Bhuvan

Bhuvan, the purported Google Earth killer, is out. But far from being a killer, as of now, it hardly has any legs to stand on its own.

A quick, dirty look at a familiar place was more than sufficient for me to convince myself on which mapper to use the next time I need to look up some India-related map. Below is the screenshot of Oasis Mall in Bangalore from the two mappers (I used Google Maps for comparison, which is the web-app version of Google Earth):

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

As can be seen Google Maps wins hands down. I know that some people will say that this is the early release and future versions will have even higher resolution images. I know that's true to an extent, but I am not very hopeful. ISRO already has the highest resolution data available with itself and doesn't need any funds to purchase it from others. If they indeed had hi-res versions of the images, they could have already put them online. The fact that they didn't makes me wonder if that's the best they could come up with. Surely the geographical surveying technology of ISRO will improve over time, but I don't expect big changes anytime soon. While it is still possible that Bhuvan has the hi-res images with itself, but doesn't share them with general public for reasons of national security, it hardly matters to the end consumer like me.

This brings us to the topic of national security. Apparently Bhuvan censors many military, government and aviation centres for reasons of national security. I find it laughable because Google provides those very things freely available. Google has also, of late, restricted hi-res images of some government/military establishments on request of Govt. of India, but even that is cosmetic. These images are still available at the public data sources from whom Google bought them. And banning them in India also won't be sufficient because the biggest terrorist threat India faces are from across the border.

The search functionality of Bhuvan also leaves a lot to be desired. In order to find a city, you should ONLY enter the city name, and can't provide additional details as qualifiers. For example, search for "Bangalore, India" and "Bangalore, Karnataka" all lead to 0 (zero) results. I hope they fix this issue soon.

The actual navigation window (I am pretty sure there is a technical word for it) is delightfully responsive and refined. Did I mention that Bhuvan uses licensed version of TerraExplorer (a commercial software) for it. Unfortunately it works in only IE6+. For a regular website, I would have expected a faster roll-out of browser support, but again, this being a government website, I am not too hopeful of early roll-outs. There is a tricoloured globe on the top left corner of the navigation window, which is kind-of neat, but clicking it makes the earth fall off the screen!

The registration process is also painful as they require to fill up a big form up-front with all fields mandatory, including your postal address, designation and company you work for. They don't require phone-number now, but going by their privacy policy, they have it covered just in case they start requiring it in future. And did I mention that neither their registration form nor login form is secure (https). They know it well and acknowledge in their privacy policy that such information may "pass through other countries". They do say that "DOS/ISRO/NRSC will take reasonable and prudent precautions to ensure that your personally identifiable data is protected against unauthorized access, use, or disclosure." Isn't providing secure access 'reasonable'?

And just in case you are not comfortable with any of it, you can mail them directly at Unfortunately they haven't mentioned what they can do with the personally identifiable information you provide them by email (just that they will 'store' it). They do use cookies, just like most sites, and suggest that "For more information on cookies, you can point your browser to" (Yes, they think that by writing in white on white background, they have achieved something smart). And just in case you want to provide feedback to them, you have to provide it for Website Design, services, Performances, Database (Quality, Content, Volume, etc.) -- All field mandatory!

The patriotic organization they are, they also have a Hindi version of the site. The Flash introduction is in English, and shows a Mercator projection of world map zooming past the surface of a globe which we are supposed to assume is the Earth! Even if you do count the English version flash as a working feature, apart from it, nothing works. Absolutely nothing! There are no links, and even the login form is dummy. Oh sorry, one link works: The one that takes you back to the English version of the site. Thanks-a-lot!

But hey, I might have missed out on the 'true' purpose of the website. It provides a vast amount of data on temperature/rainfall/wasteland/watershed/soil/etc. I tried about half a dozen weather stations for temperature/rainfall data, and they resulted in no available data. I had better luck with wasteland and waterbody data where each reporting centre threw up a dozen or so numbers relating to statistical analysis of the land/water body. Soil erosion too threw up half a dozen numbers. One advice: Don't turn on Soil Erosion Layer if you ever intend to do anything other than check for soil quality. Apparently they have so much data that every pixel results in some soil data often shadowing other things you might have been interested in. The other layers (state/city/roads) have been pretty average but show potential for improvement. And while Bhuvan starts with the whole globe, there is hardly any data for non-Indian locations. This might have been intentional. They don't want anyone to use Indian government resources to learn about other countries. That said, they have gone extra length to provide artificially blurred images for non-Indian locations. Image quality would have been better from a handheld digital camera taking pictures from moon. I am waiting for their project manager to find out that Bhuvan engineer(s) wasted precious working hours blurring images about countries nobody cares about. They are sure to lose their seniority when the promotion-season comes!