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 bhuvan@nrsc.gov.in. 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 http://www.cookiecentral.com." (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!

10 comments:

Suvrat Kher said...

Excellent review Ambuj. I tried several times in the last few days but the connection was too slow!

Judging by the details you have put out, this has not been an auspicious start at all. The release seems to be hastily put together and seems to be pretty much like any other government product, half hearted and half baked.

For all the ISRO and media hype that preceded this release, especially how its images are going to be sharper that Google this is I would say a humiliating situation for ISRO.

I'll have more to say when I get a chance to navigate it myself.

thanks!

Akshay Rajagopalan said...

Typically Bui- thorough and insightful. Good job! As for me, you do the exploration, I'll stick to Google Maps :)

Chirag said...

Excellent review! Pardon my ignorance, but which are the sources (public data sources) from which google gets so much data?

Ambuj Saxena said...

@Chirag,

Google maps uses data from:
1) USGS, which is available for free (via TerraServer),
2) Tele Atlas (can be purchased by anyone),
3) DigitalGlobe (can be purchased by anyone)
4) MDA Federal (possibly free, though I couldn't ascertain for sure).

I am listing them all as public sources because the data is not controlled by any government and anyone with money can buy it.

Google Maps might even be sourcing them from NASA, because NASA's satellite imagery works are publicly available, but Google Maps doesn't list it as a major contributor.

Chirag said...

Thanks for the info :)

Shyam said...

This is an excellent review. Hats off to you. Actually, I was damn frustrated with site and I wanted to do the thrashing, but you've taken care of the burden. The site is so stupid, I filled in all the so called unnecessary mandatory information, and also above all the most important, login Id and password, and finally I enter the login and password, it says data doesn't match!!! Crazy!!! And, on top of that, they don't even send an automated mail about your account details??? Are they stupid? There is no assistance for in case you made a mistake with the password or the login, or you forgot your password, they don't mail any details back to you? This is totally unprofessional work and it shows the true face of the Indian Government. They will never CHANGE!!!

Ambuj Saxena said...

@Shyam,

Thanks for pointing it out. I missed the fact that they don't have a 'Forgot Password' button.

Anonymous said...

I do not think sending emails to government departments has any effect. I believe there is no official notification that they need to reply to them.

The only way is to take them court, put an RTI act etc. to get them to demonstrate if they are indeed working.

Given the situation of government research in India, the fact that ISRO did anything at all should be considered highly commendable. I think they would beat Google Earth, by putting remote cameras in all government offices and allowing the public to keep and eye on government service peopler.

G0PU said...

Hi, Nice review..but unfortunately very biased i feel because you are comparing apples with oranges. First of all great job to everyone who were involved in creation of BHUVAN, I think is a fantastic result of dedicated people working at NRSC.
I have read many people mention that its being compared with Google Earth, however I don't think there is anything to compare, period. In the shoestring budgets that DoS operates compared to Billion dollar budgets of Google just to uses someone else's satellite images is a joke. Especially most of the scientists in google are Indians. This is a great achievement that needs to go into history books since these images are from satellites which are MADE IN INDIA. I am a proud Indian and even prouder today for this great achievement by NRSC.

I think the option to draw, and the speed at which bhuvan operates is fantastic..High resolution images are something that I am sure you are already working on.

I think it is necessary that the NRSC gives due credit to all those involved and mention about them either on their website or anywhere else. Work needs to be appreciated, however small it might be, helps motivate people.

Ambuj Saxena said...

@G0PU,

It has not been our (reviewer's) transgression to compare apples to oranges. ISRO itself built the hype around Bhuvan by comparing it to Google Earth.

Bhuvan uses images taken by Indian satellites made in India, but I wouldn't bet my money whether the satellites in question are truly indigenous, or have substantial number of foreign parts. The economist inside me feels this is useless question, but you raised it. Also, using TerraExplorer (a definitely non-indigenous, commercial software) doesn't help the Made In India claims.

Can you please quote your sources for majority of Google scientists being Indian. I tried Googling for it, but couldn't find any such statistic. Hope your source isn't this hoax.