The global reliance on remote sensing technologies is growing rapidly, whether it is for supply chain management, disaster recovery, curbing deforestation or combating global warming ! The applications are limitless and so are the possibilities!

Swati Grover, our next pathbreaker, Geospatial Consultant and Co-Founder at Anudras Geosolution, addresses the needs of the surveying community with a focus on providing adequate training to professionals on GIS technologies.

Swati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of remote sensing technology in procuring data that is referenced to the earth and using it for analysis, modeling, simulations, and visualization, leading to improved decision making.

For students, GIS shows us the amazing beauty of nature, the destruction we have caused over the years and the remedial measures we need to take to restore our environment !

Swati, can you take us through your background?

I grew up in a defense service environment, as my father served in the Indian Air Force for 32 years. As a result, I was exposed to different states and cultures of India from an early age that gave me a cosmopolitan upbringing. Even though I aspired to study medicine initially, I was open to unconventional careers outside medicine or engineering. A subject that fascinated me greatly was archaeology. Inspired by the popular television series “Bharat Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India)”, I wanted to study the subject. As it happened, I ended up studying geology instead, at the University of Delhi after graduating from high school.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did a BSc (Hons) and MSc in Geology from the University of Delhi, followed by an MPhil in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and Remote Sensing from the University of Cambridge, UK. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I was keen to pursue research after my Masters in Geology from Delhi University. Fortunately, I got selected for a research position for a 6-month assignment at the Defence Terrain Research Laboratory (DTRL) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ministry of Defence. Today, the DTRL lab has merged with another defence lab, called SASE (Centre for Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment) and is a part of the Defence Geoinformatics Research Establishment.  The lab’s objectives were to develop techniques needed for evaluating terrain and assessing the mobility potential in inaccessible areas. Through this position, I gained experience in landslide information system and started exploring emerging geospatial technologies. 

My project advisor sent me to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai to get trained in a GIS software known as GRAM GIS, which is a geographic information system software developed by the Centre of Studies in Resources Engineering (CSRE), IIT Mumbai, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India. Later, GRAM GIS advanced to a commercialized windows platform to be known as GRAM ++ or Bhugol GIS. The first-hand knowledge I gained on GIS through the Ministry of Defence lab proved to be a turning point that sparked my interest in geospatial science as a career.  

All GIS software developed till now have the capability to visualize spatial data and build decision support systems in any domain. Hence information utilizing spatial indices make it possible to identify features located in any arbitrary region of a map. For example, GIS can quickly identify and map all the locations within a specified radius of a point, for example, all streets that run through a territory. This kind of information output excited and inspired me to delve further in this area. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my 6-month tenure at the Ministry of Defence lab, I felt confident to pursue remote sensing and GIS. At the time, a friend inspired me to apply to British universities for funded masters and M.Phil. programmes in this field. 

I applied to several universities and obtained a seat in four of them, namely, University College London, UK, Durham University, UK, Queensland University, Australia, and the University of Cambridge UK. However, getting full funding was a challenge. After applying to various funding institutions for about a year, I was finally selected for the Dharam Hinduja DFID Commonwealth Scholarship to study a one-year M.Phil. programme in GIS & Remote Sensing at the University of Cambridge, UK. This seat came with a 100% scholarship, giving me a career-defining opportunity to propel my education at a prestigious university outside India. 

My M.Phil programme in GIS & Remote Sensing included a research project on digital elevation models (DEM) to explore the geomorphic and geologic attributes and evaluate GIS and remote sensing techniques to study  distinct glaciated features called ‘corries’ in Scotland.  There were other projects I did, such as the environmental impact assessment of a mineral extraction site in Willingham, Cambridgeshire, UK, as well as the GIS-Landsat image mapping of evaporite zones of Ethiopia. Through these projects, I got exposed to a broad range of studies that gave me a strong foundation in the subject matter. 

The Scotland corries project involved a field visit, whereas the other projects were conducted remotely utilising Earth Observation Data. GIS work, therefore, can be remote or field based.

Although my goal was to do a PhD from the University of Cambridge, I did not secure funding for a PhD and, therefore, returned to India with an M.Phil degree.

I have completed 22 years in the industry, and I am proud to have worked with some of the best companies in the business such as Erdas (now Hexagon), Geospatial Media, ESRI India, and Genesys International.

A career in GIS in India is very promising today, although it was not like this when I started. I have been fortunate to work with global representatives of product-based companies through which I not only got exposure in the technical segments of these companies, but also in supporting and developing their user markets in India. 

I would like to mention two important projects I have undertaken as a consultant. One was the Japan International Cooperation Agency assisted Delhi Water Supply Improvement Project, where I supported their team to strengthen the architecture of the GIS system. This helped the water utility department take real time decisions on their utility activities whether it was paying water tax, or the water distribution and repair system. 

Another project was under the umbrella of the German development agency, the GIZ-Ganga Rejuvenation Programme. This involved improving the technical architecture and implementation program of the GIS and database management system of the National Mission for Clean Ganga, under the Ministry of Water Resources, Govt. of India. 

How did you get your first break? 

After returning from Cambridge, I landed a job as a technical correspondent in a leading geoinformatics journal, GIS@Development (now called Geospatial World), based out of New Delhi.

This was my first break in the Indian geospatial industry, which was growing rapidly at the time. With my subject matter expertise and knowledge base from the University of Cambridge, I contributed to the journal by editing technical content, organizing seminars and conferences, and networking with global firms. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

It wasn’t easy to make a mark as a woman professional in the male-dominated geospatial industry in those days. I responded by becoming ‘a jack of all trades’ to gain visibility, and helped bring more women into the domain by actively recruiting them.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

After working in the geospatial technology industry for 17 years, I decided to become an entrepreneur and started my own geospatial professional consultancy firm called Anudras Geosolutions in 2016. The vision of this firm is to address the needs of the surveying community with a focus on providing adequate training to professionals who have limited exposure to GIS. As a consultant, I have also had the opportunity to work on several internationally funded GIS projects. 

In the early days of Anudras Geosolutions, I had taken up different types of surveying projects in the telecom and real estate industry. Now, I focus more on training and development projects for capacity building through which I train professionals in the workforce per the needs of my clients.

I am also a visiting faculty member in several institutions such as, the National Institute of Defence Estate Management, New Delhi, ABES Engineering College, Ghaziabad; School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi; School of Environmental Management, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, GIS Institute, NOIDA, and the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun, where I teach Geoinformatics to undergraduate and post-graduate students.  I have also coordinated e-learning sessions on sustainable development for the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India.

Additionally, I have supported my friends to start two non-profits, called the Wo-men Geospatial Coterie and the Disaster Resilient and Research Foundation. I participate in their programs as a guest speaker and moderator. 

I enjoy working with a diverse group of organizations on a variety of GIS projects. This gives me an opportunity to meet and connect  people so that I can empower and nurture new talent coming into the workforce.

How does your work benefit society? 

In today’s digital era, geospatial technologies are revolutionizing the global economy. From navigating public transport to tracking supply chains and planning efficient delivery routes, the digital services built on global positioning systems (GPS) and mapping data have become a part and parcel of everyday life and business.

The convergence of geospatial technology with cloud computing has had a profound impact on our ability to leverage spatial applications and information, including monitoring disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic on a real time basis. Technologies are constantly evolving, and data provided are being corrected as technologies further improve. Every human being is consuming geospatial technology daily, sometimes without even being aware of it. 

In this age, the evolution and changing dynamics of emerging geospatial technologies is playing a critical role in addressing societal problems related to natural resource management, banking & insurance, agriculture & forestry, public utilities, infrastructure management, land management, crop management, hazard forecasting and warning systems, and supply chain management, as well as urban and regional planning. 

Geospatial technology can be used in a variety of decision making and monitoring programs. A project atlas with plan, location, and components generated through geospatial technology can generate more data than traditional methods. This enables an all-in-one project communication platform/channel to be established.

I believe that geospatial education must percolate down to the school level. Students must be made aware of the potential of this technology. They should be given hands-on experience of available tools with open-source software in the geospatial domain. With growing awareness, more and more talented young minds will embrace this technology. We can then hope to build capacity from the ground up, generating skills necessary in the digital geospatial workforce to solve challenging societal problems.

Your most memorable work?

One work which I enjoyed doing was the GIS Database management for the Clean Ganga Project sponsored by GIZ for the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India.  Here I got the opportunity to interact with all the stakeholders involved in the clean Ganga Mission in order to understand the real issues.

The basic aim of this GIZ project was to facilitate NMCG to analyse the current situation/ status in India with respect to existing information management systems, data available on water quality, institutions (organizations and gaps) involved, and procedures applied for information/ data exchange. The primary goal of this project is to develop a database design framework for Ganga basin related information and knowledge management at the National and State levels.

In this project, Geographic Information System (GIS), as a decision support system, is expected to play a vital role in achieving the targets set by the Ministry vis-à-vis the Ganga basin. Making an inventory of the existing data and its detailed analysis is extremely important in setting up an efficient and effective GIS based data management for Ganga basin monitoring.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Geospatial technology is an emerging field of study that includes GIS, remote sensing, and global positioning systems. This technology enables us to procure data that is referenced to the earth and use it for analysis, modeling, simulations, and visualization, leading to improved decision making. Geospatial data is consumed by every sector and industry of our economy, private and public, making it the technology of today and of the future. I would like to  emphasize that there is a lot of space in this field for learning, growth, and some tremendous career opportunities globally. 

Another good reason to learn geospatial technology is its diverse applications. The global reliance on location intelligence is growing rapidly. Many organizations use geospatial technology to make spatially linked decisions. Everything from determining what the problem is, to tracking changes, managing, and responding to events, and projecting ‘what-if’ scenarios can be accomplished through this technology.

Future Plans?

The digital India programme has taken off successfully with geospatial technology as one of its central pillars, serving every industry and business with high-resolution data and analytics. My goal is to support organizations to build capacity to utilize this technology effectively by training their workforce. I also plan to start a research project on evaluating climate change and measuring its impact in India using geospatial data. On the personal side, I would like to advance my spiritual journey through my dedicated pyramid meditation practices and discovery.