logo-bhuvanBhuvan, a satellite mapping tool similar to Google Earth, was launched last week by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It’s launch is ironic, given that the both the central and state governments in India have raised concerns about the amount of detail available.

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Will Maharshtra’s Home Ministry also ask for Bhuvan to be censored? Political concerns aside, we really didn’t want to write about Bhuvan without trying it out first (remember the $10 laptop?). Our short, politically-correct verdict is that “it’s a start”, and it’s definitely not a myth.

Bhuvan details: Registration | Plugin Download (11.3MB, EXE)

The non-politically correct verdict is a lot harsher, particularly given how difficult it was to review this product:

Installation & Registration Issues

Maybe it was of the publicity that Bhuvan received last week, but over the last couple of days, it was next to impossible for us to get Bhuvan up and running: Two attempts at registration failed, and of the three that succeeded, Bhuvan would not accept the chosen password in two cases. There’s no option for password recovery either. Furthermore, five of seven attempts at downloading the 11.3 MB browser plugin failed; both from Preethi and I tried.

In the two cases it succeeded, it was only because I stopped and resumed the transfers using a download manager. Download speeds averaged around 6kBps, on a connection that allows around 52kBps. While Bhuvan supports only IE6 and Windows, the installation automatically runs the default browser.  There were issues with the installation as well (screencap). Even now, the website logs me in only after two or three attempts.

Depth Of Data

What’s a satellite view without data to support it? Bhuvan offers users an overlay of data, highlighting national, state and taluk level data, with names and population related information on towns. Placeholders spread across the country highlight towns, as do lines for national highways, the golden quadilateral (highway) project, as well as rivers. The interface is extremely slow, and layers don’t load quickly.

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There is a flood and drought related map overlay, but the June and July data look remarkably similar. There may be been shortage of information as Bhuvan hung twice while trying to access drought information.

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Reports have also suggested greater detail in case of Bhuvan than Google Earth: when we tried zooming into the cities of Delhi and Mumbai, that level of detail that Google Earth provides was certainly not available. The Street level view is incomprehensible, so one need not worry about security issues with Bhuvan. One can also draw images and 3D arrows on Bhuvan: the image on the right (below), I’ve marked out an area for a space-ship landing.

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The measurement tools might be particularly useful for research work and city planning: One can mark out areas on a map and check the total area under consideration. One can also check for differences in elevation between various points on the map. Contour maps are also available.

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Users can add layers in Google Earth, Skyline Globe and ESRI Shape formats. They can also upload their own layers. What is distinctly missing, however, is the ability to save all this information.

Regional News for Bhuvan is powered by the Times of India group, and available only in English; news opens in a new window, and Bhuvan automatically starts zooming in on the region mentioned. And, at least in our case, that is where it hung for the third time. News is being provided for Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Goa, Guwahati, Hubli, Jaipur, Kanpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Mangalore, Mysore, Nagpur, Patna, Pune, Rajkot, Ranchi, Surat, Thane, Thiruvanathapuram, Vadodara, Varanasi.

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Our Take

We would have liked to see ISRO incorporate an Indian language based interface to Bhuvan, for making it accessible to those for whom Google Earth poses a language barrier. The inability to save work done is also disappointing. Bhuvan has substantially more local data, but without a map based overlay, or even a list of publically available overlays, one is more likely to go to Google Earth. It’s a start, and ISRO would do well to open up the Bhuvan API. Enabling collection of data, and saving and sharing of location would help it crowdsource information.

It’s also important for ISRO to specify who can use this data, and what kind of permissions will they need. Can TV News channels use it to provide granular information when covering an event? Can businesses use it to identify, for example, vendor locations on their website? It doesn’t appear as if the tool can be embedded. Public money has been spent on Bhuvan, but to what end?