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Why Modi govt is liberalising mapping policies & what free access to geospatial data means

Ending a colonial-era legacy, Modi govt will now allow private companies to produce, acquire & disseminate geospatial data and conduct mapping without prior approval.

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New Delhi: India liberalised geospatial data Monday, allowing private companies and individuals to conduct mapping and share geospatial data for various applications, including transport and e-commerce among others, without prior approval from the government. 

While India currently relies on foreign resources for mapping, the move aims to realise the Narendra Modi government’s goal of an Atmanirbhar Bharat and the vision of a $5 trillion economy. 

In a tweet Monday, Prime Minister Modi said: “Our government has taken a decision that will provide a huge impetus to Digital India. Liberalising policies governing the acquisition and production of geospatial data is a massive step in our vision for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat.”

Announcing the deregulation, Union Minister for Science & Technology, Earth Sciences and Health & Family Welfare, Dr Harsh Vardhan said the move will boost innovation and development.

“Availability of comprehensive, highly accurate, granular and constantly updated representation of geospatial data will significantly benefit diverse sectors of the economy and will significantly boost innovation in the country and greatly enhance the preparedness of the country for emergency response. The availability of data and modern mapping technologies to Indian companies is also crucial for achieving the vision of AtmaNirbharBharat and a five trillion-dollar economy,” he said at the press briefing Monday.

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Geospatial data now open to all

The government released guidelines Monday for acquiring and producing geospatial data and maps. According to the guidelines, geospatial data implies “location information and includes data about natural or man-made, physical or imaginary features whether above the ground or below, boundaries, points of interest, natural phenomena, mobility data, weather patterns, statistical information, etc”.

Geospatial data is used by private entities like navigation apps such as MapMyIndia, e-commerce websites like Amazon, food delivery apps like Swiggy, Zomato and transport apps like Uber and Ola among others. 

Earlier, companies needed government approval and licences to produce, change or disseminate such geospatial information. This would often involve long waiting periods and red tape. 

Under the new move, all government geospatial data including Survey of India, data collected by security and law enforcement agencies will be available for public use and no government approval will be necessary for any changes.

“Individuals, companies, organisations, and government agencies, shall be free to process the acquired geospatial data, build applications and develop solutions in relation to such data and use such data products, applications, solutions, etc by way of selling, distributing, sharing, swapping, disseminating, publishing, deprecating and destructing,” the guidelines state. “Self-certification will be used to convey adherence to these guidelines.”

The new guidelines will be applicable to geospatial data, maps, products, solutions and services offered by government agencies, autonomous bodies, academic and research institutions, private organisations, non governmental organisations and individuals. 

There will, however, be a negative list of sensitive information that will require government regulation. That will be shared by the Department of Science and Technology website soon. 

In addition, the new rules also allow foreign companies to use such data by acquiring them from Indian companies but only for the purpose of serving their customers in India. They will not be allowed to reuse or resell such map data. 

Boost to Digital India and agrarian sector

The government hopes that the deregulation of mapping will boost Digital India and development in all sectors. 

In a series of tweets Monday, Modi said, “The reforms will unlock tremendous opportunities for our country’s start-ups, private sector, public sector and research institutions to drive innovations and build scalable solutions. This will also generate employment and accelerate economic growth.”

The reforms will allow Indian companies to develop apps like Google Earth and Google Maps. Existing Indian navigation companies like MapMyIndia will be able to make changes in their existing database without any approvals from the government.

Amid the ongoing farmers’ protest, Modi also said the deregulation will help the agrarian sector in particular. “India’s farmers will also be benefited by leveraging the potential of geo-spatial & remote sensing data,” he tweeted. “Democratizing data will enable the rise of new technologies & platforms that will drive efficiencies in agriculture and allied sectors.”

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‘Reforms due for 70 years’

India’s regulated mapping — a legacy of the British rule — imposed various restrictions on navigation companies like MapMyIndia. Regulated mapping also meant that e-commerce companies used Google Maps and Google Earth instead of indigenous apps. 

Private Indian companies have accordingly welcomed the move to deregulate mapping. 

“These reforms were due for 70 years. These were archaic rules from the British era and none of the governments were able to undo them for over 70 years. This is a decisive step by the Modi government,” said Rohan Verma, CEO, MapMyIndia, which will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the move. MapMyIndia has also partnered with ISRO to create new mapping products. 

“It was an unfair situation earlier. Google Earth showed satellite imagery but Indian companies weren’t allowed,” he added. “We had the tech before Google back in 2004. But we weren’t allowed to put out imagery while foreign companies could. In addition, for every small update, for even a pothole, we had to go and seek permission from the government that could result in a waiting period lasting days. With this, the government has righted a lot of wrongs.” 

Government officials also said the move was key to better governance and planning. “The speed and accuracy with which we need to map India is important for planning, governance, services and for development,” said Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology.

“It cannot be done by the government alone. There has to be good cooperation between the public and private and empowerment for both. With this, we have de-regularised mapping and democratised data. This will empower all our mapping agencies both public and private,” he told ThePrint.

Security concerns

Despite the new guidelines saying there will be a negative list that will require government regulation, security concerns have been raised.  

In January, the armed forces had opposed geospatial mapping of borders and coastlines by private companies. 

“The new policy is forward looking and a change for the better, however there are certain  concerns along the borders. There needs to be checks and balances so that borders are not wrongly mapped and publicised by private entities,” said Lt General Vinod Bhatia (retd), former director general of military operations. “Borders are sensitive and so are certain coastlines. During the course of the last year, we have seen how every satellite imagery expert had demarcated the LAC according to their own perception. And that remains a concern. So some checks and balances and mechanisms to ensure borders are not wrongly publicised is necessary.” 

Government officials, however, said the guidelines won’t affect security. “These guidelines don’t impact the security of the country. Because this is about removing restrictions on surveying and mapping and it’s not about which area is physically accessible,” Sharma said.

“These guidelines only look at surveying and mapping. If physical access is not available you can’t map it,” he added. “So If a military survey collects data for their own purpose, they will decide how much and what may be shared or made public.”

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  1. The article could have been better if it included use of geospatial data in agriculture, climate, disaster management, planning and development. Support to startups, foreign investments and most importantly pvt companies can help govt update its own maps.

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