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What Are the Guidelines For Implementing the Renewed National Maps Policy?

Feb 17, 2021 12:36 PM 6 min read

This is a Google Street View Map of Colombo, Sri Lanka:

And, this is the map for New Delhi:

Notice the difference? The first one is dotted with blue lines which represent the 360 degree panoramic imagery of Sri Lanka's capital city that can be accessed through smart devices. In India however, this feature extends to a very select group of tourist spots and major landmarks in a handful of cities. 

Why? Because of privacy and security concerns. Plus, restriction in our domestic mapping policy. 

That is, until now. 

In a pathbreaking development to India's national mapping and surveying policy, the Ministry of Science and Technology announced a set of liberalised guidelines for improving the geo-spatial data sharing by the Government with private bodies. Local private agencies will be exempted from licensing requirements before collecting, generating, storing and sharing geo-spatial data of the country (data about a specific location on Earth's surface). 

These are some radical changes to the erstwhile national mapping policy and they enable massive deregulation, largely for Indian companies. Firms will be provided access to survey, real-time positioning and remote-sensing data, marking a watershed development in data democratisation in the country. 

Let's break this down for you. 

Mapping Out the Previous Policy 

India's cartographic (science of drawing maps) and topographic (physical features of an area) data have been a monopolistic heritage of one organisation since the last 254 years - Survey of India (SoI). SoI is the premier mapping agency of the Government which was left to us under the British legacy which had followed the policy of restricting access to all topographic maps for "official use only". Sadly, the policy persisted even after Independence. 

In 2005, the National Mapping Policy (NMP) brought some significant changes. SoI started publishing two kinds of maps - Defence Series Maps (DSMs) and Open Series Maps (OSMs). The former constitutes classified maps that cater to defence and security requirements while the latter is meant for public use and developmental activities. 

However, OSMs could only be retrieved in digital or analogue formats after obtaining a one-time clearance from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). To top it off, the use and issue of OSMs were largely up to the discretion of SoI and the MoD (require certification, not allowed to show any civil or military "vulnerable" areas, maps of scale more than 1:1 million can be only shared through a sale or agreement etc.). 

The NMP is only a policy instrument which highlights the guiding vision behind mapping. The SoI later published clarificatory guidelines in which two factors were cited for imposing on the sharing of geo-spatial data - security and copyright protection. This showed how grave the Government's security concerns were with unrestricted mapping and surveying access. In fact, the guidelines strictly forbade the digitisation of SoI-issued paper/analogue maps. Ownership of digital topographical data lay solely with the SoI and one could only gain access to it after an elaborate application process and payment through a detailed proforma.


Winds of Change 

The SoI monopoly is now done away with. Geo-spatial data is a combination of the following:

  • location information (of an event or place)
  • attribute information (characteristics of the event/place)
  • temporal information (time of occurrence of event)

Basically, information that is gathered from mapping is no longer elemental, rather, it is highly situational and dynamic. With the rise in commercial activities and tech explosion, there has been a landslide increase in the everyday usage of geo-spatial data that includes booking a cab, delivering food, locating stores, e-commerce activities, determining traffic routes, social media interaction etc. 

Until now, private entities needed to undergo an elaborate process to derive permission from Government agencies to enable creation, collection and dissemination of geo-spatial data. Even the growth and reach of GIS (Geographic Information System) that involves data-layering on specific locations was highly limited. 


Summary of Policy Changes

  1. Indian firms allowed to collect, collate, create, disseminate, prepare, store, share, publish, distribute, update AND digitise geo-spatial data, including maps of any spatial accuracy and by using any technology on the surface and underwater within the country's territorial limits. 

  2. Ground truthing (verification) of data to be enabled by allowing access to Indian ground stations and augmentation services.

  3. Terrestrial Mobile Mapping survey and Street View survey permitted.

  4. High-definition data (resolution of 1m horizontally and 3m vertically) can be acquired and owned by Indian entities and stored only within India.

  5. All geo-spatial data produced using public funds (except classified data collected by security and law enforcement agencies) are to be made accessible for scientific, economic and developmental purposes to all Indian entities. 

  6. For political maps of India, any publication is to be allowed and made available for free and easy download, which adheres to the standards issued by SoI's digital boundary data.


What About Foreign Firms? 

For foreign firms or foreign-controlled Indian firms, licensing protocols are to be followed. It means they can enter into data-sharing licensing agreements with Indian firms solely for the purpose of serving their clientele in the country. 

But, any geo-spatial data sharing with foreign firms must be done through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) which do not allow that data to pass through the licensee company or its servers. This means the data must be stored in India but transmitted freely to their foreign partners as long as there is no reuse or resale of such map data. 

This is presumably an effort to try and level the playing field for Indian companies. Essentially, Indian companies which weren't allowed to provide satellite images on the map earlier even if they had the technology to do so, have been unshackled from such handicaps. The costs of using data from foreign satellites will also be minimised. 


Expected Impact 

The biggest expectation - increase in public-private partnerships on data collection. Similarly, increase in investment in the geo-spatial data sector and export of data to foreign countries. Startups and telematics services are hopeful for the most advantageous gains. 

MapMyIndia, a Flipkart-backed company that builds digital map data, estimated a reduction in logistics costs to a great extent. About 13% of the GDP that is spent on logistics can be brought down to 9% using geo-spatial data. 

The Government is hopeful that this policy overhaul will increase the valuation of the geospatial data sector to ₹1Lcr ($13.7bn) by 2030 and create jobs for 2.2 million people. In the long run, even the agricultural sector is also expected to get a major lift when farmers are able to leverage the potential of geospatial and remote-sensing data. 

The only pitfall of this change is the possible misuse and endangering of sensitive data available in public domain by miscreants. Even though the safety protocols are expected to prevent this from happening, human error often emerges as the most vivid loophole against technological reinforcement. 

Plus, aren't we forgetting that liberalisation only extends the ambit of security, it doesn't diminish it. There are no clear guidelines yet on the extent to which the data sharing arrangement with Government agencies is going to unfold. Conversely, how dependable is the security infrastructure of an agency like SoI which, until recently, didn't even authorise digitisation of analogue maps. What guarantees do we have against data protection and privacy concerns now, the twin practicalities that had been the central arguments against the same liberalising regime earlier? 

For now, it seems that this policy reform, if nothing else, is sure to promote our technological standing in the world, and guarantee high-res street views on our smartphones soon. 


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