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India’s map policy is suppressing innovation

Indian institutions are refusing to give up their monopolistic tendencies and predatory practices in a rapidly changing world of technological innovations. By Ishveena Singh 

India map policy for geospatial industry

• David Coleman Headley visited India five times between 2006 and 2008, and created maps and took GPS coordinates of the Nov. 26, 2008, Mumbai terror sites.
• The Indian government is investigating a petition that alleges that the winner of Google’s 2013 India Mapathon mapped Pathankot city airbase which was attacked by terrorists on January 2, 2016.  

Google Maps and Google Earth were launched in the same year as India revamped its National Map Policy (NMP 2005) under the purview of Department of Science & Technology (DST). That was 11 years ago. Today, Google’s flagship products have revolutionized mapping by making geographical information more available than ever. Instead of GIS experts making maps for regular people, regular people are making maps for each other. India’s map policy, on the other hand, has relied on the tyrannical power of law to maintain authority and suppress innovation.

A legacy of restriction

For the longest time, our geographical data, particularly cartographic and topographic data, has remained a slave to the country’s colonial heritage. The British policy of restricting all topographic maps for “official use only” persisted even after the Independence. Today, our 249-year-old national mapping agency, the Survey of India (SoI), publishes two kinds of maps — Defence Series Maps (DSMs) for defence and national security requirements, and Open Series Maps (OSMs) for supporting development activities in the country.

The contents of SoI toposheets, being sensitive in nature and of military value, are under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The SoI makes sure that no civil and military vulnerable areas are shown on OSMs. The MoD insists on the deletion of coordinates before the publication of thematic maps, conveniently ignoring the fact that satellite-based GPS can accurately determine the latitude and longitude of any point. And even though the OSMs are declared as unrestricted by the MoD, third parties can reprint and add value to the maps obtained (either in analogue or digital formats) only after signing an agreement and abiding by the conditions set by the SoI.

Of what consequence are these restrictions in a time and age when private organizations are openly selling maps and satellite imagery of Indian territories? That is something the SoI as well as the government needs to reflect upon. Geography is not elitist anymore; technology has put global maps in the hands of millions of ordinary citizens. People flock to software like Google Earth and map mashups. The masterminds behind the terror attacks in Mumbai and Pathankot didn’t wait for SoI maps. US-based DigitalGlobe offers georeferenced satellite imagery with 30-cm pixel resolution. A quick search in German company RapidEye’s online archive would give you access to over 5 billion square kilometers of high-resolution multispectral satellite imagery. It would also show you the western boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir, even as the NMP 2005 declares, “If the international boundary is depicted on the map, certification by SoI will be necessary”.

“The map policy needs to be amended to bring in greater clarity or simplification on the data definitions, usage and access process,” says B.V.R. Mohan Reddy, Chairman of NASSCOM, the premier chamber that represents and sets the tone for public policy for the Indian IT industry.
For the Indian geospatial industry to grow to global ranking, related policies need to be amended so that access to geoinformation is easier, and yet secure. One good example is how the Ordnance Survey in the UK disseminates its map data to end users — citizens, private industry and the government.

“The end user has online access to the required map data without having to go through several permissions.
In case there is any additional map data added by the user, that data IP remains with the user who need not log in the updated data back with Ordnance Survey,” explains Reddy, who
is also the founder and managing director of Cyient.

As Anup Jindal, CEO and Joint Managing Director, RMSI, points out, there are so many policies governing the usage of satellite imagery in India that procuring and processing imagery outside of the country is easier. “Our policies today inhibit, rather than fostering, the growth. These policies talk more about what one should not do, instead of what one should do,” agrees Nikhil Kumar, Director – Technical Marketing (SAARC Region), Trimble Navigation, India.

Ignoring the active users

One of the main objectives of the NMP was to “promote the use of geospatial knowledge and intelligence through partnerships and other mechanisms by all sections of the society and work towards a knowledge-based society”. That never happened in the desired scale and manner. The SoI only concentrated on the needs of the State for security and administrative purposes, ignoring the resources active users require, such as, Points of Interest and the transportation network.

Ramesh Kajrolkar, Director, Regional Content Operations, TomTom, explains, “The new era is Web-keen, with more requests of having everything in one wireless gadget. Today, users demand value-added maps with additional information and location intelligence. Maps with better resolution, high scale, high accuracy and with dynamic adaption of real world changes are in high demand by the users.”

On the industry front, large-scale maps (1:4,000) are needed for engineering projects. But, the SoI is still doling out barely updated 1:50,000 maps. Needless to say, they pale in comparison to the highly precise digitized data available from foreign sources on the Internet. Dr Ravi Kumar D.V.S., Vice President – Government, IIC Technologies, confirms this. “When our organization undertakes geodetic surveys and cadastral mapping projects, we take old cadastral maps from the states. However, since most of our projects are on 1:4,000 scale, the SoI’s 1:50,000 maps are of no use to us. We end up resorting to satellite imagery, and conduct aerial surveys from our end to get 8 to 10-cm positional accuracy,” he reveals.

Stuck in the 19th century

Did we mention that SoI’s digital maps are not available even on its own website? The old paper route is the only way to place orders for digital data. The data is in a proprietary format, with a choice to pay extra for another proprietary format. They agency refuses to supply in the ISO standard Geography Markup Language (GML) 3.1, even though the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) portal has the Indian version of this standard on their site.

Moreover, the data supplied are raw vectorized scans without any cleaning of noise and artifacts, rendering the data virtually unusable unless put through a cleaning process. Once they get these irritants out of the way, they need to revisit the policy that analogue restricted map becomes a secret digital map and an analogue non-restricted map becomes a restricted digital map because of the specious reason that ‘digital is more accurate than analogue’.

If the national surveying and mapping agency fails to keep up with the changing technological landscape, how can it hope to appease the country’s ever-increasing appetite for geospatial information? According to Maj Gen (Dr) R Siva Kumar, former CEO, NSDI, “At present, SoI has elevation data of 10 m resolution for the entire country, whereas, the requirement is of the order of 0.5 m for various hydrological solutions as well as smart cities. Defense also requires this for various weapons, delivery systems and surveillance systems.”

The NMP also prohibits export of all maps/digital data in 1:250,000 and larger scales through any means. However, this has also created a lot of confusion in spatial user community. TomTom’s Kajrolkar points out that the definition of the term ‘export’ is wide in its meaning and not crystal clear if it covers the ‘MoD approved map’ taking out of India, by any means, whether physically or over the Internet, or other means of electronic communication. No explanation has been stipulated in the National Map Policy to this general rule and it is not clear if this applies to digital download of map data outside India.

Giving back to the taxpayer

Today, countries across the globe are giving citizens free access to satellite data to kindle innovation and inspire entrepreneurship. The United States does it with its Landsat program; Europe does it with Copernicus and INSPIRE. The rationale is that if the taxpayers’ money is being used to fund the public programs generating geospatial information, the benefit from such data should also go directly to the common man. We are also moving in this direction with Indian Space Research Organization’s Bhuvan geo-platform which offers imagery specific to Indian region with spatial resolutions ranging from 1 to 56 meters.

The National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC) is vested with the authority to acquire and disseminate all satellite remote sensing data in India, both from Indian and foreign satellites. The Remote Sensing Data Policy (RSDP 2011) says that all data of resolutions up to 1 m shall be distributed on a nondiscriminatory basis and on “as requested basis, while all data of better than 1 meter resolution needs to be screened and cleared by the appropriate agency prior to distribution”.

It is interesting to note that the Indian space agency’s earth observation satellites in service have the capability to provide only a little better than 1-meter spatial resolution imagery today, whereas foreign players like DigitalGlobe are delivering 30-cm resolution imagery. If an MNC in India doesn’t want to wait for clearance from the NRSC, who is stopping it from having its foreign offices buy the imagery and send them to India using File Transfer Protocol (FTP)? Moreover, isn’t it high time that the data distribution is decentralized for both IRS and foreign satellite data?
NRSC as a fully government entity should no longer hold on to its role as a data distributor as government rules and regulations will not enable the flexibility required by a data center. Industry insiders say this role should now be with Antrix, the public sector undertaking of the DoS.

According to Dr P.G. Diwakar, Deputy Director, NRSC, “ISRO is one organization which has been working hard to see to that the policies are relaxed and data is made more freely available to the users. That is how from 5.8-m resolution in RSDP 2000-01, we came down to 1-m with RSDP 2011. So, this 1-m data is absolutely free (without restriction, but paid); anybody can take this data.” ISRO is looking to improve this policy with even better resolution and remove the restrictions. Recently, the space agency announced that all remote sensing data up to 1 m resolution and older than 6 months will be made freely available. Earlier, the cap was on data older than two years.

“We cannot do anything about the map policy because it is looked after by the DST,” Diwakar clarifies. However, since Bhuvan’s base data is from the SoI — because it guarantees positional authenticity — there are often problems of Bhuvan data sitting on top of the SoI data.

Bhuvan geoportal; India map policy for geospatial industry

Keeping it private

Users do not want just maps. They also ask for the ability to construct their own derived maps, create ‘what if’ scenarios, analyse various options before arriving at a decision. They would like to have the ability to integrate non spatial data with spatial data. For example, one can pour data from a spreadsheet into a map to view the contents geographically — sales data from different territories, agriculture output from various regions, fund utilization from various districts, etc. A visual outlook empowers a user to take informed decisions.

However, when the national institutions fail to transform themselves to keep up with the changing technological landscape, the onus of geoinformation infrastructure creation falls on the private players. Arnout Desmet, VP Content Operations, TomTom, discloses, “Due to unavailability of high-scale accurate data from any government agencies, TomTom relies on data sources like field surveyed information collected through vendors or with their own staff.” But this comes with its own set of problems. “The non-standard methods of collection, difference in formats, location accuracy issues, duplicate and superfluous information are the common issues that TomTom faces from vendors,” he adds.

Similar is the story of HERE, which updates its database on a continuous basis using data collected by its field representatives, LiDAR equipped vehicles, public transit information, traffic probes, etc. “In 2013, we published high priority changes in select markets on a weekly basis. Since 2015, we have been processing and publishing 100% of validated map changes on a weekly basis,” says Tarun Harnathka, Director of Regional Map & Content for India at HERE. This means that every week, the HERE platform is delivering a fresh map to customers that includes not just the items you see visibly on the map, but also the services associated with the map, like routing, traffic and geocoding.

“The Indian geospatial industry has played pivotal role in facilitating adoption of geospatial technologies in India and have participated in implementation of large mission critical projects cutting across domains — disaster management, urban, natural resource management, utilities, land record modernization, security, etc. Over the last several years, the industry has moved up the value chain in client engagement – from data conversion projects to large mission critical systems integration projects,” emphasizes Rajesh Mathur, Advisor, Esri India, and President, AGI (Association of Geospatial Industries). Mathur’s company Esri has been involved in several big ticket mission mode projects, including the National Land Records Modernization Program (NLRMP) and the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Program (R-APDRP).

Indian geospatial companies are also implementing large GIS projects successfully in other parts of the world. Indian users have, thus, benefited from this global exposure as best practices developed from international projects have been applied in domestic projects thereby enhancing value creation for our Indian customers. It has also led to development of world class technical manpower in India, capable of meeting the requirements of discerning customers globally. The geospatial ecosystem has much more depth and breadth today than ever before.

Need for another think

Work on overhauling the NMP has already begun and a committee has already been set up to pen down recommendations. But, for Nikhil Kumar, the problem is that the policies are focusing more on restricting rather than managing efficiently. “If you ask the ‘creator’ not to capture and create high resolution dataset due to security risk, technology will never evolve. You cannot put obstacles in the path of innovation. Your central system should allow you to disseminate the same set of data with different resolutions for different purposes.” Kumar adds that it would be a great tragedy if high resolution dataset is required for a disaster situation and you cannot find it because you have completely deleted it from the system.

Meanwhile, Mathur emphasizes the need for a constant review of the existing policies to determine if the policy is delivering the desired outcomes. Sometimes technology drives policy review. Disruptive technologies like Web/Cloud are giving us new opportunities to deliver geospatial services. Mobile, social media, Big Data analytics, Internet of Things are other developments which facilitate integration of various IT subsystems with geospatial. “We need to come up with a comprehensive geospatial content policy which would meet the needs of user organizations and simplify the process of embedding geospatial into their existing systems and processes.”

Mathur maintains that the policy should allow users (government departments, business organisations, citizens, NGOs and others) to access data created by national mapping agencies, state governments and others. “Of course, care must be taken to ensure that national security is not compromised,” he says. “Moreover, the policy needs to mandate sharing of data created by mapping agencies and those who are creating value added products.”

The view that the issue of government policy keeping pace with technology change is not simply an issue for mapping, but a broader issue about balancing citizen safety and security issues with access to an increasingly large pool of open information is echoed by Harnathka of HERE. “We certainly understand and respect the tricky balancing act that governments around the world face. We see the way forward as being about working in close collaboration with government policymakers to ensure they are well brief on next generation map data collection process while at all time remaining compliant with their requirements.”

For Dr Manosi Lahiri, Founder, MD & CEO at ML Infomap, it’s a case of differential expectations. “We should have a ‘national’ map policy that encourages map makers outside the SoI and map users outside of government. Since the NMP is often interpreted in security terms, it tends to stifle unhindered use of maps.”

Lahiri also thinks writing a public policy demands understanding not only of the subject, in this case maps, but also the ethos within which the policy is expected to succeed. “So, it is a difficult task for persons who have always been responsible for guarding maps to write a national map policy that others expect.”

Building the future on PPP

In such a scenario, collaboration between the industry and the government also becomes key. Even the SoI realizes this. Which is why, Dr Bhoop Singh, Head (Natural Resources Data Management System & NSDI), DST, has confirmed that the 1:10,000 mapping of the country will be done in a public-private partnership (PPP) model.

Ajay Kumar, Addtional Secretary, Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), points out that since the use of GIS technology is fairly new in a majority of government departments, PPP model is the only way going forward. “It is not possible for any government department to fulfill by itself the kind of requirements that exist today — both in terms of creating new applications and implementing already-existing geospatial solutions.” DeitY plans to take help from the private industry for the projects its recently-formed National Center of Geo-Informatics will undertake.

ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar believes that the PPP model will also play a vital role in the 160 projects for which ISRO is partnering with the government to use space technology. “What we are providing to various government departments is only the basic technological capability. The onus of using that information for a project or user application lies with the department itself. For this, they will need to give out contracts to private companies. No government organization can handle the entire amount of work that needs to be done,” he tells.

Pointing out that the private sector is a very active partner in the entire geospatial ecosystem of the country, Mathur asserts, “PPP would be a good model to further enlarge the scope of engagement. However, the terms of engagement will vary from project to project depending on a number of parameters like expected outcome,
risk sharing, investment level, et al. These should be handled on a case by case basis.”The National Geospatial Policy that is under works should be also addressing PPP. “We need to work out modalities taking into account our past experiences in other areas such as roads besides geospatial. We have to graduate to PPP from pure outsourcing model with aging workforce and depleting resources in governmental agencies,” says Siva Kumar.

RapidEye BlackBridge showing wrong India Map; India map policy for geospatial industry

 Masters of the Cloud

Today, it does not matter who is in charge of spatial digital fossils. We live in the age of Cloud computing and crowdsourcing, where the Internet of Things has become a part of an all-pervasive omnipresent socio-economic fabric. At the minimum, what the SoI could do today is establish a set of standards on its NSDI portal which could be used by different agencies to publish their data on the Cloud.

Industry insiders believe that DeitY should set up the National Cloud, and promote IoT for bringing static and mobile sensors, RFID and Web-enabled devices on to a common platform. End users can then use the data on the Cloud and in the IoT to realize their own apps which can be released to other users and the general public.

But to do all this, the Indian geospatial industry needs some handholding and special policy support like what the IT and pharmaceutical sectors received when they were coming up some years back. The benefits can be in terms of direct benefits such as tax breaks or special sector status. This can be complimented with indirect benefits, such as, how a push from the government to improve the data communication infrastructure enabled the IT sector to grow in India. For example, if the government were to mandate that all Smart Cities initiative were to be geo-enabled, then that small step would have a huge impact in the geospatial industry and community in India. Reddy sums up, “Similar to the IT industry, the geospatial industry provides specialized solutions to almost all industries with strong benefits in terms of business efficiencies and operational awareness. Given this scenario, the geospatial industry does deserve to have some benefits from the government side so as to ensure India can become a geospatial leader, similar to the IT sector.”