India mulls Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. Not again!

India mulls Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. Not again!

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India Geospatial Information Regulation Bill 2016 - Why another geospatial policy?

The Indian government is drafting a law to regulate data and high resolution satellite images. The draft legislation, tentatively titled Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, will address issues regarding disseminating, publishing or displaying information that is likely to affect “security, sovereignty or integrity” of the country will become a punishable crime.

Earlier, the government said it was be working on a National Geospatial Policy (NGP), which seeks to put in place appropriate guidelines to address all possible issues related to sharing of maps and other spatial data. So is this Bill in tandem with the proposed NGP? Or it is a totally new thing? So far there is no clarity on that.

Works NGP have already begun and a working committee has been formed which is inviting suggestions from various ministries and the private Industry to putt together a comprehensive policy. What makes things really interesting is there are no representatives from the Department of Space (DoS) in this committee. Incidentally, DoS generates and controls an overwhelming majority of spatial data in the country.

Politics over policy

This is not the first time we are talking about a comprehensive policy to regulate spatial information in the country. And this not the first time there seems to be confusion over different bills/laws/policies that regulate such information. The demand for clearer data-sharing mechanisms has been there for some time now and there have been multiple attempts at addressing these issues.

Take for instance, the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) project, an idea mooted as far back 2000 and finally launched in 2006 under the Department of Science & Technology (DST). The NSDI was launched to facilitate a national Infrastructure for the availability and access to organised spatial data and use of the infrastructure at community, local, state, regional and national levels for sustained economic growth. In May 2005 the National Map Policy was approved as a pre-cursor to NSDI. Today, 16 years later, NSDI is a toothless body which has not achieved much, not even managed to get the complete metadata in one place.

Too many cooks

By 2010, there already were talks of another holistic, all encompassing project — the National GIS – envisaging a national data repository. Finally announced in 2013, the NGIS was considered to be pet project of Sam Pitroda, then adviser to the Prime Minister on Information Technology.

So what was the relationship between NSDI and NGIS and what was the requirement for having two agencies apparently working towards the same goal?

While no one will say it openly but NGIS was the outcome of several turf battles. Initially SoI proposed a National Geo Data Infrastructure. The Department of Space was keen to join hands and together they formulated the NSDI. Sources say fissures began to appear after a couple meetings only. MoD refused to sanction the release of a NSDI portal configured by the NSDI Task Force. Later DoS and DST differed on release of a Government Order creating among others an NSDI Office in DST to be managed by Survey of India.

While DoS appeared to play along on paper, soon there was an effort to promote its own National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS) as a possible alternative. This, as expected, was opposed by DST. In such a situation everyone jumped into the fray and not less than three Clearing Houses were set up — one by NIC, one by NSDI and the original demonstration one. Meanwhile, the NSDI show went on. In this background, the government did what India is famous for — forget the existing arrangement instead of setting it right and propose a brand new one!

How the mess got messier

NGIS was pushed through the Planning Commission. The idea was not only to create a massive database like NSDI but also create applications for different departments. Expectedly, this was opposed by DST and DOS and many of the user departments who felt that their turf was being encroached upon.

The story doesn’t end here.  Soon, the Planning Commission thought it was wise to offload the program. The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) was chosen. The MoES decided to rope in DST and DoS in a move to get the major data producing agencies on board. Ultimately, DST was given the responsibility.

So we now have two agencies working towards the same goal under the same department!  Three years down the line, NSDI is still floundering while NGIS remains only on paper!

Meanwhile, DoS went its own way as usual, and launched Bhuvan which it tried to place as India’s reply to Google. To its credit Bhuvan is something unique and most importantly, regularly updated and upgraded. To date this is perhaps the best geoportal for Indian data.

In the meantime, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) came in place in 2012. Though not specifically dealing with geospatial data, the policy sought to address the fundamental issue that the geospatial industry faces – deluge of data but nothing to share. The policy never really became effective since it was the last days of the UPA II government. The intention was good, but the eagerness to implement it was not there.

To add this, now the National Centre of Geoinformatics being pushed by Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY). It envisions that the “National Centre of Geoinformatics will be one of its kind ‘GIS Platform’, for Sharing & Collaborating GIS datasource, location based analytics and ‘Decision Support System’ serving to Central/State government and departments across country”.  “One of a kind”? Now where did we hear that before?!

So does the policy need a revamp?

Whatever existing policies are there needs to be implemented first. Today, digital maps at 1:50,000 scale are available from Survey of India but not on NSDI, not even on its own website! The old paper route is the only way to place orders for “digital” data. Now chew that!!

And there is more. For SoI, 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 artefacts, rendering the data virtually unusable unless put through a cleaning process. The data supplied is raw vectorised scans without any cleaning of artefacts rendering the data virtually unusable unless put through a cleaning process. Needless to say, they pale in comparison to the highly precise digitized data available from foreign sources on the Internet.

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’.

Another challenge is data quality. Today, multiple agencies are generating independent datasets without a common guideline. Often, no two datasets sit on each other. There are even issues with ISRO data sitting properly on SoI maps. ISRO maps on Bhuvan are on UTM projection using WGS84 model of the earth. Old SoI maps are on Lambert Polyconic using Everest 1970 as the datum. Therefore ISRO maps will not ‘sit’ on old SoI maps as the mathematical models for the two datums and the two projections are different, says an expert.

SoI maps at 1:50,000 scale have an absolute position error of 13.5m at 60% confidence level, almost 25m at 90% confidence level. ISRO maps are based on satellite data. Depending on the resolution used the positional accuracy varies. Typically, for 10m Resourcesat PAN sharpened data the error at 90% confidence level could be as much as 20 metres. The combined error could therefore be as much as 50 meters. It could also be 0 depending on the sign of the error at a particular location!

Back to square one

The contents of SoI toposheets are sensitive in nature from security point of view, and hence come under the scrutiny of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 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. Of what consequence are these restrictions in a time and age when private organizations are openly selling maps and satellite imagery?

Understandably, the proposed Geospatial Information Regulation Bill seeks to address this. But the words “security, sovereignty or integrity of the country” and “punishable crime” is what could be seen as a forewarning. This is ultimately not about data sharing. This is about data control. All over again.

The talks of a new national geospatial policy and a new geospatial information regulation Bill is welcome. As long there is ONE comprehensive policy. There are just too many elephants in the room. And there simply isn’t place for any more.