Radical Map Reforms

The new map guidelines issued by the government has liberalised the map making in the country by doing away with the requirement for prior approvals and security clearances, relying instead on companies to self-certify their compliance. It has legalised the export of maps up to 1 meter resolution and have permitted Indian companies to use drones, street view and LiDAR technologies to create maps of higher resolution.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

My first public policy assignment was to help the government rationalise its approach to geospatial data by attempting to converge the mapping activities of various disparate agencies into a single coherent national geospatial data policy. If this initiative doesn’t ring any bell, it’s because nothing really came of it—at least not until much later, and even then in a very different form. That said, as unproductive as this effort might have seemed at the time, I could hardly have asked for a better introduction to the complex world of Indian policymaking.

Making sense of India’s map regulations requires an uncommon appreciation of a wide range of issues—from overarching and relatively inexplicable security concerns to a range of procedural requirements that have remained unchanged since the days of the British — even though Maps are made in a very different way today. Most of my clients in the sector have either left the country in disgust or resigned themselves to soldiering on through a fog of cartographic uncertainty, treating random acts of enforcement they are constantly subjected to as an unavoidable cost of doing business.

Understanding Map Regulation

In the two decades since that initial assignment, I have tried to better understand the reason behind our singular approach to regulating maps. My earliest academic writing on the subject was an article in the August 2000 issue of Current Science where I tried, a good 5 years before the Right to Information Act was passed, to craft an argument for a fundamental right to access geospatial data from out of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the constitution. Five years later, Google Maps was launched and transformed the world of cartography by introducing digital maps. As I continued to advice clients on how to navigate these waters my frustration with the incongruence of our regulations proceeded in lockstep with my evolving understanding of the complexity of the issues.

One of the earliest Ex Machina articles I wrote was about the draft Geospatial Bill that, for the first time, made the general public aware of the restrictions that mapping companies have to face in India. I was amused by the widespread consternation about the proposed legislation particularly since Indian map companies had already taken these ambiguous restrictions into their stride. As I pointed out in that piece:

In over two decades of advising map companies in India, it has been my experience that, when approached for clarifications, the government has consistently stood by the letter of the regulations, intractably applying the strictest possible interpretation to its provisions. Yet, when it comes to enforcement, it’s been remarkably reticent to punish transgressions, even when the evidence of the contraventions are obvious. It is thanks to this outwardly strict but practically benevolent approach that our map ecosystem has flourished and location-based services developed to the extent that they have.

As it happened, the Geospatial Bill was never enacted into law — but the fear that it would hung like the sword of Damocles over the whole industry. Of gravest concern was the prohibition on the export of Maps and map data that, when applied to digital maps, would prohibit cloud based mapping services using servers outside the country.

tried to make sense of how we got where we are by researching the origins of our map regulations. The logical place to start is the [[National Map Policy, 2005]] that was the closest thing we had to a map regulation — but as I dug deeper I soon realised that it was just the tip of the iceberg:

Any analysis of India’s map regulations has to start with the Map Policy of 2005, a loosely worded quasi-legislative document that is the closest thing we have to a map law. The policy itself makes no mention of export restrictions. Instead, those restrictions are buried in paragraph 2(d) of the Guidelines to the Map Policy which makes reference to Customs Notification No. 118-Cus/F.No.21/5/62-Cus.I/VIII, dated 4 May 1963. This is the primary legal document that spells out the prohibition on the export of maps of a scale larger than 1:250,000.

The deeper into the rabbit hole I went the more I realised that the regulations that had been applied to the sector were designed with physical maps in mind. By extending them, without proper application of mind to the world of digital mapping had caused considerable confusion.

Mapping Technologies

In my discussions with government officials, the term “The Everest Spheroid” kept coming up. I was informed that this was the strategic reason for our map regulations. But, as I pointed out in a subsequent article, no-one uses the Everest Spheroid any more. The whole world has moved on to a more advanced standard that is far more accurate and universally acceptable:

The World Geodetic System (WGS) was developed in 1960 and was significantly overhauled in 1984. It is maintained by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency that invests billions of dollars into ensuring that it continues to most accurately depict the Earth geoid. Its calculation of the location of Earth’s centre is now accurate to within the width of a postage stamp. WGS-84 is currently used by all GPS applications and is, conclusively, the most accurate measure of the distance between any two points on the surface of the Earth.

That being the case, the insistence by the Indian government on relying on a method of mapping that was relevant when topographies were physically surveyed for accuracy is hard to understand.

More recently, I wrote about how our antiquated regulations are coming in the way of Indian companies taking advantage of mapping technologies of the future. Today technologies exist to map the world at centimeter resolution using LiDAR, drones and street view surveys. These new technologies offer a wealth of opportunities in all fields of commerce and we must be in a position to take advantage of them.

If we are to capitalise on this next wave of map technology, we must first rectify the mistakes of the past. We need to rescind the repressive approval processes that have hamstrung the map industry and permit companies to map whatever they want—barring a list of sensitive areas that should be clearly demarcated as such with GPS coordinates. At the same time, we should enact policies that liberalise the use of LiDAR, drones and 360-degree camera technologies, and give Indian companies the exclusive right to create hyper-resolution maps of the country. This will encourage innovation in the sector and ensure that any advances that are made as a result of these policies appropriately accrue to us in India.

But after two decades of hoping, I had resigned myself to accepting that some things would never change.

Radical Reform

Earlier this week, the government announced a radical overhaul of India’s geospatial regulations, replacing our decades-old practices and policies with a set of forward-looking guidelines that, if implemented in the spirit in which they are written, will transform the sector.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the revised guidelines have done away with all requirements for prior approvals and security clearances. Map companies will henceforth be trusted to self-certify their compliance with Indian guidelines. It has also done away with the requirement for certain sensitive areas to be blacked out, stipulating instead that no map should identify or associate any place on a map with a list of prohibited attributes. These two measures will, of themselves, come as a breath of fresh air to mapping companies, which currently waste inordinate amounts of time submitting revised maps for approval before publishing them, even though it is practically impossible for the government to physically review every map that it actually receives.

The new guidelines have also permitted the export of maps above specified threshold values (1 metre horizontal resolution and 3 metres vertical) and allowed their storage on the Cloud. Maps of this resolution are sufficient for most purposes they’re put to, today, including [[turn-by-turn navigation]], logistics and delivery, and urban transport. By explicitly liberalising these regulations, the government has made legal all the apps on our phones that provide us any form of location-based services.

But perhaps most significantly, these guidelines have liberalised the creation of maps at resolutions far finer than those currently being used in India. To this end, it has also explicitly permitted the use of advanced cartographic technologies such as terrestrial mobile mapping, drones and LiDAR, that are capable of creating high-resolution three-dimensional maps.

Next Generation Maps

As pleased as I am with the progressive nature of this reform, I am thrilled by all the possibilities that this particular regulation opens up. Hyper-resolution LiDAR maps are best suited for use in the navigation systems of autonomous vehicles, just as extruding mapped surfaces into the third dimension will enable logistics and delivery solutions that deploy drones for automated doorstep delivery. These solutions might seem like science fiction, but these examples merely scratch the surface of what is possible. Once we facilitate mapping the surface of the world at this granularity, we will be able to transform the manner in which we manage our utilities (such as power grids, water and sewage infrastructure). It will revolutionize warehousing and inventory management, as well as a whole host of other things that I can’t even begin to imagine.

The new map guidelines explicitly limit the use of these advanced mapping technologies to Indian owned or controlled companies, and limit the storage of maps created by these technologies to servers in India or a domestic cloud. While this might appear protectionist, it must be pointed out that these restrictions do not come in the way of any of the mapping technologies that are currently in use. These are technologies of the future and by restricting their use in this manner, the government is giving Indian startups a head-start in an area of development that no-one really owns at present. In doing so it is doing little more than offering Indian companies an opportunity to make up some of the time they have lost on account of the unduly harsh regulations they have been subject to.

It is now up to India’s entrepreneurs to make the most of this advantage.

And deliver.