Next Generation Map Technologies

Outdated regulations and a lack of accurate mapping technology has cost India up to $14 billion per year in inefficient last-mile delivery. We need to modernise map regulations and embrace next-gen technologies like LIDAR and drones to boost our mobility industries and pave the way for autonomous vehicles.

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

Last week I came across an interesting article that discussed the economic consequences of low discoverability of localities in India. In it the authors compared the cost of last mile delivery in the US to that in India in an attempt to try and estimate the costs that businesses in India have to incur on account of the fact that we lack an accurate house-level addressing system. They found that in the US, last mile delivery was just 10% of the total cost. In India, on the other hand, despite the far lower cost of labour, last mile costs could be as high as 30%. They estimated that on account of the poor state of location services in India, the country as a whole stands to lose between $10 and $14 billion per year.

But we don’t need a research paper to tell us this - it is a frustration we have all experienced personally. We have all lived the inconvenience of having to guide delivery boys to our doorstep over the phone, providing them step-by-step directions even though they are all using location services that should have guided them to our door. When friends visit us for the first time we make sure they have contextual landmarks - take the second left after the big garbage dump - since our address itself rarely has any navigational utility. It is a fact that despite all the map apps we now have access to on our mobile devices, it is still far easier to get around using contextual landmarks. For the most part, we have learned to take this in our stride accepting that this is just one of the many little inconveniences that is part and parcel of life in India.

India’s Map Anachronistic Regulations

For too long in this country, we have ignored the importance of location technology. Thanks to draconian regulations that require everyone engaged in the map business to get approvals and permissions for virtually everything they do, there has been next to no innovation in map technologies in India. In an earlier article I discussed the Everest Spheroid and how the regulatory quagmire we find ourselves in today owed its origins to the days when maps were surface referenced. In those days possession of accurate surface referenced maps were the strategic advantage that nations guarded zealously. Today none of this is relevant any more. GPS technology has advanced to the point where earth centred maps are highly accurate and considerations such as the Everest Spheroid are irrelevant. As I had pointed out:

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. Seen in this context, the Indian government’s continued insistence on preventing the export of maps is inexplicable. Surface reference mapping was the proxy we were compelled to rely on when we lacked the technological prowess to accurately pinpoint the centre of the earth’s mass. Now that we can do that, insisting on enforcing regulations that protect surface reference maps just makes us look silly.

This would also imply that the restrictions we impose on the export of maps are equally pointless. In another article I tried to get to the bottom of this restriction on exports - trying to figure out why the archaic restrictions on paper maps were being applied to digital maps uploaded to the cloud.

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 restriction on the export of digital maps is based on a 1963 notification that was issued well before digital maps were even a possibility. Today, highly accurate maps of India are available anywhere in the world. The only effect that restrictions such as these will have is to prevent Indians from being able to take advantage of the benefits that high quality mapping provides.

Map Maker Made in India

Not many people know that Map Maker - the technology behind the most widely used digital map product in the world - was developed in Bangalore. Map Maker went on to revolutionise the way in which maps are made by tapping into the crowd - getting users to add map features themselves so that points of interest could be added far quicker rate than would have been possible using traditional cartography.

Despite having the technical capability to build world-class map products such as these, the reason why India has not been able to convert this expertise to its advantage is because of the regulatory restriction on map creation. As a result, Indian companies that need to use location services for their business in India - whether it be eCommerce, logistics, transportation or delivery - they all have to rely on mapping products produced and maintained by companies operating from outside of India - providing their services through the cloud.

We have well and truly missed the bus when it comes to map technology. Today, even if we reversed all the repressive regulations that have held us back for decades, there is no way that Indian technology companies will be able to make up lost ground.

Which is why it is a good thing for us that the entire map industry is on the verge of a cataclysmic transformation.

The Next Generation

So far the maps we use are derived from satellite images that are subsequently augmented by on ground observations. As technologies such as drones, street-level 360 cameras and LIDAR become commercially available, all that is going to change. Over the past few years each of these technologies have come into their own - LIDAR is already standard issue in mobile phones and semi-autonomous cars, while drones and 360 cameras are becoming ever more portable and functional. They are now at the point where they can be deployed at scale giving us the ability to map the world in a wholly different way - to create maps that are accurate up to a centimetre and in three dimensions.

I had alluded to this briefly in an earlier article about what I see as the real benefits of augmented reality. I wrote:

The first step towards the creation of this new platform is building a distributed all-seeing network comprising a number of tiny cameras that are constantly capturing visual information about the world around us and uploading it onto the cloud. Since every image that is captured in this manner will be tagged with information about where it was taken, what it was about and other associated data, once enough visual information is aggregated in the cloud, it will become possible for us to build a multi-dimensional digital representation of the world around us that maps perfectly onto the real world. Once that happens, it will be possible to interact with the world in ways that we cannot imagine.

Much of this interaction will take place through the connected, always-on glasses that we will wear all the time, which will allow us to interact digitally with the inanimate objects around us. All we will need to do is look at an object to get the information we need about it displayed inside our glasses. Information about what the object is, where it came from, what it can be used for and how, will appear before our eyes as soon as it falls within our field of view.

In addition to annotating the world like this, being able to map locations this precisely will open up a whole range of services. Warehouse and inventory management companies will be able to automate their processes in ways that are unheard of today just as utility services will be able to dramatically improve the efficiencies of their installed assets. And once we are able to map the world in three dimensions like this we will pave the way for truly autonomous vehicles.

But 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.

Our map regulations might be stuck in the past - but if we play our cards right we can directly leapfrog into the future.