The Department of Science and Technology came up with a set of guidelines concerning geospatial data this month. Multiple news reports hailed the guidelines as the path to liberalise the geospatial industry and spur growth.
Geospatial data is any form of data that talks about location information. It can be in the form of maps, the GPS dots that you come across on your mobile phones, satellite images, etc.
It’s important to understand that the new guidelines have been produced by the executive branch of the government, and don’t make up a law passed by the states or the Centre. Even though the guidelines supersede multiple executive documents published earlier, their scope is limited and they may not be legally binding.
This said, they do reflect the present government’s mood very well, as well as the future of the geospatial industry in India and how future laws could be drafted in the field. These are the reasons why the new guidelines are influential.
What has become better?
In 2016, the Government of India prepared the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill. It had some of the most nightmarish provisions for creating or publishing data. It said that any person – not just companies – who produces geospatial data is required to apply for a certain license or permission to publish that data. If someone doesn’t get the license and publishes such information, they would be punished with a hefty fine (minimum of one crore rupees).
Imagine how hard it would be to order food on Swiggy or to book a cab using Uber – where you are creating geospatial data displayed on a web page or app (delivery or pickup location). You would have had to pay the government a fee, wait for months to receive a license to create geospatial information, and then have your food delivered! The new guidelines have done away with this provision.
In fact, they dismantle the license Raj that has tied down the Indian geospatial industry. The new guidelines don’t require any security clearances or licenses to create, collate, manage or produce geospatial data. Removing this red tape is a major step that could boost the geospatial industry. In the short to medium term, this likely means more commercial applications of geospatial data, with small and medium level companies benefitting the most.
The next good part of the guidelines is the types of data the government plans to deregulate, including aerial or satellite data (RADAR, LIDAR, bathymetric data, street view, etc.). India has been a laggard on this front primarily due to restrictions on collecting this data. Not just the industry – even academics had a difficult time obtaining such data for research purposes or applications. I find it very refreshing that the government has not just recognised these fields but has also helped them.
The other development I find to be satisfying is that the guidelines say there won’t be any list of “negative areas” and instead talks about “negative attributes”. (For example, according to older government regulations, defence areas were to be blacked out on maps and satellite images.) How exactly these “negative attributes” will work or apply remains to be seen – but the removal of ‘negative areas’ is a logical step because it never served any purpose.
What could have been made better?
The biggest drawback with the new guidelines have to do with the way they deal with data created by public funds. They say that geospatial data created with public money will be made easily accessible with fair and transparent pricing. However, these terms are subjective. What, how and who will define the terms “fair”, “transparent”, and “easy”? we don’t know.
In addition, we can never achieve fair pricing with public datasets because these products don’t follow the market rules of demand and supply. It will be also difficult to find any entity that accepts its own pricing to be unfair. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) for example provides historical data for a fee, but the cost can run into the crores if one wants to buy such data for an entire state. IMD considers this to be fair, and who can say otherwise?
Governmental line agencies, parastatal organisations and departments should not view geospatial data sharing as part of a revenue model and the guidelines should have addressed this.
The current format is that the tax collected from citizens will be used to create data. The cream on top is that the citizens will have to pay again to buy this data. The cherry on the top of the cream is that citizens also have to pay GST for this purchase. (Very few governmental agencies don’t mention GST but in general Indian entities are expected to pay at three different levels for the same data.) Data created with public funds should be made open to the public, and there should not be any second thought to that.
It’s generally true that governmental agencies face many difficulties in creating, managing and sharing data – as they don’t have enough resources (human, financial, etc.) to produce good-quality datasets. On the other hand, the bureaucracy is very reluctant to share data due to fear of criticism. This criticism is not limited to quality issues but also extends to service provisioning and politics.
For example, we don’t see any city administration publishing its water pipeline data, design specifications or water flow. One reason is that releasing such information could create problems for city officials when people find that their place is not receiving the requisite services.
The guidelines should have been clearer or should have indicated that there will be certain regulations to govern the sharing of public data. They could have also hinted about possible collaborations between government and academia in overcoming issues around resources, skills and training.
The boundary between geospatial data and data in general, including attribute data (associated information), is fuzzy. The government intends to create a “negative list” to limit certain possibly sensitive attributes – but at the same time it should have talked about an attribute list that to be shared along with location information.
Without good quality attribute data, location data can be useless. A person researching access to education would not only require the location of schools but also the number of teachers in schools, for example. This is attribute data. And the guidelines should have touched on regulation to enforce a minimum set of attributes for different datasets. Only then can meaningful analyses emerge.
Beyond the guidelines
It is 2021 and we are yet to see even basic data related to administrative boundaries, like wards, villages (revenue and census), road networks, etc. – or even a list of datasets created with public funds in the open. The ‘open data’ movement has been working wonders around the world and India should be moving in that direction as well.
Whenever and wherever data has become open, it has spurred growth in knowledge and applications. New methods, visualisations and innovations have all been sparked thanks to the open data revolution. Every day we delay opening data, we are delaying solutions for society.
We should also consider investing more in community-mapping projects, which can help close resource availability gaps and create and nurture public awareness of and enthusiasm towards the mapping space.
In fact, our governance in general must move towards a data-driven decision-making process. There will be no point in creating tonnes of data points if they are not going to be useful for public welfare. Indeed, for the new guidelines to have any effect, we will need to upskill the entire government engine and force it to rethink the way it performs governance.
In the last few days, there has been some chatter over whether an Indian company like MapMyIndia could overtake Google Maps. we must reject this obsession with Google Maps. Our guidelines are – and should be – designed for the betterment of our society, instead of becoming the subject of a war between corporate entities. If we believe Indian private players can do better than other private players only with the help of rules and regulations, then such a situation will also be very detrimental to our industry in the long run.
Whether or not Google Maps should be overtaken by an Indian company should be decided by the market, not by the government. If anything, Google’s greatest foe is its high price for map products (which it hiked overnight in 2019). Private firms need to focus on this instead of trying to take advantage of protectionist measures.
The geospatial industry in India is not mature and depends heavily on foreign sources for software, methods, methodology designs and many other things. So we should allow the industry to grow in a progressive and collaborative manner instead of in a protectionist manner.
The industry has a lot of stakeholders – government agencies that provide data, software developers, academics, private consulting firms, non-governmental organisations, government agencies that use data, data journalists, open data activists, private enthusiasts and, of course, the people at large.
The guidelines provide big advantages for the commercial sector but they need to do more for others as well. Considering the path we have treaded, the guidelines are revolutionary – but they need to do more if we are to make real progress.
Raj Bhagat Palanichamy is a manager of geoanalytics at the World Resources Institute – India. He tweets at @rajbhagatt.