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What India’s geospatial data liberalisation means

Doing away with archaic regulations will enable a mapping revolution, experts say.

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2021.33 Published online 22 February 2021

© Google Maps

India’s scrapping of decades-old regulations governing geospatial data will unlock mapping from a restrictive use to wider national use, experts say.

In a major shift in the country’s mapping policy, the government announced new guidelines last week (15 February 2020) enabling Indian entities to freely acquire or disseminate geospatial data – terrestrial or underwater. Geospatial data encompasses all data including boundaries, mobility, weather patterns or statistical information.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about the historic mapping deregulation saying it would improve the ease of doing business in India, generate employment and accelerate economic growth.

Freedom to map India

Mapping has been a government exercise since colonial times, handled by the Survey of India. The Geospatial Information Regulation Act, 2016 made it mandatory to take permission before disseminating, publishing or distributing any geospatial information about India.

Democratising data unlocks opportunities for both the private and public sector enterprises with broad-ranging benefits for agriculture, farming, logistics, construction, infrastructure and the services sector, experts say.

India’s Science and Technology minister Harsh Vardhan said opening up mapping will help India achieve ambitious GDP goals. “The next generation of technologies will use hyper-resolution maps. Availability of comprehensive, highly accurate, granular and constantly updated representation of geospatial data will benefit the different sectors of economy,” he said.

Secretary to India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) Ashutosh Sharma said geospatial data holds the key to planning, development and governance. “A fully empowered ecosystem of mapping agencies, industry and start-ups will enable India to become self-reliant in the field of geospatial technologies and applications.”

According to Rohan Verma, CEO of MapmyIndia, a deep-tech company specialising in maps, navigation, tracking, and location technologies, India's mapping regulations were archaic and dotted with several impediments. “Of course, there will be challenges in smooth implementation of the new policy, but I am sure this will level the field for all players.” Verma said it will promote new projects like 4D maps and Real View, which his company was very excited to foray into.  

In May last year, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced structural reforms in eight sectors, including space. Ajey Lele, senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) told Nature India that the deregulation of mapping is a natural extension of these reforms.

Security concerns

Lele said currently various industries were procuring data from foreign agencies at a high cost. “We are hopeful that this new liberalisation will also bring a lot of business to the newly established commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation – NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL). However, it should be ensured that military grade data is not shared with any agency.”

The government, however, said there were no security issues with the liberalisation. The new guidelines have a ‘negative list of sensitive attributes’ that would require regulation before anyone can acquire or use such data. The DST will soon notify this list on its website.

Awais Ahmed, CEO of the Indian space-technology start-up Pixxel, says the liberalisation of geospatial data and services is in line with the country’s mission on self-reliance (Atmanirbhar Bharat) and the government's vision for a five trillion-dollar economy. “Companies can now procure and sell geospatial services as long as it is above threshold value."

For 200 years, India has been a front runner in mapping disruptions starting with the Great Trigonometric Survey to the Google Map Maker, which led to the first globally useful map in 2008 spanning 187 countries and was a leap forward in local search, directions and planning.

Lalitesh Katragadda, who created the Google Map Maker and has now founded Indihood, a crowdsourced technology platform, said India’s new geospatial policy is transformative in its simplicity, dismantling barriers to mapping in one stroke and "hopefully sparking a third mapping revolution".

“Using drones, Streetview, Lidar and Radar, the vision of an open hyper resolution virtual view of India accurate in time and space will come alive for citizens, businesses and governance.”