Courtesy: Heavy.ai

As a democratic nation, India has persistently looked at means to comprehend social and economic challenges with the aim of building an equitable society. This democratic character has steered India to consider geospatial tools as an important development to track changes and map the complex interplay of social and economic factors.

The present government added to the efforts of recognizing the need to map the country with high accuracy to ensure effective governance while also acknowledging that it can only be achieved through enhanced participation spanning beyond government entities. Thereupon, the government liberalized the map-making policy through its 2021 Landmark guideline on acquiring and producing Geospatial Data and Geospatial Data Services, including Maps.  

The erstwhile regulations entailed a heavy compliance structure and licensing requirements, which practically limited private participation in the sector and contributed to a lack of data in the country. The deregulation is intended to resolve the issues present in the licensing regime and allow for more private investments in the sector.

Google maps’ recent launch of the Streetview service, 11 years after it was first rolled out and denied permissions by regulatory authorities, sends a positive signal that will aid higher adoption of geospatial technologies by enterprises. While the advancements have happened in the right direction, there remain many ambiguities that may potentially impede the realization of the industry’s full potential.

Lost in Interpretation

The move towards a liberalized regime establishes the government’s intent to democratize geospatial data, reduce government dominance and create a level-playing field but whether the intent will deliver the desired outcome needs careful examination.

The new guideline prohibits foreign entities and foreign-owned or controlled Indian entities from conducting terrestrial mobile mapping surveys and street view surveys. However, they can license the services from an Indian entity with the condition that the licensees do not re-use or resale the map data.

In this context, there is an abstruse understanding of certain terms used in the guideline, and therefore, they are subject to varied interpretations. For instance, start-ups in the geospatial domain are heavily funded by Foreign venture capitalists who wield varying degrees of control depending on their ownership. Defining the rules of ownership and control is necessary to establish uniform methods of interpretation.

Similarly, the guideline also lacks clarity on what constitutes a ‘survey’ as it may also include a collection of location data, in addition to generating maps. Given that many foreign tech companies are into ride-hailing services, fitness apps, restaurant aggregation businesses, etc., that collect location data through smart devices, there is uncertainty on what is permissible for such entities. Without clarification on the nitty-gritty of the guidelines, private investors may tread cautiously, offsetting the intent of the guideline.

Data Processing, Collection, and Sharing

An integrated data set that interacts with different sectoral data is key to improving governance and increasing societal benefits. However, if a research institute requires geospatial data, there are no clear guidelines or processes in place to grant access.

The benefits of using geospatial tools as a decision support system are also often constrained by the need to protect the subject’s privacy. One pertinent policy that places Geospatial data in its ambit is the E-commerce policy which states that “all community data collected by Internet of Things (IoT) devices in public spaces are to be stored exclusively in India and sharing of such data within the country is proposed to be regulated.”  

While it is unknown whether the new geospatial guidelines are legally binding, it merits attention that the e-commerce clause, when read in conjunction with the guidelines, presents a contradiction with regard to data sharing. The former speaks of regulating data sharing, while the latter mentions no restrictions in relation to such data and the use of such data products by way of selling, distributing, sharing, disseminating, publishing, and destructing.

With the ambiguity present, especially in the absence of comprehensive privacy law and lack of uniform and standard guidelines on granting access, institutions may refrain from sharing data as mishandling of data by third-party forms a potential risk.

Data privacy and security have always been a persistent concern for businesses and individuals alike. A Hodge-potch of privacy laws that are often conflicting entails significant costs to businesses. As per the IBM report, on average, data breaches cost companies in India about INR 165 Million, which is an increase of 17.85% from INR 140 Million in the last report released in 2020. Against such a development, reducing policy uncertainty becomes crucial for increased and sustained private investments in the sector. 

An Integrated System

An ideal geospatial ecosystem consists of government, industries, academic institutions, and research organizations where each is a potential data provider, user, collaborator, and contributor to the nation’s development paradigm. At the same time, it is also important to balance the benefits of geospatial information for society with its perceived risks. To create such an ecosystem that feeds into each other, it is necessary to streamline the regulatory processes and address its complexities. 

In the present milieu, there are multiple guidelines, policies, and legislations in place by which the geospatial industry gets governed. Guidelines that are designed to regulate the collection or use of geospatial information in one sector often have an impact on other sectors. Evidently, the industry is exposed to multiple potential regulators having overlapping or contradictory provisions, adding to the complexity. With the rapid advancement that is expected to happen in the liberalized setting, there will also arise many new legal and policy issues in the field.

This necessitates an integrated system responsible for setting co-regulatory mechanisms involving shared governance between the government and industry and ensuring seamless geospatial information management. The body may constitute members of the geospatial community from Union and State ministries, industry, academia, and private sector representatives that provide executive, advisory direction, and oversight for geospatial decisions.

The regulatory landscape needs to stay agile to the changes in the market; However, responding through newer legislation or modifying existing frameworks takes extended periods of time. Therefore, a body that can track developments and enlist timely principles or codes of conduct that act as a non-binding regulatory framework for the industry will ensure orderliness and avoid the threat of excessive censure.

This was first published in GeoSpatialWorld.net Read it here..

Image Source: heavy.ai

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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Nissy Solomon is Hon. Trustee (Research & Programs) at CPPR. She has a background in Economics with a master’s degree in Public Policy from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. After graduation and prior to her venture into the public policy domain, she worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst with Nokia-Heremaps. Her postgraduate research explored the interface of GIS in Indian healthcare planning. She is broadly interested in Public Policy, Economic Development and Spatial Analysis for policymaking.

Nissy Solomon
Nissy Solomon
Nissy Solomon is Hon. Trustee (Research & Programs) at CPPR. She has a background in Economics with a master’s degree in Public Policy from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. After graduation and prior to her venture into the public policy domain, she worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst with Nokia-Heremaps. Her postgraduate research explored the interface of GIS in Indian healthcare planning. She is broadly interested in Public Policy, Economic Development and Spatial Analysis for policymaking.

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