New Geo-Spatial data Policy and its implications – Explained pointwise

Recently Department of Science and Technology(DST) announced liberalised guidelines for geospatial data and mapping in India. The guidelines permitted Indian companies to access geospatial data generated by Indians. But permitting the companies alone is not enough and there is much more to do.

What is Geo-Spatial data?

  1. Geo-spatial data (also known as “spatial data”) represents the data-linked to features or objects on the Earth’s surface. In simple terms, data is referenced to locations on the earth (some portion of data is spatial).
  2. Man-made or natural objects (or features) can get linked to location and act as geospatial data.
  3. The geospatial data can be static, like the location of a road, an earthquake event, malnutrition among children, etc. or dynamic like a moving vehicle or pedestrian, the spread of an infectious disease.
  4. The application of Geospatial data in our daily lives is increasing. For example, food delivery apps like Swiggy or Zomato, e-commerce app like Amazon, Weather apps, etc., are dependent on Geospatial data.
  5. Geospatial data combines the following information:
    • Location information
    • Attribute information (the characteristics of the object, event, or phenomena concerned): For example, in addition to the spatial information of building it also provides other information like the number of stories in the building, number of owners, etc.
    • Temporal information or the time at which the location and attributes exist

Major applications of Geospatial data:

Geospatial data provides various major applications. They are:

  1. Terrestrial, Aerial and Marine Navigation: This is one of the biggest applications of geospatial data. From Google Maps to product delivery at home, everything is linked with geospatial mapping today. The data can also aid in marine and aerial navigations. Further, it can provide visual and voice navigation for drivers, tourists, etc.
  2. Disaster Management: Geospatial data can help in making data-backed decisions. Apart from that, it will also help in creating contingency plans and foreseeing any obstacles the rescue team might face.
  3. Humanitarian Relief: Using Geospatial data, one can decide where change can be brought to improve living conditions, standards of living, or even spaces where basic amenities are missing. Thus, poverty, hunger, and sanitation can be identified and solved strategically.
  4. Improved efficiency in various sectors: Geospatial mapping can improve identifying and managing natural resources. They can reduce cost savings in the logistics sector, mining sector etc.
  5. Better effectiveness of services: Geospatial mapping can improve transparency in citizen services by government and private sector. The private sector can identify the potential market for their product and services. On the other hand, the government can identify the target area for a scheme. Defence sector can identify the potential targets and manpower required.

To conclude geospatial data has a wide range of applications like agriculture, environment protection, power, water, transportation, communication, health (tracking of diseases, patients, hospitals etc.)

How India is Governing the Geo-spatial information?

  1. Till recently, the government had a near-monopoly regarding the collection, storage, use, sale, dissemination of geo-spatial data and mapping. This was because of concerns over internal as well as external security threats.
    • For example, Only government-run agencies such as the Survey of India, Defence and Home Ministries were allowed to use geospatial data.
    • The private companies require approval from different departments as well as the Defence and Home Ministries. Then only, they were able to collect, create or disseminate geospatial data.
    • So there is a lack of private participation in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping in India.
  2. The Kargil war highlighted the vulnerabilities of depending on foreign data and the need for indigenous sources of data. After that, the government heavily invested in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping. For example,

What are the new Guidelines?

  • Geospatial data will be freely available in India, specifically for Indian companies. The companies can self attest to government guidelines and start using geospatial data.
  • Restrictions under the present policy:
    • Only Indian entities can use terrestrial mapping and surveys.
    • The data generated also needs to be owned and stored in India.
    • High-resolution data—finer than 1 m horizontally and 3 m vertically—will still remain restricted.
    • Except for sensitive defence or security-related data, all other data can be accessed by Indian companies.
  • With this policy, Indian companies will be able to set up location services like Google Map in India.

What are the advantages of Geo-spatial data liberalisation?

  1. First, deregulation will ensure a level playing field by providing more accurate data available to both the government and private agencies.
  2. Second, it will promote the setting up of new Startups and businesses especially in the sector of e-commerce or geospatial based apps. This will increase employment in these sectors.
  3. Third, it also promotes the building of indigenous apps. For example, an Indian version of Google Maps like ‘MapmyIndia’.
  4. Fourth, with data collection companies working with the Indian government on various sectoral projects are more likely to increase in public-private partnerships.
  5. Fifth, it will also boost the economy by attracting investments both in the geospatial sector and in other sectors as well.

Challenges with Geospatial data liberalisation:

  1. Privacy, data and surveillance-related issues: The collection of geospatial mapping and data involves various privacy-related issues and violate the individual’s right to privacy. The major issues were:
    • Data of persons can be captured through geospatial tagging via social media.
    • Data generated from mobile devices can get captured by the private sector, and they might use it for profit motive.
    • There is also a possibility to capture sensitive personal information.
    • Unintended or unknown surveillance of persons.
  2. National security-related issues: Private companies by collecting data on a large scale can threaten national security. Like:
    •  Majority of the present geospatial data is in the hands of the US and European companies. Chinese also started many startups recently. They can tie with an Indian startup (or create a startup) in India and indulge in data mining activities.
    • India at present doesn’t have enough manpower to monitor the violation in Geospatial data. This can be exploited by any potential national security threat.

Suggestions to improve India’s geospatial data handling capability:

  1. The government can make consent mandatory for companies acquiring data from the individual wherever it is relevant and feasible. Like the consents required by a mobile application requesting permissions.
  2. The government can also consider the saving of geospatial data in the form of Geo-masking techniques when the private company completed the intended project. Like the government rolled out masked Aadhar after the completion of the Aadhar project.
  3. Building privacy by design: The government has to pass the Data Protection Bill. This will make the data collecting private companies accountable if they violate data privacy.
  4. Using a risk assessment framework and making contingency plans for any violation. But for doing that India needs to train enough manpower (geospatial experts). The government can form a committee to formulate a contingency plan.

In conclusion, liberalised guidelines on geospatial data and mapping is an essential step for India’s development. Apart from this, India will have to build capacities to prevent the misuse of geospatial data.

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