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My very first public policy assignment was helping the government rationalize its approach to geospatial data by attempting to converge the mapping activities of its disparate agencies into a single coherent national geospatial data policy. If this initiative doesn’t ring any bell, it’s because nothing really came of it—at least not until much later, and in a very different form. That said, as unproductive as this effort might have been at the time, I could hardly have asked for a better introduction to the complex world of Indian policymaking than trying to solve maps.

Making sense of India’s map regulations demands an uncommon appreciation of a wide range of issues—from overarching and relatively inexplicable security concerns to a range of procedural requirements that have remained largely unchanged since the days of the British, despite the fact that maps are made in a very different way today. Most of my clients in the sector have either left the country in disgust or have resigned themselves to soldiering on through a fog of cartographic uncertainty, treating random acts of enforcement as a cost of doing business.

In the two decades since that initial assignment, I have tried my best to understand why we continue to regulate maps in this anachronistic way when the rest of the world has moved on. These pages have often served as an outlet for my angst. The very first Ex Machina article I wrote was about the draft Geospatial Bill that never saw the light of day, thankfully. Subsequent articles have referred to the origins of our map regulations and the Everest Spheroid that was once a legitimate strategic reason for these regulations. In a more recent article, I even touched upon how our antiquated regulations are coming in the way of Indian companies taking advantage of mapping technologies of the future. After two decades of hoping, I had resigned myself to accepting that some things would never change.

But then, earlier this week, the government announced a radical overhaul of India’s geospatial regulations, replacing our decades-old practices and policies with a set of forward-looking guidelines that, if implemented in the spirit in which they are written, will revitalize the sector.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the revised guidelines have done away with all requirements for prior approvals and security clearances. Map companies will henceforth be trusted to self-certify their compliance with Indian guidelines. They have also done away with the requirement for certain sensitive areas to be blacked out, stipulating instead that no map should identify or associate any place on a map with a list of prohibited attributes. These two measures will of themselves come as a big breath of fresh air to mapping companies, which currently waste inordinate amounts of time submitting revised maps for approval before publishing them, even though it is practically impossible for the government to physically review every map it receives.

The new guidelines have also permitted the export of maps above specified threshold values (1 metre horizontal resolution and 3 metres vertical) and allowed their storage on an internet cloud. Maps of this resolution are sufficient for most purposes they’re put to, today, including turn-by-turn navigation, logistics and delivery, and urban transport. By explicitly liberalizing these regulations, the government has made legal all the apps on our phones that provide us any form of location-based services.

But perhaps most significantly, these guidelines have liberalized the creation of maps at resolutions far finer than those currently being used in India. To this end, it has also explicitly permitted the use of advanced cartographic technologies such as terrestrial mobile mapping, drones and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, that are capable of creating high-resolution three-dimensional maps.

As pleased as I am with the progressive nature of this reform, I am thrilled by all the possibilities that this particular regulation opens up. Hyper-resolution LiDAR maps are best suited for use in the navigation systems of autonomous vehicles, just as extruding mapped surfaces into the third dimension will enable logistics and delivery solutions that deploy drones for automated doorstep delivery. These solutions might seem like science fiction, but these two examples just scratch the surface of what is possible. Once we facilitate mapping the surface of the world at centimetre resolution, we will be able to transform the manner in which we manage our utilities (power grids and our water and sewage infrastructure). It will revolutionize warehousing and inventory management, as well as a whole host of other things that I can’t even begin to imagine.

The new map guidelines explicitly limit the use of these advanced mapping technologies to Indian owned or controlled companies, and limit the storage of maps created by these technologies to servers in India or a domestic cloud. While this might appear protectionist, these restrictions do not come in the way of the mapping technologies in current use. They are technologies of the future, and by restricting their use in this manner, the government is giving Indian startups a bit of a head-start that would let them make up for time lost on account of the unduly harsh regulations they have had to contend with so far. It is now up to India’s entrepreneurs to make the most of this advantage. And deliver.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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