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Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Easing digital map creation could leapfrog us ahead

Doing away with obsolete clamps on map-making could yield wide-ranging gains for India’s economy

Last week, I came across an interesting article that discussed the economic consequences of low discoverability of localities in India. The authors compared the cost of last-mile delivery in the US to that in India, in an attempt to estimate the costs that businesses here have to incur on account of the fact that we lack an accurate house-level addressing system. They found that in the US, last-mile delivery was just 10% of the total cost. In India, on the other hand, despite the far lower cost of labour, last mile costs could be as high as 30%. They estimated that on account of the poor state of location services in India, the country as a whole stood to lose between $10 billion and $14 billion per year.

But we don’t need a research paper to tell us this. This is a frustration we all experience each time we receive a courier package. We have all had to guide delivery boys on the phone, providing them step-by-step directions even though they use location services that should have brought them to the right destination. When friends visit us for the first time, we make sure that they have contextual landmarks—since our address itself has little navigational utility. We take all this in our stride, accepting that these are minor inconveniences that are part and parcel of life in India.

For too long in this country, we have ignored the importance of maps. Thanks to draconian regulations that require everyone engaged in this business to take permissions for virtually everything they do, there has been little innovation in this field. In an earlier article, I discussed how the regulatory quagmire we find ourselves in today owes its origin to the days when maps were surface-referenced. At the time, possession of maps was a strategic advantage that nations guarded zealously. However, none of this is relevant anymore. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology has advanced to the point where earth-centred maps are so accurate that considerations such as surface-reference have no significance anymore. This makes the restrictions we impose on the export of maps that much more confounding. If highly accurate maps of India are available anywhere in the world today, it is truly pointless to place export control restrictions on them.

Not many people know that Google Map Maker, the technology behind the most widely used digital map in the world, was developed in Bangalore. Despite having the technical ability to build world-class maps, India has not been able to use this expertise to its advantage primarily because of regulations on the process of map creation. As a result, companies that need accurate location services to be able to ply their business in India—e-commerce, logistics, transport, delivery—all have to rely on maps produced and maintained by companies that operate from outside the country and that make their services available through internet clouds.

We have truly missed the bus in digital mapping. Even if we reverse all the repressive regulations that have held us back for decades, there is no way that Indian technology companies will be able to make up the ground it has already lost.

Which is why it is fortunate that we are at a moment in time when the map industry as we know it is on the verge of a radical transformation.

Today’s maps are made from satellite images that are augmented with on-ground modifications. Once drones, street-level 360 cameras and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) are available at scale, we will witness a technology shift in map-making as momentous as we saw when GPS-enabled smartphones made everyone a map-maker. LIDAR is already standard equipment in high-end mobile phones and semi-autonomous cars, even as drones and 360-degree cameras grow ubiquitous. These technologies are at a point where they can be deployed at scale, giving us three new ways in which to map our world. When this happens, we will be able to create maps that are accurate to under 5 centimetres—and do so in three dimensions, allowing us to do things with maps that were simply not possible previously.

Such precise cartography will open up a whole new range of services. Inventory management companies will be able to automate their processes far more extensively, just as utility services will be able to dramatically improve the efficiency of their installed assets. Once we can map the world in three dimensions, it will open up for us a new world of opportunities in logistics and delivery, while also paving the way for truly autonomous vehicles.

But if we are to capitalize on the next wave of map technology, we must first rectify the mistakes of the past. We need to rescind the repressive approval processes that have hamstrung the map industry, and permit companies to map whatever they want—barring a list of sensitive areas that should be clearly demarcated as such with GPS coordinates. At the same time, we should enact policies that liberalize the use of LIDAR, drones and 360-degree camera technologies, and give Indian companies the exclusive right to create hyper-resolution maps of the country. This will encourage innovation in the sector and ensure that any advances that are made as a result of these policies appropriately accrue to us in India.

We may have skipped a generation in mapping technology, but if we now play our cards right, we should be able to leapfrog directly to the future.

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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