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Monday, March 08, 2021

Explained: Why is India opening up the Geo-spatial sector? What impact will this have?

Geospatial data is data about objects, events, or phenomena that have a location on the surface of the earth. What is the present policy, and what impact are the new guidelines likely to have?

Written by Esha Roy , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 22, 2021 12:33:24 pm
The past decade has seen an increase in the use of geo-spatial data in daily life with various apps such as food delivery apps like Swiggy or Zomato, e-commerce like Amazon or even weather apps. (File Photo)

The Ministry of Science and Technology Monday released new guidelines for the Geo-spatial sector in India, which deregulates existing protocol and liberalises the sector to a more competitive field.

What is geo-spatial data?

Geospatial data is data about objects, events, or phenomena that have a location on the surface of the earth. The location may be static in the short-term, like the location of a road, an earthquake event, malnutrition among children, or dynamic like a moving vehicle or pedestrian, the spread of an infectious disease. Geospatial data combines location information, attribute information (the characteristics of the object, event, or phenomena concerned), and often also temporal information or the time at which the location and attributes exist. Geo-spatial data usually involves information of public interest such as roads, localities, rail lines, water bodies, and public amenities. The past decade has seen an increase in the use of geo-spatial data in daily life with various apps such as food delivery apps like Swiggy or Zomato, e-commerce like Amazon or even weather apps.

What is the present policy on geo-spatial data?

There are strict restrictions on the collection, storage, use, sale, dissemination of geo-spatial data and mapping under the current regime. The policy had not been renewed in decades and has been driven by internal as well as external security concerns. The sector so far is dominated by the Indian government as well as government-run agencies such as the Survey of India and private companies need to navigate a system of permissions from different departments of the government (depending on the kind of data to be created) as well as the defence and Home Ministries, to be able to collect, create or disseminate geo-spatial data. Initially conceptualised as a matter solely concerned with security, geo-spatial data collection was the prerogative of the defence forces and the government. GIS mapping was also rudimentary, with the government investing heavily in it after the Kargil war highlighted the dependence on foreign data and the need for indigenous sources of data.

Why has the government deregulated geo-spatial data?

This system of acquiring licenses or permission, and the red tape involved, can take months, delaying projects, especially those that are in mission mode – for both Indian companies as well as government agencies. The deregulation eliminates the requirement of permissions as well as scrutiny, even for security concerns. Indian companies now can self-attest, conforming to government guidelines without actually having to be monitored by a government agency- these guidelines therefore place a great deal of trust in Indian entities.

There is also a huge lack of data in the country which impedes planning for infrastructure, development and businesses which are data-based. The mapping of the entire country, that too with high accuracy, by the Indian government alone could take decades. The government therefore felt an urgent need to incentivise the geo-spatial sector for Indian companies and increased investment from private players in the sector.

While for decades, geo-spatial data has been a priority for strategic reasons and for internal and external security concerns, this priority has seen a shift in the past 15 years – geo-spatial data has now become imperative for the government in planning for infrastructure, development, social development, natural calamities as well as the economy, with more and more sectors such as agriculture, environment protection, power, water, transportation, communication, health (tracking of diseases, patients, hospitals etc) relying heavily on this data.

There has also been a global push for open access to geo-spatial as it affects the lives of ordinary citizens, and the new guidelines has ensured such an open access, with the exception of sensitive defence or security-related data.

Large amounts of geo-spatial data are also available on global platforms, which makes the regulation of data that is freely available in other countries, untenable.

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What impact is this expected to have?

By liberalising the system, the government will ensure more players in the field, competitiveness of Indian companies in the global market, and more accurate data available to both the government to formulate plans and administer, but also for individual Indians. Startups and businesses can now also use this data in setting up their concerns, especially in the sector of e-commerce or geo-spatial based apps – which in turn will increase employment in these sectors. Indian companies will be able to develop indigenous apps, for example an Indian version of google maps. There is also likely to be an increase in public-private partnerships with the opening of this sector with data collection companies working with the Indian government on various sectoral projects. The government also expects an increase in investment in the geo-spatial sector by companies, and also an increase in export of data to foreign companies and countries, which in turn will boost the economy.

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