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Decoding Liberalisation of Geospatial Data in India

On February 15th, 2021, the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India issued a new set of recommendations liberalizing India's Mapping and Geospatial Data policy by eliminating the previous multi-layered licensing requirements applicable to private businesses.

What is Geospatial Data?
Geospatial data (also known as spatial data�) is used to describe data that represents features or objects on the Earth's surface. Whether it's man-made or natural, if it has to do with a specific location on the globe, then it's geospatial. Under the 2021 Guidelines, 'Geospatial data' is defined to mean 'positional data with or without attribute data tagged, whether in the form of images, videos, vector, voxel and/or raster datasets or any other type of geospatial dataset in digitized or non-digitized form or web-services'. 'Map' is defined as symbolic representation of real-world objects, regions, or themes on paper or as a web-map-service.

Position Before 2021 Guidelines
Before the 2021 Guidelines, geospatial data and maps were governed by a number of rules, notices, and official memoranda issued by the Survey of India (SOI�), the Ministry of Finance (MoF�), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD�). A Geospatial Information Regulation Bill was proposed in Parliament in 2016. The 2016 Bill had made obtaining authorization from the government prior to acquiring, disseminating, publishing, or distributing any geographical information mandatory.

Prior to the 2021 Guidelines, most firms in India engaging in the collecting, processing, and dissemination of geospatial data faced a number of limitations. Previously, firms like Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato, Uber, Ola, and Flipkart required government clearance to process geolocation data.

How can we use Geospatial Data?
Location information is an essential component of the digital ecosystem and is crucial for unlocking the economic, social, and environmental potential for the country's long-term growth and development. It is essential to the success of modern industries that provide location-based services such as e-commerce, delivery and logistics, and urban transportation. It is also necessary for more conventional economic sectors such as agriculture, building and development, and mining and minerals.

Geospatial data is fundamental and will be essential in all aspects of planning, governance, services, infrastructure, and applications. This mapping data will be useful for private firms that are looking for maps and data that are unique and customizable to their needs. Local distribution of products and services, for example, needs extremely detailed specifics of a neighborhood inside a town. This, in turn, may pave the way for future smart city initiatives.

The availability of data and sophisticated mapping technology to Indian enterprises are also critical to reaching Atmanirbhar Bharat, India's strategic goal, and the vision of a five trillion-dollar economy. India is currently reliant on foreign resources for mapping technology and services.

The Government of India recognizes that the availability of comprehensive, highly accurate, granular, and constantly updated representations of Geospatial Data will significantly benefit diverse sectors of the economy, boost innovation in the country, and greatly improve the country's preparedness for emergency response.

Salient features of the 2021 Guidelines
According to the 2021 Guidelines, no prior approval, security clearance, or license is required for the gathering, creation, preparation, distribution, storage, publication, updating, and/or digitalization of geospatial data and maps inside India's boundaries.

Everyone is allowed to process and construct or develop apps and solutions for their business models using accessible geographical data. Foreign firms are permitted to lease digital maps and/or geospatial data from Indian entities, subject to certain limitations, and the export of obtained geospatial data is not banned.

However, The Guidelines do classify Geospatial Data on the basis of certain threshold values for accuracy and any finer accuracy than the specified threshold for maps and data can be created and owned only by Indian entities. This could have been incorporated keeping in mind the security threats that India faces.

Unlike the preceding 2016 Bill, which envisioned a rigorous licensing framework, the 2021 Guidelines require businesses to 'self-certify' their compliance. But, the Guidelines are unclear on whether such certifications would be monitored or reviewed by any government body. The 2021 Guidelines further state that any geospatial data generated with public money must be made available for research and development.

The liberalization of the mapping business and the democratization of existing datasets would stimulate local innovation and allow Indian enterprises to participate in the global mapping ecosystem by using current geospatial technology. Locally accessible and relevant Maps and Geospatial Data will also aid in better resource planning and management, as well as better serving the unique requirements of the Indian populace.

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