How to control freely available data

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Google Earth provides extremely detailed maps that are far more accurate than the SOI's largest scale topographic maps. Here, an April 2006 IRS satellite image of 5.8 m resolution (top) of the Dalmia mines showing a verdant expanse. In the March 2010 Google Earth image of 60 cm resolution (below), the area is seen ravaged by mining. Photo: The Hindu Archives

App-based taxi services make use of the GPS. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill defies logic at a time when digital technology is ubiquitous and geospatial information about any part of the world is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection.

THE draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (GIRB), introduced in Parliament and released online to the public on May 4 for comments, is perhaps one of the most anachronistic pieces of legislation that the government has come out with.

Article 3 of the Bill says:

“(1) Save as otherwise provided in this Act, rules or regulations made thereunder, or with the general or special permission of the Security Vetting Authority, no person shall acquire geospatial imagery or data including value addition of any part of India either through any space or aerial platforms such as satellite, aircrafts, airships, balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles or terrestrial vehicles, or any other means whatsoever.

“(2) Every person who has already acquired any geospatial imagery or data of any part of India… including value addition prior to coming of this Act into effect, shall within one year from the commencement of this Act, make an application along with requisite fees to the Security Vetting Authority for retaining such geospatial information and grant of licence thereof.”

Violations of these will attract heavy penalties, which can vary from Rs.1 crore to Rs.100 crore and/or imprisonment up to a period of seven years. The Bill is highly authoritarian and heavy-handed in tone and its whole emphasis is on licensing, security vetting and penalising, and there is absolutely nothing in it about facilitating access to and usage of geospatial information that is of importance to the public, to business and for development in general. Contrast this with the corresponding Chinese Act, which says in its Article 11: “ Basic surveying and mapping is a public welfare undertaking” (emphasis added). This intent is completely absent in the Indian Bill.

At a time and age when digital technology is ubiquitous and “geospatial information” about any part of the world is available freely to anyone with Internet connectivity to download even on a mobile phone and such information is increasingly becoming part of our daily lives (the next time you call a radio taxi, remember that it uses a GPS-enabled device), the Bill defies logic.

What does geospatial information or data mean? The phrase refers to data that have a geographic component to them, that is, data that have geographic information tagged to them, say in the form of coordinates, an address, a city name, or any other locational attribute. Geospatial technology refers to technology used to acquire, manipulate and store such geographic information. Such information can be provided in the form of (digital) maps, remote-sensed data, data gathered through the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and geographically referenced satellite imagery.

The geospatial information system (GIS), an industry that has grown rapidly in the last couple of decades, is a computer-based system capable of assembling, storing, manipulating and displaying different kinds of geo-referenced information, and analysing the same to provide solutions for decision-making in developmental and infrastructure projects, land use, urban development, construction activities, water supply, irrigation, rural electricity supply and highway development and providing public utility services, such as communication networks, drainage systems, roads, public transport and traffic regulation.

Geospatial data is also an important component of scientific research and industrial activity relating to geological formations, landslips, tectonic studies, mineral and oil explorations, and coastal and oceanographic studies. For such applications, usually, large-scale topographic maps (1:50,000 and larger) are needed. With the advent of the GIS, the demand for geospatial information from industry and the scientific community has grown.

So much for the government’s call for “Digital India”, which does not seem to have reached the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the originator of the draft GIRB. Besides media reports and commentaries on the GIRB, the government is likely to have received submissions critical of it from all stakeholders, in particular the GIS industry community, the most affected user community. It is interesting to note that the National Geospatial Policy (NGP-2016) brought out by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in April is in complete contrast, both in spirit and in content, to the GIRB.

The Bill is actually a reversal of the slow opening up of public access to such data, hitherto highly restricted, that was evident at the turn of the century under the increasing impact of developments in satellite remote sensing, the Internet, Web-based open availability of geospatial information and the advent of the GPS. It is actually a massive throwback to the 1970s and 1980s when geospatial information existed predominantly in the form of analogue printed maps (of different kinds) whose sole generator and repository was the Survey of India (SOI).

According to the dispensation that prevailed until 2005—when the new National Map Policy (NMP) was announced—maps were categorised as “restricted” and “unrestricted”, the latter covering only about 40 per cent of the area of the country and that too at scales less than 1:250,000. The restricted area included all the land within 50 km of the country’s boundary. All digital data, irrespective of the region and scale, was restricted. Getting access to the restricted data involved a cumbersome process of authorisation by a Joint Secretary-level official, followed by a vetting process by security agencies to ensure that the so-called Vital/Vulnerable Areas (VAs) and Vital/Vulnerable Points (VPs) were removed from the maps, which could take months.

Old mindset

The SOI, given its origins primarily for military operations during the British days, continued to be largely under the control of the military and was until recently invariably headed by a senior Army official. This had the unfortunate legacy that maps were viewed mainly from a defence and security perspective rather than a science and technology perspective. This resulted in a continuing policy emanating from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to restrict and withhold geospatial data available with the SOI from widespread dissemination and easy access and use, particularly maps on a large scale and those pertaining to areas deemed sensitive, despite it being brought under the DST in the 1970s as a scientific organisation. The Bill is a clear demonstration of that old mindset prevailing even though the very concept of a security threat has changed completely with newer forms of threats emerging.

Given the progress of GIS technology in the 1990s and its immense potential, restrictions on access to topographic maps that serve as base data on which to build a GIS application proved to be a massive roadblock in the growth of this industry in India despite the country’s apparent strength in the information technology sector and its fast-growing GIS community, both in academia and in business.

Following widespread criticism about the lack of an enabling environment for the growth of GIS activity in the country, for the first time nine agencies other than the SOI were identified (see an MoD order of July 13, 1998) to engage with private agencies under memorandums of understanding to provide access to restricted digital SOI data for work relating to specific government projects on a “need to share” basis. But many companies found it too cumbersome and time-consuming to get registered, enter into an agreement and finally get the required data after vetting by the MoD. They preferred not to do any business with the government. In any case, this system did not last for long as technology was advancing rapidly.

With the availability of GPS signals in the unscrambled mode, differential GPS (dGPS) as it is called, in the public domain at the turn of the century, the very paradigm of mapping and cartography changed. Agencies could create a map at large enough scales using satellite imagery of appropriate resolution combined with terrestrial coordinate determination using the GPS. The American private remote-sensing satellite IKONOS, launched in January 2000, began to openly sell imagery at 1 m resolution, which could be used to produce maps at 1:10,000 scale.

It may be noted that before IKONOS, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) IRS satellite was providing the highest-resolution images in the world at 5.8 m resolution. ISRO evolved its Remote Sensing Data Policy in 2001 (RSDP-2001), which allowed open access to all remote-sensed data up to 5.8 m resolution and restricted access for government agencies to data up to 1 m resolution. The SOI, unfortunately, did not exploit these enabling provisions to produce maps in any systematic manner.

However, such satellite imagery-based maps began to be available online from different agencies for a price, which the GIS community was beginning to use. But there was a problem with this approach. To obtain the correct orientation of the map and depiction of relief (or elevation), these satellite images had to be corrected for geometric distortion caused by the tilt of the satellite relative to the data plane and their correct orientation had to be fixed on the basis of ground truth. This geometric correction, known technically as orthorectification, requires appropriate digital elevation models (DEMs) and/or positional data of what are called ground control points (GCPs) from existing topographic maps at the required scale. But accurate GCP data are held confidential by the SOI. Even when restricted toposheets were released for project-specific use, GCP data were not given.

Moreover, the reference frame used for “geocoding” (defining the coordinates of) the SOI maps is the datum called the Everest Ellipsoid, the local ellipsoid that fits best the curvature of the spheroidal shape of the earth in the Indian region. The centre of this ellipsoid does not, however, coincide with the centre of the earth; it is removed by about a kilometre. In other words, it is not a geocentric system but serves the purpose of geocoding of maps of the region reasonably well, and thus the SOI toposheets are also geocoded on Everest. Similarly, other countries have other datums that are best suited to their regions of the world. So coordinates measured on one datum would be shifted with respect to coordinates measured on any other.

Global reference frame

However, in the last decades of the 20th century, countries have begun to adopt a global reference frame that does not change from country to country. It is called the World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS-84) and was evolved in the United States. Although it is meant to fit the North American region better than the rest of the world, being geocentric, it has come to be used as the global coordinate system. All satellite navigation and imagery, coordinate measurements made using the GPS, and other similar aids used for the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) are based on WGS-84. Thus, the positional coordinates that are read off GPS instruments, which are on WGS-84, and those on satellite-derived maps would be shifted relative to the corresponding coordinates on an SOI map. Depending on the location, this shift could vary from a few metres to even hundreds of metres when the two are compared.

To go from one datum to another, one needs to use a set of transformation parameters which are arrived at by knowing the coordinates of a large set of GCPs across the country in both the datums. But such an exercise can be undertaken only by a large agency such as the SOI. And, indeed, the SOI had undertaken this exercise by measuring the GPS-based coordinates of the set of GCPs it used for its maps and evolved the transformation parameters for the entire country. But these, too, have been held confidential by the SOI, thus denying the GIS community the geospatial data it needed.

Given the constraints arising from security considerations in accessing the geospatial data of the Indian region from the SOI, in 2000 the DST mooted the idea of creating a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) to serve as a single-window agency to meet the needs of all the stakeholders of geospatial data, in particular the GIS community ( Frontline, October 27, 2000). A task force constituted to recommend the modalities of establishing such a unit, inter alia, recommended that the SOI should come out with two series of maps, one for the use of defence and security agencies and the other for civilian use, with the latter being based on WGS-84. This recommendation had the MoD’s approval ( Frontline, August 26, 2005) and formed the basis of the NMP of 2005.

Even as the SOI was engaged in this exercise from around 2000 onwards, technology was advancing much too rapidly for the agency, whose Plan budget then was around Rs.4 crore, to keep pace with. The dGPS receivers were becoming more and more compact and could be carried around with ease to measure coordinates in the region of interest. If all worldwide geospatial data are migrated on to WGS-84, notwithstanding the significant error that could be there in absolute positional accuracy of a particular location, the relative accuracy, say in the distance between two points, can be made more and more precise by repeated measurements of the coordinates of these two points using dGPS receivers. And this made life extremely easy for a GIS industry that was finding it tough to get any large-scale digital toposheet from the SOI. Moreover, imagery from satellites with sub-metre resolution capability was becoming available openly, which could be used for scales larger than 1:10,000.

National Map Policy

The stated objectives of the NMP are “To provide, maintain and allow access and make available the National Topographic Database (NTDB) of the SOI conforming to national standards” and “To promote the use of geospatial knowledge and intelligence through partnerships and other mechanisms by all sections of the society…”. In accordance with the earlier decision, it also enunciated the creation of two series of maps: (a) Defence series maps (DSMs), which are (analogue and digital) topographic maps (on both Everest and WGS-84) that will remain classified under the control of the MoD; and (b) open series maps (OSMs), to support developmental activities in the country, which will be on WGS-84 only. OSMs (both in analogue and digital form) will have no civil/military VAs and VPs shown and will be “unrestricted” after a one-time clearance from the MoD.

The SOI has also issued guidelines on access by user agencies, dissemination/sharing of OSMs amongst user agencies with or without value addition, publication (both in hard form and on the Web with or without GIS database), and so on. While there have been criticisms of the NMP and the guidelines as well—for example, the maps will have no contours/height information and the requirement of registration of the user for larger than 1:1 million scale maps—it definitely marked an attitudinal change towards liberalising access. “From the perspective of those who had written it, the government was opening up; in fact, it was very consoling,” observed Manosi Lahiri, a GIS expert and the CEO of ML Mapinfo, New Delhi. “I tried several times to register but could not. Actually, it was not a map policy for India; it was a map policy for the SOI. It was, like, safeguarding its own property,” she added.

But, more pertinently, even today the scale of the OSMs remains at 1:50,000, which, while good enough for several applications, including city guides, is just not good enough for GIS applications, she pointed out. “While 1:50K is the basic, you need larger scales if you are cutting an irrigation channel or building a check dam or a housing colony,” she said. But, according to DST sources, the SOI to date has been able to generate 1:25K maps only for about 40 per cent of the country’s area even though conversion of 60 per cent (to WGS-84) has been completed. Today, for example, a typical front-ranking Indian GIS company makes maps of scale up to 1:2,500 on the basis of freely available satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, consistent with the provisions of the Remote Sensing Data Policy of 2001, the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), a society under the Department of Space (DOS), also began to generate maps using its satellite imagery (of 5.8 m resolution), the SOI’s GCP data on Everest (available to it as it is a government agency) and its own GPS measurements of the same GCPs on WGS-84. As regards the security aspect, the NRSA obtained shape files of VAs/VPs from the SOI and used them to remove VAs/VPs from its maps.

According to ISRO sources, this led to some turf wars between the NRSA and the SOI, with the latter questioning the legitimacy of the former to make maps as the NRSA was not even a government department. This was one of the reasons why the NRSA was made into a centre under ISRO in 2008. Now the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) generates maps consistent with the updated RSDP-2011, which allows open availability of satellite data up to 1 m resolution. This translates to 1:25K topographic maps and 1:10K thematic maps. While thematic maps are available to the public, topographic maps are only for government use. Once Cartosat-3, with sub-metre resolution capability, is launched, ISRO/the NRSC should be able to provide maps of 1:5,000 scale.

From the GIS community perspective, there were some issues with the RSDP-2011 as well when it came to sourcing high-resolution satellite imagery (of ISRO or others) from the NRSC. The policy mandates that all high-resolution images (1 m and less) be acquired only through the NRSC and after clearance by the High Resolution Image Clearance Committee (HRC). There were two problems with this: one, this could not be enforced because these images could be sourced online; and, two, the HRC took an inordinately long time to approve requests for data. “You go to Dubai or Singapore and you can get these at a much cheaper rate and without the hassles of the HRC,” said a former NRSA official. “In fact, you can order them through agents who have shops just next to the NRSC itself. Why would they come to the NRSC at all?” he asked.

Then came Google Earth

It was around this time that Google Earth started to make its worldwide maps available to anybody online. Sourcing geospatial data from multiple sources, including satellites with sub-metre resolution imagery and crowdsourcing of GCP data and ground truth information through open public campaigns such as “Mapathon” and “MapThyNeighbourhood”, Google Earth was providing extremely detailed maps, with VAs and VPs, and these were far more accurate than the SOI’s largest scale topographic maps. Today, the best resolution imagery and maps are available to the GIS community from Google Earth. So why would anyone go to the SOI?

This was a big jolt to the Indian establishment, particularly the security agencies. Of particular concern was the wrong depiction of the country’s international boundaries by big geospatial portals such as Google. While this was a legitimate concern, the Indian government could do nothing about it. According to a source in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY), the government tried talking to Google, who basically said “nothing doing”.

Google would come down to using maps used by the United Nations, but even that was not acceptable because U.N. maps show the borders with China and Pakistan as disputed. Moreover, all the data on India that Google generates is located in some server in the U.S. because India is not able to provide Google and the like the digital infrastructure to locate their servers (including the Cloud) in the country, said the source.

Google’s argument was, “You provide the correct map at the required scale and we will use it.” But therein lies the rub. The SOI did not have data at scales larger than 1:50K or at best 1:25K when Google Earth was making available maps at 1:5,000 scale or even less. Also, from the security perspective, it was a catch-22 situation; the SOI could obviously not provide Google shape files like it did for the NRSA for it to remove the VAs/VPs from its online imagery and maps. According to the DEITY source, Google was even prepared to use the NRSC data, provided it had 20 cm resolution data, but ISRO’s IRS system does not yet have that capability.

One could ask how China was able to make Google listen to it. China had got its act together by about 2002 or so. It could force Google on its terms once it had all large-scale geospatial data on WGS-84, which it could ask Google to use. The same were also available to all Chinese stakeholders, the GIS industry in particular. The problem in India, thus, was the failure on the part of the SOI to be able to widely disseminate security-vetted and updated maps of sufficiently large scale (both analogue and digital) in time—2005 was already too late—with the correct international boundaries.

“The geospatial market should have been flooded,” said Manosi Lahiri. “You tie yourself in knots by saying that I cannot distribute digital data. If you just put the international boundaries acceptable to you in different scales, including the ground scale, then it is easier for you to say to Google or whoever that I am not going to accept anything else except this,” she said.

Geospatial information policy

A reliable DST source said the department had proposed updating the SOI infrastructure so that it would be able to generate 1:10,000 scale maps for the entire country with support from ISRO/the NRSC, consistent with RSDP-2011. The estimated cost of doing this was about Rs.1,800 crore and this was included in the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) outlay of Rs.3,000 crore for a National Geospatial Information System (NGIS). But, to date, the total budgeted outlay for the SOI has been to the tune of Rs.1,300 crore (including a Plan component of about Rs.150 crore) only.

Following inter-ministerial discussions in 2010-11, the DST was entrusted with the task of drawing up a policy document and a draft Bill. The DST was not too keen on taking up the latter part but finally agreed to at a meeting of the Committee of Secretaries in 2011. Around the same time, the DST gave the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, the responsibility of preparing a report that could be the basis for inputs towards a geospatial policy framework. The report, titled “Perspectives for a National GI Policy (including a National GI Policy Draft)”, came out in November 2012.

“The DST was not in favour of a Bill on any matter that did not flow from a coherent policy. Hence, the department was not in favour of a stand-alone Geospatial Data Regulatory Bill,” the DST source said. “The DST wanted to enunciate a sound and consistent policy towards public access to high-resolution open series maps,” the source said. Following the NIAS report, the DST came out with a draft Bill called “Vetting Imageries and Geological Information for Licensing (VIGIL)”. “But this did not seem acceptable to the MHA and the MoD because, for some reason, nothing happened for three years,” the DST source said.

But events such as the Pathankot attack seem to have shaken the security agencies, and they seem to have come out with the Bill in haste in an act of desperation. “If NGIS, the policy [NGP-2016] and the Bill are made coherent with each other and converted into a complementing support system, it would be valuable. What we are seeing is that the Bill and the policy are being issued at the same time, with the Bill outweighing defence considerations over the use of geospatial products for developmental needs,” said the DST source. But, according to a very reliable GIS industry source who works closely with the defence establishment, the defence services themselves rely on external agencies to generate large-scale maps based on high-resolution satellite data. Apparently, they share SOI’s topographic data with these agencies for orthorectification purposes. If that indeed is true, then the Bill is highly hypocritical.

Divergence of views

This divergence of views on geospatial data is now patently evident, with the DST espousing a more liberal policy and the MHA and MoD taking a hardened position as reflected in the released draft. The DST’s perspective, in fact, was reflected in its National Data Sharing and Access Policy of 2012 itself—which called for all government departments to categorise the respective data holdings into a “negative list” and an “open access list” so that the latter could be made available freely to all —and in NGP-2016 as well. In the Bill, three basic issues have been clubbed together, and its impact on each one needs to be discussed separately: (a) Depiction of the international boundary of India; (b) the internal security of the country in terms of protecting VAs and VPs from external threats; and (c) geospatial information of a non-sensitive nature that the general user community needs.

As Manosi Lahiri said, the first has nothing to do with geospatial information. It is a political decision. “There are disputed areas on the borders. But that’s not my business as a user. So many countries have disputed boundaries. What we believe is our territory must be correctly shown. And that has nothing to do with the second either, which is internal security. So why penalise the user?”

Major General R. Sivakumar, the former CEO of the NSDI, said, wrong depictions of territorial boundaries of the country can be dealt with under Sections 397/401 and 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and Section 2(2) of the Criminal Law Amendment (Amending) Act, 1990, which stipulates a penalty of imprisonment up to six months. But it has never been imposed, though many a time such cases are reported both in printed maps and on the Web. “The government has been debating these issues for over a decade and felt that a deterrent punishment would ensure compliance. However, the present draft Bill makes all actions relating to locational information illegal unless vetted,” said Sivakumar.

Government frustration

The security part is really a reflection of the frustration the government feels for not being able to control the level of detail that is being seen all over the world. “Whatever rules it makes apply to India and its citizens. So, in other words, the government is doing exactly the same thing as it has always done: Holding back information from its own people at our institutions, including security institutions that will not see these VAs/VPs. While we don’t know what these VAs/VPs are, which probably are constantly changing, the same can be seen by anybody overseas. But I have to admit that it is a difficult situation for the security agencies,” said Manosi Lahiri.

“The global opening of mapping at the micro level and making it available to everyone for free has had a lot of impact on defence and security agencies. But much of it could probably have been prevented if you had kept pace with technology and acted in time. The security probably is already compromised because the VAs and VPs are visible to anyone overseas downloading a high-resolution image from some satellite, not necessarily Google,” said a former ISRO official.

As regards the geospatial part (c), the conundrums concerning the GIS community have already been discussed above. In particular, what happens to usage of geospatial information by researchers and students in academia? Purely from the heavy penal provisions of the Bill, one can say that it appears to be aimed at someone like Google, but the innocent millions routinely using geospatial information that is freely available to everyone around the world could end up becoming the unintended targets.

“If the chief provision of the Bill is accepted, acquisition of data through satellites even for innocent purposes like using Google maps in cars may become illegal,” said B.K. Srivastava, a former General Manager of Survey and Cartography of the Airports Authority of India and now an aviation consultant. More pertinently, Srivastava, who uses geospatial information to provide aviation safety solutions, pointed out that the Bill’s provision would make acquisition of satellite data through GPS/dGPS, etc., for the safety of aircraft operations illegal and this would be detrimental to aircraft safety.

Realistically speaking, therefore, from the three perspectives of territorial integrity, internal security and dissemination of geospatial information, the Bill, as it stands, is not implementable. But, given the jingoistic outlook of the ruling party’s parliamentarians, the Bill may become an Act tomorrow.

As a GIS observer put it: “The irony of it would be extreme when, as we move towards ‘Digital India’, some innocent and honest Indian using a smartphone GIS app would be caught by the local police and hauled up because somebody down there interpreted the Act and determined that the person was a violator of the Geospatial Information Regulation Act. But one only hopes that pragmatism and wisdom prevail and the inconsistencies between the policy, the Bill and the NGIS are addressed convincingly and a realistic balance is struck between security considerations and geospatial information needs for development.”