India’s new mapping policy can be a game-changer

India’s new mapping policy can be a game-changer

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In 2008, when Google Map Maker was about to be launched in India, Lalitesh Katragadda, cofounder of Google India, got a warning from his legal counsel.

Since the laws around mapmaking in India were ambiguous and as Katragadda was the face of the launch, there was a small chance, the lawyer told him, that he might end up in jail. “The counsel said if that happened, she would get me out in four days.

She wanted to know if I was willing to take the risk.” Katragadda sure was. The man who built Google Map Maker, a collaborative map-editing tool, and a host of other applications before quitting the tech giant in 2014, went ahead with the project because “India needed maps”. “There were people dying because ambulances could not reach them. That was what flashed through my mind,” he recalls.

The country’s cutting-edge cartographers no longer have to worry about landing in jail. On February 15, the Centre brought in a new mapping policy that dramatically changes the contours of the sector. It opens the field for public and private companies, eases regulations on making, storing and accessing geospatial data that was earlier the prerogative of a few government departments, brings clarity on who can map what and up to which resolution, and, finally, gives a big push to domestic firms to steal a march on global giants like Google Maps in a market that is projected to triple in just eight years.

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At a time when a food-delivery company to a ride-hailing app needs a map, the new policy keeps Indian firms front and centre. They no longer require approvals to undertake high-precision terrestrial and water surveys or to store, publish and update digital geospatial data and maps.

There will, however, be a list of no-go zones, which is being prepared. An industry estimate quoted by officers of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) says businesses in the sector are now valued at about Rs 30,000 crore and could touch Rs 1 lakh crore by 2029. Sector-wise breakup of the business outlook is not readily available but government officials, CEOs and startup founders whom ET Magazine spoke to indicate that a large chunk of newer business will emanate from mining and real estate, which surveyors and mapmakers have so far ducked because of the hassles in securing approval.

DST Secretary Ashutosh Sharma told ET Magazine that the new policy is meant to empower Indian companies and leverage business potential. “Our idea is, Indian companies must get a level playing field.”

What about foreign companies like Google and Apple? “We have not restricted anyone, including foreign companies, from procuring what is easily available, i.e. data up to 1 metre horizontal accuracy and 3 metre vertical accuracy. Acquisition and use of more accurate data will, however, be limited to Indian companies.”

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To queries from ET Magazine, a Google spokesperson says: “We don’t have anything to share on the geospatial guidelines as these are still being reviewed by our teams.” In a blog post, Google’s Geo Data Strategist Matt Manolides explains how Google Maps are created: “The mosaic of satellite and aerial photographs on Google Maps and Google Earth is sourced from many different providers, including state agencies, geological survey organisations and commercial imagery providers…. Google obtains commercially-available satellite imagery from a range of third parties, and our team stitches the images together to create a seamless map.”

Now, Google Maps could have challengers in India. While Google Street View is banned in the country due to security concerns, the new policy allows domestic firms to undertake similar surveys. When it comes to granular data, foreign firms can only license it from an Indian entity; they won’t be able to own or share it, says Secretary Sharma. “The move,” he says, “will ensure better data security.”

Concerns of data security are echoed by other government and retired officials. “You will be doomed if you bank only on foreign firms,” says Lieutenant-General (Retd) Girish Kumar, who served as the surveyor general of India till last month.

The Survey of India was set up by the English East India Company, back in 1767, to map the subcontinent in order to collect revenue and run military operations. It published the Map of Hindoostan in 1783 and measured Mount Everest in 1852. Over the centuries, the entity took multiple avatars and changed its data collection and storage methods. One thing didn’t change, though: it retained monopoly on mapmaking — until the new government guidelines came out.

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Redrawing the Map

While all Indian mapping companies can now operate freely, foreign companies will have to engage with an Indian partner for maps with finer details. The spokesperson of Belgiumbased TomTom, one of the large global independent location specialists which has an office in Pune since 2008, says, “The policy reform will have a huge impact on the country’s geospatial economy and in advancing digital India.”

Shalabh Upadhyay, founder of tech media startup NEWJ, says Indian firms can now compete with big tech companies. “Geospatial policy opens up the sector for Indian companies to challenge existing players like Google and Apple and to build products that can be first field-tested in the domestic market,” he says.

Secretary Sharma says giving thrust to Indian companies is central to the policy. “We expect a large number of Indian startups to venture into building data applications — for example, one can be on flood prediction, another on crowd management during Kumbh Mela. The list is really endless and spans infrastructure, logistics and services sectors.” Rakesh Verma, founder of MapmyIndia, one of the earlier players in the mapping business, is elated. “It’s a landmark, unbelievable, unparalleled change,” he says.

The policy provides opportunity to veterans and beginners in the sector. Take, for instance, Aisik Paul and two of his friends from Jadavpur University who started their location intelligence startup, Data Sutram, in 2018, while they were still in college. Their plan is to build a platform that will tell clients where to open a store, what the rental rates are in a particular area, what the traffic movement is in a location and where to set up electric vehicle charging points. They are currently focusing on Kolkata and Mumbai and maps sourced from Mapbox and Google have been critical to their work. “The new policy will boost mapping in India and we will be able to improve the granularity of the intelligence we offer,” says Paul.

The government’s decision to liberalise the mapping industry could chart a new path not only for a hundred startups in map-making but also for practically every company, large or small, for which the starting point of anything digital is a map. These include companies in ecommerce, food tech, real estate and insurance.

Insurance companies will be able to remotely evaluate risks for crop insurance, decide premiums and even settle claims. They can create “virtualised collateral” without sending teams to evaluate the farm land against which the owner might be taking a loan. Government compensation to farmers in case of drought and other natural calamities will also become precise.

Logistics companies can save money as better navigation systems can reduce the time to reach destinations. Archit Gupta, CEO of Delhi-based Atom Drones, says the measure to deregulate maps will make it easier to fly drones for survey work. “It takes around six months to get permission from various departments (defence, environment, DGCA, etc) to fly drones, apart from a lot of tedious paperwork. Now things will speed up and we can get better maps,” he says.

Amit Sharma, director of Delhi-based geospatial and engineering consultancy company Matrix Geo Solutions, is also confident that the new policy will give his firm an opportunity to target private clients in real estate and mining for which securing approval for drone-based surveys has been near impossible. The company mostly has government departments like the Railways and the National Highways Authority of India as its clients. Sharma says it will now venture into making maps and selling them to private clients as well.

Location is Everything

The policy is also seen as a potential game changer by Kabir Rustogi, head of data sciences at logistics startup Delhivery, who calculated in a research paper that the share of lastmile cost in India is as high as 35% of total delivery cost as opposed to just 10-12% in Western countries because there the pin code system is advanced and addresses structured. “Data being publicly available sets the stage for young companies to innovate and for established players like Delhivery to do even better and extend our competitive advantage over the likes of Google Maps, thereby creating a moat between us and Western competition. That moat itself is important,” he says.

Rustogi hopes the availability of geospatial data would augment the address search data that Delhivery already has from having made 1 billion deliveries and possibly help geocode an address to 100 metres or less (geocoding refers to turning a physical address into coordinates of latitude and longitude that can be plotted on a map), giving it a considerable advantage over companies like Google Maps and Bing Maps.

Food delivery startup Swiggy also welcomes the new policy. “We are leveraging Swiggy’s proprietary data to build location intelligence to make local commerce and hyperlocal deliveries more efficient and easy. Liberalising the mapping policy is fantastic news for Indian businesses like Swiggy and for Indian consumers,” says Pradnya Karbhari, vice-president and head, Swiggy Map.

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For companies that are already in the business of mapmaking, the policy promises an easy, red tape-less path ahead. Mumbai-based Genesys International, which has mapped Mecca, Medina and pre and post-war Kuwait, is currently mapping Jaipur for the government of Rajasthan at 5 cm spatial resolution — which means a single pixel represents an area on the ground that is 5 cm across — to create a digital twin of the pink city.

“The government recognises the need for investments in the geospatial sector. The policy will allow us to collect data easily,” says Sajid Malik, chairman and MD. Its Rajasthan project started 18 months ago and should have completed in six-seven months but for the pandemic. Genesys has 450 people on the ground, mapping Jaipur, apart from one aircraft. About 45-50 terabytes of map data will be stored on cloud servers to be accessed anytime.

The new policy means land records or khasra on paper can be shelved sooner. So can maps, some of them 50-70 years old, that are rolled up in municipalities. The new mapping policy will facilitate their faster digitisation with greater accuracy. Rural and remote areas can be plotted accurately. Officials can make a better assessment of land values if elaborate maps of an area, detailing its proximity to roads and hospitals and availability of power and water, are available. As BVR Mohan Reddy, executive chairman of Cyient, a digital engineering company that provides geospatial solutions and services, says, mapping has been outdated in India with too many constraints and too much sensitivity involved. “We have now got a very progressive new policy. It’s too good to be true,” he says.

For tech companies that are already using geospatial data as a core part of its business, the change in rules will bring in greater efficiency in terms of time, effort and cost. Take Pixxel, a Bengaluru-based space technology startup that is building a set of small earth-imaging satellites to be deployed in low earth orbit. “This policy takes away the entire time and effort it took to gain access to geospatial data and services earlier and enables us to get our solutions to farmers, various on-ground workers as well as government departments much faster,” says founder and CEO Awais Ahmed.

Agritech startup CropIn, which offers tech-led farm management solutions, sees similar benefits. It currently uses spatial data, remote-sensing data and real location-based weather data to build services for farmers. “The new initiative will help us in better defining the assets of the farmer in terms of geography. Mapping these will help us process that data sitting remotely and build it as an insight for stakeholders to come and participate and interact with that or the farmer in that particular region,” says cofounder and COO Kunal Prasad. It would mean banks and insurance and agri companies can collect information about a particular farmer.

Prasad says the new policy, combined with the digitisation of land records that is under way, presents a huge opportunity in terms of asset creation that can be leveraged. Former Google executive Katragadda agrees. He says the policy has the potential to transform access to credit through the monetisation of land — for farmers, businesses and sectors like the railways. He explains that in a country like India, one way to lower the risk of borrowers could be by leveraging and mortgaging land. While the policy on mortgaging land is one aspect, another crucial part is securing the asset through the GPS boundary on the map.

“A banker would need to know that no other property overlaps with it [a particular parcel of land]. Today, we don’t have that knowledge but if the new policy is implemented correctly, India can reach US levels of mortgage, where at any given point of time, 40% of all residential, commercial and government land is mortgaged.”

In India, that figure is less than 3%, and it would take 5 to 10 years to reach 40% but this, Katragadda believes, would unlock $4.5 trillion of capital. The prospective capitalisation of land, where a dead asset can be turned into equity for startups and debt financing for infrastructure and working capital for farmers and small businesses is the single largest monetary opportunity offered by the new policy, he says.

The new mapping policy also mentions the blue economy, which includes fisheries, deep sea mining and offshore oil and gas extraction, as a sunrise sector where geospatial data is expected to play a big role. Marine spatial planning, in which very high-resolution mapping of the whole coastal region along with territorial waters will be done, will be a crucial part of this, says Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences.

“This is still at a nascent stage in India but, once complete, it will have a host of applications for the industry and for startups.” India is also mapping the bottom of the sea within its exclusive economic zone, which is nearly complete. So far, this data has been confidential but with the new rules this could be easily accessible. Companies can also conduct bathymetric surveys — measuring the depth of a water body and mapping its underwater features — in areas that have been restricted due to security reasons.

Distance Between Policy & Reality

The policy document states that compliance with regulatory restriction subjected startups in India to unnecessary red tape, hindering domestic innovation in map technologies for decades. The question is: will red tape disappear altogether? Or, will the new policy face a bottleneck in the form of Centre-state friction? Land, for instance, is a state subject.

Jatin Singh, founder of Skymet Weather Services, says, “It’s a progressive change, but real benefits will take four five years to come. If there’s a conflict between actual data and what municipalities have on their maps, how does it get resolved? How do you deal with issues of unauthorised construction?”

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Publicly available digital maps would also mean people can know a city’s master plan and who owns what. Local governments and administrative bodies might see this as losing control and could create delay in sharing information. More importantly, there are privacy issues. Owners may not want plot-level data and ownership to be digitally available to everyone without permission.

“It is like a road I could not use earlier, but now I can. If it has to work for rapid economic development, rules have to be skewed in favour of businesses,” says Singh of Skymet. The new mapping order is fraught with some risks. Just as ecommerce is dominated by two players and 70% internet users use just one messaging platform, the possibility of winner-takes-all is big in mapping industry, too.

The government, for its part, is looking for a spin-off — more jobs and a new breed of professionals called certified surveyors, who can guide you to the exact location where you are planning to build your house and its neighbourhood. DST Secretary Sharma says, “The concept of certified surveyors cropped up in our discussion. It is a good idea. But we have yet to take a call on how to go about it.”

Capitalisation of land is the single largest monetary opportunity: Lalitesh Katragadda

Lalitesh Katragadda, cofounder of Google India and creator of Google Map Maker, on the impact of the new policy in various fields:

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Capitalisation of Land:
India needs higher quality credit and lower risk. One way of lowering risk at population scale is to leverage and mortgage land. To secure the asset, one needs to know the GPS boundary of the land and a bank will also need to know that no other property overlaps with it. If this is done right, it will unlock about $4.5 trillion of capital. Capitalisation of land — where you turn a dead asset into equity for startups, debt financing for infrastructure and working capital for farmers and small businesses — is the single largest monetary opportunity.

Private Sector:
You can have more, better and deeper maps. You can have richer maps to go from Point A to B, which startups can use for deliveries, etc. There’s also an opportunity to create an alternative to Google Maps, and competition is always good.

Infrastructure Planning:
All infrastructure planning, from roads to railways to waterways to health centres, can be done in the right place.

Healthcare:
Every year, around 400,000-500,000 people die of communicable diseases. If we start mapping this, the public health actions can be directed towards those areas and the impact would be much better.

Colonial mindset has been removed by deregulating maps: Rakesh Verma

One of the early players in the mapping business, MapmyIndia, backed by Qualcomm, Japanese map publisher Zenrin and others, boasts over 5,000 customers, including Maruti, Honda, Hyundai, Uber, Amazon and Facebook.
Rakesh Verma, chairman and MD, MapmyIndia,
speaks to Shelley Singh about the impact of government’s decision, the business potential of maps and more. Edited excerpts:

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What will be the impact of deregulating maps in India?

It’s a landmark, unbelievable, unparalleled change. A colonial mindset has been finally removed with these new guidelines. The colonial mindset meant that mapping is only for the state and the security of the country. But what’s the reality today? Thanks to maps, you get your food delivered at home on time, you can take a cab via an app. Digital era is all about creating location intelligence and this reform understands that. Now anybody can go ahead and make maps. Make it or license it from someone else. You can compare this with the 1991 economic liberalisation when the licence raj was done away with. But licence raj had continued to exist in areas like mapping under the garb of security and people have suffered.

How has the landscape changed from the time you started your company?

Twenty-five years back, we visualised that digital maps would become the backbone of economic development of the country. But no one understood it those days. We had the conviction and the passion and said, let it take whatever time it takes. In the mid-1990s, when Coca-Cola came back to India, they wanted to know the territories of each of the bottlers. Whose territory is what, they asked us. Can we put it on a digital map? We did it and Coca-Cola became our biggest customer. Then we moved to telecom tower locations. It costs crores of rupees to put up towers and companies wanted the most desirable location in terms of population and also people who could bear the cost. Understanding demographics and putting them on the map became important. This was in our early evolution phase.

Who all are your customers?

We have 5,000 enterprises that continue to work with us. Almost all auto companies in India, including Maruti, Hyundai, M&M, BMW, Honda and Toyota, are our customers. Ecommerce and tech companies like Amazon, Uber, Facebook are also our customers.

What kind of business potential do you see now?

The government is saying Rs 1 lakh crore of geospatial industry will be created. I believe that’s a small fraction of the economic development driver it will be. If you think about logistics and distribution, the average cost is 14% of GDP. This will come down to 8% as navigation improves with better accuracy and better maps.

What kind of map development could be started?

Resolution of maps can be 1 cm or 5 m. Different use cases require different resolution and accordingly maps will be made. Cost of a 30 cm or 5 cm resolution map will be prohibitive and that map may have a security angle as well. 30 cm resolution map will be needed for autonomous driving but not for the services that Ola, Uber or Amazon deliver. For most applications, 1 m or 2 m resolution is fine. But for agricultural lands, for which ownership details are in khasra maps (paper-based), the reality is that people fight over even 5 cm. So a higher resolution map will be needed for accurate title ownerships and land records.



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