The Survey of India (SOI) complaint against Google’s ‘Mapathon 2013,’ a collaborative and community mapping exercise, on the ground that it jeopardises national security represents unwarranted paranoia. In February, Google announced a nation-wide competition inviting those interested to use its online tools, add neighbourhood data and create better maps. Towards the end of March, when the competition ended, the SOI, following a shrill BJP campaign, filed a complaint with the Delhi police. It objected that this Google venture violated the National Map Policy and could pose a security risk. In an age when GPS devices are freely available for navigation, geographical information flows unhindered across borderless digital space and satellite images of every square inch of the earth are in the public domain, the SOI’s notion of restricted areas and insistence on monopoly over spatial data appear irrational. Instead of dismissing this knee-jerk reaction as untenable, the police have scaled up the complaint to a CBI level investigation. The irony is that it is not Google, but the SOI which has failed the National Map Policy. Foreseeing the challenges of digital practices, the policy urged the SOI in 2005 to take up a leadership role in democratising spatial information through partnerships. But the SOI, despite an early start and the weight of the state behind it, has till date offered no people-friendly facilities worth mentioning.
When spatial information is restricted and official maps are inadequate, private services step in to create user-friendly maps. In this context, there is a lesson or two for the SOI to learn from its colonial cousin, the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency of Great Britain. The Ordnance Survey has impressively grown over the years and has launched a series of data products for free public use and value addition. GeoVation, one of its most popular schemes, invites entrepreneurs and community groups to creatively use its digital geographical information to transform neighbourhoods in the country. More than 500 innovative ideas were added in the last four years. The services of the Ordnance Survey are on a par with, if not better than, any private mapping service. In contrast, the SOI has taken to a narrow approach, which stifles innovation and would eventually strengthen the powerful mapping companies that have the wherewithal to work around the bureaucratic hurdles and which can afford to pay prohibitive licensing fees. What is needed is unrestricted access that would empower communities and facilitate the emergence of citizen cartographers who could keep commercially exploitative mapping services such as Google under check.