Putting people on the map

Last week, the Survey of India (SOI), the mapping arm of the government, filed a police complaint against Google’s ‘Mapathon’ — the first ever mapping competition in India. It alleged that Google, which had invited Indian participants to add their local knowledge to existing maps, “is likely to jeopardise national security interest and violate the National Map Policy.” It also threatened participants with potential breach of rules. In response, Google has stood its ground and said its activities are well within the rules.

At the heart of this conflict are not legal issues as the SOI makes it out to be, but the shrinking role of the state in disseminating geographical information. Technologies have broken government monopoly over spatial data and are empowering communities to produce maps that are relevant to them. Bewildered government institutions, instead of embracing innovation and quickly adjusting to changes, are seeking the coercive power of rules to maintain dominance and stifle innovation.

For more than two centuries, the SOI has been surveying the country and producing topographical and special maps of different scales. Of the two kinds of maps it publishes, Defence Series and Open Series Maps, the second are declared as unrestricted by the Ministry of Defence. These are the maps that can be sold to the public. Third parties can reprint and add value to them, but only after signing an agreement and abiding by the condition set by the SOI. However, maps of coastal areas, the region around national boundaries and of Jammu & Kashmir State are out of bounds.

Private enterprise

These restrictions are inconsequential. Private companies sell satellite images and maps of Indian territories for a fee. For example, >RapidEye, a private company based in Germany, offers high resolution images of three billion square kilometres of earth area including images of the western boundary of Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, >MapMart, the e-commerce division of IntraSearch, Inc. a U.S.-based concern, offers images, elevation model, digital vector maps and topographical maps of territories in India and other countries. Technology, as two geographers, Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier insightfully noted, is pushing cartography “out of the control of powerful elites.” Maps worldwide are accessible as never before.

Probably, anticipating such a situation, in 2005, the Indian National Map Policy envisioned that the SOI would take a leadership role in liberalising access to spatial data. To promote this, the national policy recommended “exploration of partnerships with ‘all sections’ of people and ‘work towards a knowledge-based society’.” But nothing much has changed. We are yet to witness collaborative efforts in the scale and manner needed.

On the contrary, Google Maps and Google Earth, launched in the same year as the National Map Policy, have taken advantage of technological solutions and allowed users to freely populate maps with information relevant to them. As a result, they have leapfrogged to become the favourite and frequently consulted map services. The problem is that Indian institutions still hold on to antiquated views of maps as instruments of governmental-ity. Hence, they contain only information that is relevant to what the state needs for administration, security and surveillance. Everyday spaces and resources closely connected with active users have hardly been the concern.


Counter-mapping, a practice and term made popular by Nancy Lee Peluso, a political ecologist, has challenged such state dominance and indifference. For more than a decade, it has empowered communities to produce alternative maps that document local assets and enabled them to make rightful claims. From Indonesia to Nicaragua, these counter-maps groups have challenged exploitation, exclusion, and demanded democratic resource allocation. Closer home, Transparent Chennai, a project initiated by the Institute for Financial Management and Research and partly funded by Google’s Inform and Empower initiative, helps Chennai citizens counter “inaccurate” government data. By collecting information such as location of public toilets and mapping them, local communities evaluate government performance and demand better services.

Privacy issues

Not everything is benign about mapping practices offered by Google. Commercial exploitation of data, invasion of privacy and illegal scooping of personal information in Google projects such as Street View are unsettling. Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on the dark side of digital mapping, remarked that “Google’s and Apple’s maps might not just observe our lives, but in some sense come to play a role in directing their course.” They track use patterns, manipulate data and produce maps that stealthily serve commercial interests. Burkeman wittily observed that our search for the quickest route between two points in such map services may throw a result that passes through at least one Starbucks shop.

One of the models worth looking at is New York’s open data policy and the related BigApps project. The city has made it mandatory for government agencies to disclose data to improve transparency and governance. Since 2009, New York has been conducting competitions, which encourage people to use these data and create useful applications. Digital map applications are frequently among the prize winning ones. For example, last year’s prize winning entry, >596 Acres, is an online map application that helps communities find vacant public land and put it to common use.

Unfettered use of data and free mapping possibilities alone have the potential to check predatory practices and state monopoly.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 9:00:54 PM |

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