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Geospatial Bill will be a hurdle for private players looking to develop innovative apps: Amitabha Bagchi

Interview with Novelist

Amitabha Bagchi

Nikita Puri 

Geospatial Bill will be a hurdle for private players looking to develop innovative apps: Amitabha Bagchi

Irrespective of the government in power, maps have always been a sensitive issue for India. Most recently, according to the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016, all information related to India's geospatial data will have to be vetted by a special authority before being published. This could mean users would need a licence before sharing their location via a smartphone. Not only does the Bill in its current form hamper innovation, anyone found guilty of possessing, sharing or making maps without a licence can be imprisoned for seven years or fined up to Rs 100 crore. Novelist Amitabha Bagchi, who is also an associate professor in the department of computer science and engineering at IIT Delhi, tells Nikita Puri what this signifies. Excerpts:

How does this Bill affect free flow of information?

The Bill calls for licensing of all geospatial data by a Security Vetting Authority. The draft says "no person shall, in any manner, make use of, disseminate, publish or distribute any geospatial information of India, outside India, without prior permission from the Security Vetting Authority." This is a very broad remit and brings every corner of the geospatial data ecosystem into its ambit. Even ordinary users looking at a mapping service on their phones may be liable to take permission under this Act. It may happen that if the Bill becomes an Act, the rules ensure that such things don't happen, but including such broad language in the Bill is not a good idea.

Most recently we've seen how cartographic emergency responders have used open-access maps during the earthquake in Kathmandu, and floods in Chennai. Do you see this Bill as a hurdle during rescue efforts?

The letter of the Bill will inhibit such efforts. During natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, tsunamis etc, new temporary or permanent geographical features may emerge. Quickly updating geospatial information may be critical to saving lives in such situations. However, the draft Bill says that all geospatial data used under a licence must be watermarked after vetting and only the watermarked data is to be used. It is not clear how updates will be propagated into such watermarked data without essentially tampering with it. Will the vetting authority be able to clear such updates on a real-time basis? The language of the Bill provides no clues to these important questions.

What does this mean for this government's signature programmes like Digital India and Smart Cities?

Both Digital India and Smart Cities are well-intentioned programmes. I feel that for these programmes to succeed, the effort by public agencies has to be augmented by efforts from private players, often driven by a profit motive, who are looking to develop innovative applications built around geospatial data. Such players will have one more regulatory hurdle to clear to enter this field.

The Bill promises a three-month time for clearances to amend maps. Considering how quickly spaces around us are changing, do we need quicker turnarounds?

We certainly do. There is a feasibility issue here. Two of the Vs of big data, velocity and volume, will pose a major challenge.

Mandatory licences are to come into play for makers, sellers, distributors and buyers. How tough is this to execute and what are the drawbacks?

From an execution point of view, I can say that there are challenges posed by the volume of the data and also by the issue of data provenance, i.e., if an application wants to use data from multiple sources then the question of vetting will become more involved. As the provenance of the data gets more complicated, the challenge increases.

While businesses using maps may require licences, what about students since they are end users, too?

The language of the Bill makes this a possibility, although the rules framed under the Act, once it is passed, may exclude such cases. However, such strong language (in the Bill) is unnecessary and should probably be moderated.

If this Bill is passed in its current form, should we be bid goodbye to artistic licences, and innovation stemming outside of government agencies?

That might be an overly alarmist view, but I do feel that the much talked about "ease of business" will go down.

Comments and suggestions on the Bill can be sent to latest by June 4

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First Published: Sat, May 14 2016. 21:09 IST