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Mapping the politics of cartography

Increasingly, we use the Internet to find immediately useful - local, time-sensitive - information: not just "Who invented Pasta?" but also "What's a good Italian place nearby, how do I get there, how long is it open, and will it deliver?". 

But it was somewhere in the 1990s, with India's National Mapping Policy of 2005 still a few years away, that the transmission of maps on the Internet exceeded the number of paper maps printed in the offline world (Peterson 2014: 1). The Internet allowed the publication and distribution of maps to be combined in a single simple step. Digital maps were for the first time now easily accessible to a large user base.
MapQuest was one of the first mapping sites on the Internet. The web service began in 1996 and by 1999 it was serving 20 million user queries daily. When a user entered a query in MapQuest, the website would serve the desired map into a new web page (Peterson 2014: 8). Until 2009, it had the largest market share among mapping sites. Its business success led to AOL buying it in 1999 for $1.1 billion (Peterson 2014: 8). Developments in technology also saw the emergence of new forms of cartography and competitors such as Yahoo, Microsoft Bing and Google. 

Google Maps celebrated its tenth anniversary last month. In the last decade, it has introduced its billion users to a seamless browsable map of the world, satellite and street-level imagery, and directions for driving and public transport. This period has coincided with the proliferation of online interactive maps such as Bing, Open Street Maps, and Apple and the increasing use of geospatial applications in areas that include governance, urban development, transport and logistics. 

All of these make it only too compelling for us to examine the interplay of science, technology, politics and policymaking, subjects that the discipline of Science and Technology Studies (STS) seeks to address. How does the state frame and implement public policy on a subject of Science and Technology? What are the processes adopted to arrive at the policies? And, central to a liberal democracy with a number of interested stakeholders, how are these policies then reasoned in the public sphere?
The subjects of Cartography and Geospatial Information intersect a range of policy domains. Governance, social and economic development, infrastructure, logistics and transport, traffic management, defence and national security, privacy, and the accuracy and credibility of maps created with volunteered geographic information (VGI) are just some of these. In the paragraphs that follow, let's briefly see these varied approaches play out in policy-making.

The modern mapping of India by European cartographers began five centuries ago, borne out of the need to ensure safe passages for mariners to coastal trading ports in India. Lahiri (2012: 8) writes, "European cartographers gave form to the idea of Hindoostan or India from information gathered from mariners' and travellers' yarns, much before it was scientifically surveyed and its true shape and dimensions determined."  Fast forward a few hundred years and we find that war and commerce become the driving force behind the mapping of India in the 18th and 19th centuries (Lahiri 2012:12). 

Historians and researchers from Borges to Cannon have extensively discussed the intersection of imperialism and mapmaking. Writing about the British conquest of South Asia in the hundred years after 1750, Edney (1997: 2) talks about the military and civilian officials of the East India Company who undertook the intellectual campaign to discover and comprehend the apparently incomprehensible land they found themselves in. And at the forefront of this campaign were geographers. 

When the Survey of India was established in 1767, survey and mapping were functions mainly of the state. The defence forces were the organization's primary clients. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the disclosure of mapping data to 'unauthorized persons' in pre-Independence India was penalised under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, Clause 5 of which relates to data dissemination. It was many years after independence - in 1971- that the Department of Science and Technology was established and the Survey of India placed under it. Today, it is India's national survey and mapping organization and the oldest scientific institution of the Government of India. 

So the use of maps for purposes and institutions other than defence and military is relatively recent in modern India. As a result, mapping activities are still governed by a large number of restrictions. However, to see the policymaking process simply as a case of a lumbering bureaucratic apparatus trying to catch up with the reality of technological progress does not always provide the best or most reasonable answer. Perhaps a more useful question is how a particular technology and its related public policy concerns are framed and understood. For instance, is open geospatial data a public good? Is it worth 'endangering national security' to allow for quicker and easier access to the closest Sushi restaurant? Should a different set of restrictions govern the creation, publication and dissemination of digital map data? Who defines the boundaries and framework within which the concerns around cartography can be mapped? What should be the role of the judiciary in the interpretation of these policies and legislations?
In the years after independence, a number of policies came to regulate public access to maps. Under the cloud of an impending war with China, with interactions at the shared international borders becoming increasingly hostile, the Parliament passed the Criminal Amendment Act of 1961 relating to the territorial integrity of India. Publishing a map of India, not in conformity with the maps of India published by the Survey of India, now became a punishable offence. Enforcement often plays out at the Customs at international airports in India, evoking strong sentiments on all sides. If you have flown into India recently, you may recall the list of items prohibited for import on the Customs Declaration form, where 'Maps and Literature where Indian external boundaries have been shown incorrectly' finds company with narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and counterfeit currency. Bengaluru Customs raised a few eyebrows last year when a globe meant for a school in the city was refused entry until the offending border was crossed out with a black marker. While publishers have to keep in mind the divergent claims of various countries, governments see incorrect depiction of international borders as a challenge to the country's sovereignty. Digital maps further complicate this story, especially when published from domains outside the country.

Restrictions were governed also by an official order of the Ministry of Defence, first introduced in 1967 and later amended in 1968. This order placed roughly three-fifths of the country under restriction. For instance, in maps of 1:1 million scale and larger, restricted areas included national border areas and coastlines, outlying islands such as Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar, the whole of Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, the northern and eastern districts of Himachal Pradesh, and the northern districts of Uttaranchal and UP. 
Some commentators have described the regulations that emerged after independence as ad-hoc attempts towards gradual deregulation. However, in the years preceding the National Mapping Policy (NMP) of 2005, a number of industry, academic and government stakeholders began to fiercely discuss the need for a radical shift. A ban on the sale of Eicher's CD-ROMs of Delhi Guide Maps in 1998 led to heated policy discussions on the production of and access to digital map data. While the magazine GIS@Development declared, 'Now it is official; digitization is illegal', there were those who argued in favor of the ban for reasons that included SoI's copyright claims over the map data and the MoD's security concerns (Ramachandra 2000: 463). However, given the need for a policy framework for the production and dissemination of data, the Department of Science and Technology constituted a task force in 2000 towards establishing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, NMP and the subsequent guidelines for its implementation issued by the SoI have now been in existence for nearly a decade. The period has also seen the rapid rise of the mapping and GIS industry. Progress in cloud computing technologies, VGI, the use of GIS in developmental and infrastructure projects, and the easy availability of personalized maps on the Internet has created considerable pressures on NMP, 2005. Crowdsourcing is an interesting example; policy responses to popular forms of crowdsourced map data give us an indication of how policymakers understand its implications. 

The rise of crowdsourced mapping data has put the individual at the center of geospatial information gathering and distribution. Open Street Maps (OSM) is a good example of a crowdsourced mapping platform. It provides a basic map of the world to which a user can add features. But crowdsourcing often evokes strong reactions amongst sections of the government and practitioners. This is because cartography is a subject divided over the role of the expert. There are some who believe that in the rapidly changing physical world we live in, where roads and highways are constantly being built and businesses and restaurants opening up and shutting down at a pace difficult for a surveyor to keep up with, the only way to keep map data fresh is by relying on the local knowledge of users. However, mapmaking has traditionally been seen as an expert activity and crowdsourcing has given rise to debates about the authenticity and veracity of such maps and the role of experts in cartography. Interestingly, though, the history of cartography is rich with mapmakers incorporating phantom features into the maps they created. The earliest maps were a magical blend of fact and imagination, of impressions culled from chronicles published by travelers and some expectations of what a foreign land could be like (Lahiri 2012: 8). Flemish Cartographer Ortelius published an atlas in 1571 with a map of India depicting an imaginary lake Chiamay Lacus from which four large south-flowing rivers originated. Ortelius had never visited India. The lake and rivers continued to appear in subsequent maps of India for decades after, including in Allardt's map of 1665 (Lahiri 2012: 9). 
The story of maps in modern India, as elsewhere, is interlinked with policy approaches to technology, security, governance and development. New developments in technology and the geospatial industry have led to discussions on the need for a rationalization of existing laws and policies that impact the geospatial industry. 

Edney, Matthew, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843, University of Chicago Press, 1990

Dasgupta, A. (2012), "VGI: Democratisation of Geographic Information," Geospatial World, July 2012, pp. 24-32 [Accessed: March 22, 2015]

Lahiri, Manosi, Mapping India, Niyogi Books, 2012 

Peterson, Michael, Mapping in the Cloud, Guilford Press, 2014

Ramachandra, R, (2000) "Public Access to Indian Geographical Data," Current Science, Vol. 79, No. 4, 25 August 2000, pp 450-467

The author is a Senior Public Policy Analyst at Google India. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's own.

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