Column : Whose maps serve India the best?

Aug 08 2009, 21:03 IST
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SummaryWhat should the government do? To economists, there is a technical answer: governments should raise money through taxes, and spend it on the provision of ‘public goods’.

are funding Survey of India, this work is useless for the people of India, who are flocking to Google Maps and Google Earth. Nokia has also created good maps of India, which are usable through some Nokia handsets (only).

The only flaw with Google Maps and Google Earth is that the underlying databases are the private property of Google. What would be most desirable is for maps data to be a public good, which can be used in all manner of ways by all individuals and companies. As an example, handheld GPS devices are now available for $100. If these are loaded with Indian map data, they can be immensely useful tools for navigation, exploration and business efficiency. Google does not give out their map database to the public; so such applications are infeasible.

Until Survey of India gets its act together, the solution lies with a public domain initiative named Openstreetmap. This uses Internet-scale collaboration to build maps. It involves volunteers, armed with handheld GPS devices, who are feeding in maps data into a central database. This database is a true public good. The licencing conditions of Openstreetmap are quite open, though not as open as those used by the US government. Openstreetmap is doing what Survey of India should have done: accumulating high quality maps data and releasing it in the (mostly) public domain.

Thus, three strategies are now in play in India: a high quality solution which is a public goods effort (Openstreetmap), a good solution which is owned by a corporation (Google) and a poor solution which acts like a corporation (Survey of India). The users of maps are flocking to Google, Nokia and Openstreetmap.

From the viewpoint of the government, the first best strategy is to shift Survey of India into the mode of uncompromisingly releasing maps data in the public domain, matching the release strategy of the US government on openness. Through this, the government would continue to engage in taxpayer-funded efforts at creating maps databases, but the full benefits would come back to the people of India. In addition, Survey of India needs to get up to timely 1:24,000 coverage of the full country. If these changes are infeasible, it is better to shut down Survey of India, and transfer its annual budget to Openstreetmap, for the latter is producing public goods while the former is acting like an inefficient corporation.

The author is an economist with interests

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