The climate benefits of India's mapping revolution

How the freedom to make maps of India could help its climate ambitions and aid the energy transition

The climate benefits of India's mapping revolution

Welcome to today’s Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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Satellite view of Delhi - Image credit: NASA

India will soon be free to map. Mapmakers across the country will be able to capture the geography of their favourite places, from hiking tracks in remote corners of the Himalayas, to complex electricity distribution networks - without breaking the law.

A little known quirk of India’s mammoth bureaucratic system are the existing, colonial-era restrictions on mapmaking. Currently, Indians cannot create or disseminate maps - all maps belong to the Survey of India, the oldest scientific department in the country. Companies in need of any map that cannot be lifted from Google need to “seek licences [and] follow a cumbersome system of pre-approvals and permissions”, in the government’s own words. Compliance with these regulatory restrictions, the government statement adds, “has subjected startups in India to unnecessary red tape, hindering Indian innovation in map technologies for decades.”

Open mapmaking

But times have changed, and if India wants to reach its ambition of becoming a $5 trillion economy then outdated bureaucracy has to go. The Department of Science and Technology has announced a full liberalisation of its mapping policy, particularly targeting Indian businesses. This means that while some restrictions will still apply to foreign players, Indian citizens and companies will be free to make and distribute their own maps, complementing Google Maps or satellite data with drones, radar technologies, artificial intelligence, ground surveys, underwater mapping and more.

While the announcement is still thin on details, experts are already imagining myriad applications, including systems that could facilitate the energy transition and improve climate change response. Bharath Mahadevan, an independent consultant on climate change, says that one immediate use of free mapmaking would be for the optimisation of road transport, paving the way for better last mile services such as e-rickshaws. Going forward, these hyperlocal services won’t have to rely on Google Maps which can be patchy in some areas of a fast developing megacity like Delhi.

Being able to freely collect geospatial data with drones, something that to date isn’t possible, will also enable industries to “generate very high resolution digital elevation models for predicting flood inundation levels,” helping them manage extreme weather events that are expected to become more frequent and more intense as the climate changes, Mahadevan says.

Climate benefits

“The new map making and geospatial data policy of India will help in disseminating hyper-local climate risk information,” says Rafiuddin Mohammad, a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore. Climate data, he explains, is usually available at a coarse resolution, usually for a 100x100 km area. “This is not very useful for someone making decisions at a community level. So this data has to be 'downscaled' such that for each suburb, town or neighborhood there is a value of the climate variable.”

Looking at the hyperlocal dimension when studying weather and climate, Mohammad says, helps protect assets that are at the highest risk of damage during a severe weather event, for example large trees or transmission poles. “Any buildings in the immediate vicinity are at a higher risk of damage compared to the ones further away. High resolution mapping can help in identifying such assets,” he says.

Liberalising maps is not just a matter of offering a ‘Make in India’ alternative to Google, says Sugandha Talwelkar, technical product manager with a clean energy startup in Boston, US. “Google Maps has evolved over the years,” she explains. “But for example, in many US utilities, due to cyber security concerns, Google search and Gsuite products are not accessible.” Bespoke maps created after the new policy kicks in can also be fed into Geographical Information Systems (GIS), she says. GIS is a software that captures and analyses data, organising it geographically. Imagine a 3D map that ties complex data sets to certain places.

Better energy planning

For example, she explains, GIS could combine data on energy generation units, air pollution, roads, and use them to figure out the best places to add more charging stations for electric vehicles. Indian distribution companies, which are under constant financial strain partly due to inefficient management on the ground, can now use drones to map their networks and spot issues leading to energy losses.

The advantage of using GIS over simple maps is that they can perform complex calculations, and not having to rely on Google maps for the geospatial part of the equation means that “the data you use and maps you provide to the GIS module are your own property”.

“Take the high tension electrical poles you can see from a distance,” says Ravindra Aduri, GIS specialist with the Delhi distribution company BSES Rajdhani. “The maintenance of these towers becomes very difficult when they are installed in a forest, or riverbeds.” With the new liberalisations, Aduri says, “drones can be used much more freely and this will be a real advantage as far as this special map intelligence is concerned.” While flying the drones, he adds, “you can also take aerial photographs instead of relying on satellite imagery, and you can use them to create your own spatial databases.”

It remains to be seen how the policy will deal with sensitive areas such as military installations, Aduri cautions. “If the military stations are also falling into that kind of mapping, and people find a workaround to get hold of them, it's going to be a disaster.” The same applies to key energy infrastructure – a major target of cyber attacks.

These fears shouldn’t hold India back from embracing open source mapping, he says. And creating indigenous maps shouldn’t mean stepping away from global cooperation either: “If new policies want to encourage more domestic participation this is always welcome, but they should not put any restrictions on global players,” Aduri says. “I wouldn’t want to get to the point where India says, now our maps are good enough, Google you can’t operate here anymore.”

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