[Talk-in] Request for comments

Subhodip Biswas subhodipbiswas at gmail.com
Tue Aug 4 19:27:34 BST 2009

On Tue, Aug 4, 2009 at 6:45 PM, Ajay Shah<ajayshah at mayin.org> wrote:
> I wrote a column which I intend to publish on the edit page of
> Financial Express. The text is ahead. Will be great if you guys could
> give me comments.
> What should government do? To economists, there is a technical answer:
> government should raise money through taxes, and spend it on the
> provision of `public goods'. A public good is "non-rival" (i.e. the
> use by one person does not preclude the use by another) and
> "non-excludable" (it is not possible to prevent an additional person
> from benefiting from the public good).
> While there are shades of gray in rivalness and excludability, public
> goods are the zone where government involvement in the economy is
> legitimate. Protection from war, for example, is a pure public
> good. When an army is setup which protects the population, it is
> non-rival (the safety of one person imposes no cost on another) and
> non-excludable (it is impossible to prevent a newborn child from
> benefiting from this safety).
> An important pure public good is map data. Maps are rival: when I am
> looking at a map, you can't simultaneously look at the same map. But
> map data is a public good. If that data is created once and released
> into the public domain, then myriad private players can use it to
> create maps, GPS based navigation systems, etc. The job of the
> government, then, is to run the Survey of India, which is funded by
> taxes, which creates high quality maps data, and releases databases on
> the website for free download.
> Unfortunately, in India, we do everything wrong. Survey of India maps
> are grossly outdated. On the website, they proudly say: "We know every
> inch of the Nation, because we map every inch of it". However, in good
> countries, 1:24,000 topo sheets are trustworthy, while Survey of India
> does not even have good quality 1:250,000 topo sheets. The weakest
> link about Survey of India is the rules of release. Survey of India is
> funded by taxpayer money. As a consequence, the information that they
> create should be freely released back into the public domain for
> unencumbered use. Instead, Survey of India thinks like a
> corporation. It has "licensing" restrictions which has effectively
> made their data unusable.
> The most important maps in India today are produced by google. Google
> maps and google earth are a remarkable combination of satellite
> imagery and maps, and they are available for free (!). Google has had
> to reconstruct maps of India from scratch, thanks to the legal
> problems (and low quality of work) of Survey of India. It is ironic
> that even though taxpayers 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 licensing
> 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 into 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 into 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 1:24000 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.
> --
> Ajay Shah                                      http://www.mayin.org/ajayshah
> ajayshah at mayin.org                             http://ajayshahblog.blogspot.com
> <*(:-? - wizard who doesn't know the answer.
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Nice writeup.Hope some people will hear/listen/follow.

Subhodip Biswas

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