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Pakistan Considering Bill that Would Ban Independent Mapping Projects

BY Nighat Dad | Wednesday, November 28 2012

The government of Pakistan is about to propose a law that would make it illegal for independent bodies to engage in mapping. The Land Surveying and Mapping Bill 2012, proposed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), transfers all mapping authority in Pakistan to Survey of Pakistan (SoP), which reports to the MoD and takes its orders from General Head Quarters (GHQ).

SoP is the national organization responsible for surveying and mapping requirements of the Armed Forces and civilian departments — in that respect, at least, its origins are similar to those of the United Kingdom's Ordnance Survey. Over the past decade, however, the advent of computer-aided cartography and the availability of satellite imagery have radically changed the realm of maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Easy access to this kind of technology has helped individuals and organizations to support their own efforts at social and relief work.

For instance, after the floods of 2010 that devastated huge swathes of the country, relief workers created and used their own mapping resources to allocate aid efforts more effectively, thus saving many lives.

This year Umar Saif, MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 award winner, used mapping technology to detect the spread of Dengue fever in Lahore. Early detection prevented the virus from becoming an epidemic.

The Punjab government initiated an Innovation Punjab campaign with the help of Google. The campaign brings inexpensive Internet access to rural youth, with the goal of empowering the next generation of tech innovators.

During the 2010 crisis, several NGOs and relief workers mapped information using Ushahidi. If the proposed bill is passed, Google Maps and Ushahidi would be banned from Pakistan. All the hard work invested by local and international relief workers, volunteers and organizations would be in vain.

The MoD's position is that in the absence of a national law and regulatory authority for mapping, it is impossible to keep a check on unlawful activities — especially in sensitive areas. They claim that the purpose of the proposed bill is to limit potential risks to sensitive information — to prevent duplicate mapping, which they say would be a financial burden for the state — and to transform the SoP into a national mapping agency. Since mapping data can be obtained easily from non-governmental sources, this undermines the logic of the MoD's case. There is also the question of whether a ban on mapping can prevent "unlawful activities in sensitive areas."

Online maps and satellite imagery, GPS-enabled devices and in-car navigation are all easily accessible in Pakistan.

If the bill passes in to law, the SoP will be the regulatory body controlling all mapping activities. Any other body wishing to create a map will have to apply for permission to do so — and can expect to have their activities and their outputs controlled as a result.

The bill also assigns responsibility for various parts of the mapping infrastructure (such as survey markers) to regional and district administrative bodies. Those who remember the woeful ineffectiveness of those bodies during the floods of 2010 may wonder whether such a transfer is either wise or practical. In addition to installing itself as the single point of control for all mapping activity, the MoD will also delegate to the Pakistan Army responsibility for enforcing the bill.

Thus, we have the MoD undertaking to do something it did not do before, the local administrations having to do things they did not do before, and the Army having to keep track of it all on the ground. Either they are going to do all this extra work for no charge, or the MoD's claims that this is all a cost-saving measure begin to look rather odd. Perhaps they plan to pay for it all out of the revenue raised by fining bootleg map-makers? The bill mandates penalties for illegal mapping that range from three months' imprisonment to a fine of 5 million Pakistani rupees, or nearly $52,000. The average per capita income in Pakistan is $1,257.

Mapping analysts and researchers contacted by techPresident seemed baffled by the proposed bill.

“The government itself invited international aid agencies to Pakistan during the 2010 floods and collaborated with them for relief efforts," said Syed Ali Asjad Naqvi, Research and Training Director at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP). "Within the scope of their work toward humanitarian efforts they have been doing mapping and have developed GIS systems as well. It is beyond my understanding how departments like SoP and the MoD push bills like this which will halt the ongoing humanitarian efforts." Naqvi added, "Bills should be presented and promoted by public representatives and not the military."

Nor are the Pakistan government's concerns about mapping confined to domestic organizations or citizens. According to the BBC's Urdu service, Dr. Zafar Qadir, Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), asked Pakistan’s Intelligence agencies to take note of “illegal actions” by the UN-funded relief agency IMMAP (Information Management and Mine Action Programs).

Qadir accused the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of threatening the security of Pakistan by undertaking mapping. The NDMA and various other organizations that deployed relief efforts in Pakistan after the devastating 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods are largely funded by the UN .

If this bill is approved then all the mapping programs would be required to be registered under the MoD — i.e., the same body suspected of safeguarding Osama Bin Laden in a residential compound in Abbottabad.

There is no online version of the proposed bill on the SoP site. Several telephone calls to the SoP offices went unanswered.

The MoD has a history of interfering in government policy beyond its military remit — notably in areas relating to development work and foreign aid. It has a similarly long history of attempting to control international aid and government development programs.

Asked to comment on the bill, an executive with the local office of a multinational Internet company suggested that it would largely affect students and research associates working on mapping projects, as well as entrepreneurs who have founded startups based on mapping platforms that are targeted at the development sector.

Nighat Dad is executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. She lives in Lahore.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.