It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, to think that everyone thinks and feels the same way you do about a subject. But sometimes you need to get away and visit another country and another culture to find out that maybe there’s more than one way of looking at a subject. For me that subject is, unsurprisingly, maps and the other country was India.
Some countries are easier to map than others. Up to the end of the Cold War, it was commonplace for the UK’s Ordnance Survey to not show prohibited places, although this practice has been effectively stopped due to the widespread availability of satellite imagery. Further afield, there’s contested borders and territorial disputes which makes mapping some administrative boundaries something of a challenge; a proof of the old adage about pleasing some people some of the time but not all people all of the time.
It’s easy to think that not mapping an area is a thing of the past. That we can and should map everywhere. That mapping is simply the combination of human effort, a bit of technology and a lot of data. Indeed OpenStreetMap’s beginner’s guide states upfront that the data you add improves the free world map for everyone. But as I found out, in India, there’s a lot more subtlety and nuance behind this admirable creed.
Firstly there’s the act of mapping itself. As with pre-Cold War Britain (and to be fair, some parts of Britain today), India has placed restrictions on what can and cannot appear on a map. When working for Nokia’s HERE Maps, I ran a program to use crowd mapping to improve the company’s maps in India and came across these restrictions first hand. My point here is not to agree or disagree with a government’s stance on mapping restrictions but merely to point out that they exist.
But it’s not just the government who would prefer you not to map places, it’s the people as well in some cases. According to recent figures, India has a population of around 1.27 billion people; of these, over 65 million live in slums. Sadly this wasn’t a shock; I’d been well prepared for slums from my visit to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at the end of 2012.
In Dar es Salaam, you map slums to help the occupants find vital facilities; fresh water, sanitation, health care and so on. You use the map to bring the slum to the authorities attention so they do something about it. Making a map is vital. But not necessarily so in India. Indian slums are hidden in plain sight. Everyone knows they’re there, but they don’t always bring attention to themselves. Putting a slum on the map runs the risk of bringing some potential prime real estate land to the attention of an unscrupulous property developer; some of whom have been known to raze a slum to the ground overnight and displacing the residents through the judicious use of bulldozers.
Another subtlety that doesn’t apply in the United Kingdom are the locations of the Cheel Ghar in Indian cities, which translates to Tower of Silence in English. These are the circular raised structures where Parsi followers of the Zoroastrian faith leave their dead and let exposure to the sun and birds of prey reduce the body to bare bones. Originally these towers were outside the boundaries of the city, but the rapid growth of India’s metropolitan areas have engulfed the Cheel Ghar, leaving them as small forested oases inside the urban sprawl. Even if you know where they are, and I walked past one without knowing it until it was pointed out to me, putting these sacred places on a map would not be deemed acceptable by adherents of that faith. Just because you can map something, doesn’t always mean you should.
But even if you make an accurate and detailed map, how do you cope with the vagaries and eccentricities of the Indian addressing system? I asked someone at the GeoMob meets GeoBLR meetup we ran in Bangalore how they’d geocode (turn addresses into longitude and latitude) a batch of a thousand or so addresses. The answer was blunt and succinct … “Geocode that many addresses? We wouldn’t”. There’s a long running joke in India to effect that the country does has GPS, but it doesn’t stand for Global Positioning System, instead it stands for General Populace System. You look at an address, get to the nearest spot and then ask someone, repeating the process until you reach your destination.
Given how visual and landmark based Indian addresses are, this approach makes a lot of sense. In India I stayed at 3 different hotels in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In Delhi, the address was Ring Road, New Delhi; in Mumbai it was Western Express Highway, Santacruz East and in Bangalore Swami Vivekananda Road, Off M.G. Road, Ulsoor. Standing outside each hotel and looking around, the addresses made a lot of sense, in Bangalore I was just off the M.G Road, named after Mahatma Gandhi; there’s a lot of M.G. Roads in India, the equivalent of High Street in Britain. Other addresses include location clues such as near, opposite and by. If you really, really need to geocode an address you look it up on a digital map and make a note of the coordinates; a very manual and not at all scalable way of dealing with the problem.
Reading all of the above back to myself before I click on Publish makes me realise that in hindsight it’s blindingly obvious that each country will have its own set of edge cases. India is no exception. A massive amount of credit for what I learned in India should go to Sajjad, Sumandro and Kaustubh, the team behind Bangalore’s GeoBLR geo themed meetup. Thank you all, you taught me a massive amount and expanded my horizons considerably.