The Indian government is spectacularly touchy when it comes to maps. Newspapers and magazines are routinely censored, topographical maps are subject to export controls, and the very idea of online maps is anathema; a recent Google-run competition to crowdsource map data became the subject of a police investigation after the Survey of India, the country’s official mapmaking body, filed a case. Bangalore police forced Google to stop collecting data for its Street View service on—what else?—security grounds within a month of the project starting in 2011. There has been no change of heart since.
Or has there? This month Google announced a limited Street View collection featuring heritage sites and monuments in India, an encouraging if underwhelming development. But the launch yesterday of WoNoBo, a homegrown service that offers a Street View-like experience, suggests that the government may finally be softening its stance. Produced by Genesys, a publicly-listed, Mumbai-based Geographical Information System (GIS) company, WoNoBo allows anybody with an internet connection to wander through 12 Indian cities for the first time. Another 42 are in the pipeline. The project cost $35 million and involved some 1,000 people, or about half of Genesys’s strength.
So how did Genesys succeed where Google failed? The company won the government’s trust with previous projects, including one to aerially photograph 137 cities for the Survey of India. More importantly, it knew how to handle India’s notorious bureaucracy: Genesys allowed the Survey of India to vet its results and gained permission from city authorities, the central government and the defense ministry.
“The government, including the defense ministry and the Survey of India, threw a lot of regulations at us. We painstakingly fulfilled their requirements , including not taking pictures in sensitive areas,” Genesys co-founder Sajid Malik told the Times of India. The result can be somewhat comical: the Gateway of India, the most-photographed monument in Mumbai, is missing from the street view map. The heart of India’s capital—the road from India Gate to the president’s house—is missing from New Delhi.
India’s reified list of “prohibited sites” where photography is not permitted means that’s unlikely to change any time soon, even though the government broadcasts that precise stretch on national television for the Republic Day parade each year. Yet WoNoBo is one more encouraging sign that India is finally getting over its distrust of foreigners. Until last year, tourists couldn’t visit India for a period of two months after leaving it, ostensibly to prevent spies and terrorists from conducting reconnaissance. By contrast, the government announced this week that it is considering a proposal to allow the vast majority of visitors to obtain a visa on arrival.