Pakistan’s Move Against Maps…and Openness

This week, the Pakistani Ministry of Defense began a process of proposing new legislation for the country that would prohibit private mapping activities — the creation of non-governmental maps for personal, commercial, or humanitarian purposes — without prior registration with and consent from the Pakistani military (specifically, the Survey of Pakistan, a military mapping agency). Not only is this draconian move the first of its kind in the world, as far as we know, but it raises larger accountability and transparency issues that should have both Pakistan watchers and open data activists worried.

First, it's worth reiterating how Kafka-esque and irrational this proposed move is. The MoD argues that it needs to regulate mapping so as to avoid the production of duplicative and/or inaccurate maps that might generate costs to the government. But as Murtaza Haider eloquently argues in Dawn, geospatial data in Pakistan is already completely available on the internet. There's nothing left for the military (or anyone else) to hide, including allegedly sensitive information about the country's more troubled regions:

[The Pakistani] MoD’s concerns about mapping of Pakistan’s sensitive areas are ill-founded. The Satellite imagery has made available detailed topographic maps and images of every square inch of Pakistan. Universities in the West have access to Petabytes of high-resolution imagery data covering Pakistan’s every nook and cranny. Even the Satellite image of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad is available for all to see on the Internet. ESRI provides free access to high-resolution satellite images of the entire country, including Rawalpindi Cantonment. Google has made available detailed street network maps of Pakistani cities, including Karachi.

Second, the proposed move raises larger accountability and transparency questions about the direction of public sector and political reforms in Pakistan. The trend lines around the world all point towards greater government transparency and openness, including the embrace of citizen-led initiatives to report their own potholes, document harassment, and map their own streets should they choose. For Pakistan to consider banning private mapping activities is to send a signal that the fractured political leadership in the country has no interest in a modern citizen-led economy and political system. In fact, it suggests that the current administration is more interested in pursuing traditional (and largely failed) top-down, Big Brother-style approaches to development and economic growth. Far from "government as a platform," the proposed legislation is "government as a silo," hoarding information and serving as an inefficient gatekeeper to the public.

The bottom line: the proposed legislation is anachronistic and ill-advised, and those with influence need to communicate those concerns. That starts with the US government and international relief organizations operating in Pakistan, which for all of the complicated equities at stake need to appreciate the severity of the proposed move and the signals it sends. If private mapping is banned in Pakistan, what's to say that unfiltered access to the internet won't be next, or new and abusive defamation laws won't be trotted out for consideration? Maps aren't just maps; they are a form of free speech that need to be defended. Even in a tough neighborhood like Pakistan.

Nathaniel Heller

— Image Credit: Flickr | Joshua Berman

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