These days, the importance of high-precision spatial information as a basic infrastructure is increasingly highlighted in various future-oriented industries such as autonomous driving, drone, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Standardization of reliable, accurate and high-precision spatial information and supply of the information for efficient decision making are two of the most basic requirements for spatial information in future convergence industries and are two of the most essential roles of spatial information.
The first form of spatial information dates back to the 1960s. At that time, the Canadian government developed the Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS) for effective utilization of natural resources and lands amid urban concentration. Spatial information-related technical and academic frameworks began to be formed based on the CGIS and then showed a rapid growth in the 1980s and the 1990s based on the development of computer and communications technology.
Although the definition of spatial information may vary from person to person, the most universal term for referring to it is geographic information system (GIS). According to the Spatial Data Industry Promotion Act of South Korea, spatial information can be broadly defined as location information on natural and artificial objects present in spaces such as above-ground and underground spaces and those in and around bodies of water and relevant information necessary for spatial recognition and decision making.
The concept of spatial information including electronic map is currently being combined and integrated with various types of data and expanding to cover new and more valuable forms in connection with the ongoing mobile innovation smartphones are representative of. In particular, spatial information has characteristics as infrastructure, which means it can be easily combined and integrated with other services, and thus can give rise to decent jobs and high value-added industries in the future when linked to promising future technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). It is certain that its importance will increase over time with the rapid development of new industries such as VR, AR, AI, drone, autonomous driving, online-to-offline (O2O) and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Examples of spatial information-based technological integration and convergence include drone-based bird’s-eye view aviation images becoming increasingly frequent in South Korean TV dramas popular with people all over the world, the Pokemon Go smartphone game utilizing AR as well as self-driving cars global IT giants are working on now.
The AR in the worldwide sensation Pokemon Go takes the form of maps reflecting the real world. It is none other than this type of map data that Google has been continuing to obtain from the South Korean government. With map data, diverse forms of added value can be created without being limited to games such as the Pokemon Go. It is in this vein that Uber, which uses Google’s map data, has begun to work on its own maps.
At present, inter-industrial integration and convergence accounts for 40% of the spatial information industry as a whole and services based on spatial information integration and convergence are growing 30% a year. U.S. companies leading the industry with top notch technology, such as Google and Apple, are dominating relevant techniques and China is striving to catch up with them by means of R&D and patent acquisition. Unless South Korea is in a hurry to secure key spatial information technology, its dissemination and utilization in related industries will be limited due to the lack of efficiency.
In this context, the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure & Transport selected spatial information as one of the seven promising sectors to benefit from the ministry’s intensive support early this year with autonomous car, drone, smart city and so on. In addition, the ministry has provided 15 types of spatial data, including digital maps, for free since March this year for a boom in the sector and signed a business agreement in July with Kakao so that three-dimensional spatial information can be provided for the development of realistic digital content combined with AR, games, etc.
The ministry is also working on precision road maps with a margin of error of ±0.25 mm for the purpose of commercial self-driving car development and three-dimensional precision maps showing obstacles such as electric poles and wires for drone industry promotion. Moreover, it is developing techniques for satellite image processing and utilization and preparing to set up a national satellite data center with satellites with a resolution of 50 cm scheduled to be launched in 2019 and 2020.
In the meantime, controversy is simmering in South Korea in the wake of Google’s request for electronic maps on June 1. Recently, the South Korean inter-ministerial council that is in charge of the matter in question put off its decision on whether to provide maps of the country until the end of November, causing the decade-old issue to come back to the surface. Opinions are split between those claiming that Google’s cutting-edge map service should not be prohibited in South Korea and those on the opposite side focusing on potential tax evasion by Google and the unique security conditions in the Korean Peninsula.
The same clash of opinions is witnessed in the council itself, too. Among the eight government organizations that constitute the council, the Ministry of Trade, Industry & Energy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are advocating the sharing of maps as a way of avoiding trade disputes whereas the National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of National Defense are on the opposite side for fear of national security breach.
Google made its first request for South Korea’s spatial data back in 2007. In response, the South Korean government called for Google to install servers in the country and erase the country’s highly sensitive facilities in its satellite images. Google refused to do so and exactly the same thing has been repeated over and over since then. The only difference is that the South Korean government is more deliberative now, deferring the final decision not once but twice, in spite of Google’s unchanged stance, that is, refusal to the government’s requests.
The postponement of the decision has to do with the clash of opinions between the council members and Google’s request for a chance to express its opinion. During the past 10 years, the number of external factors that should be looked into increased, with the difference in opinion remaining as it is, in the form of confrontation between South Korea and North Korea now with more variables, global IT market conditions, the U.S. presidential election around the corner, possibility of trade disputes and the ban on cross-border movements of information on nationals recently adopted in the EU region.
As mentioned above, Google recently proposed an opportunity to state its own opinions. It said via Google Korea that it would answer to the South Korean government’s questions sincerely and in good faith. With the deadline for the decision put off, Google now has some time to emphasize what it regards as the legitimacy of spatial data sharing.
Not a few people in South Korea are opposed to the sharing though. What they mention includes the possibility of tax evasion by Google, reverse discrimination against local companies doing similar business and negative effects on industrial ecosystems. Six years ago, Google collected personal information of hundreds of thousands of Google Street View users in South Korea without their consent and showed insincerity during the subsequent investigation. Lots of people criticized the company for its attitude at that time.
The government’s headache is because of the fact that Google’s position in the industry has changed a lot for the past 10 years and spatial data is irrevocable once supplied to the outside. The deadline for the decision is November 23 and all eyes are now on whether it will be able to put an end to the decade-old issue by that date.