Collaborative Mapping: The Business Thread

Since I was speaking at Where 2.0, which is a good bit more business oriented than most conferences I attend, I felt that it could be interesting to start to make the business case for how collaborative mapping could succeed.  I didn’t have time to do more than throw out a few ideas, but I think it’s important to start thinking about this.  I fully believe it will happen, though I’m not sure of the time frame at all.  But it’s almost inevitable, since the economic end result is a more efficient allocation of resources.  The only question is whether there will be enough incentives along the way.

At the core is the idea that there will be a series of ‘tipping points’, where it will be cheaper for an organization to fund a collaborative map than it is to buy the data from the commercial provider at the accuracy that they need.  The last clause is important, because there are many cases where one just needs data as a base for other information.  Many google maps mashups just need some context to display the information they’re showing.  So if there is a route to get from one tipping point to the next for different sets of organizations than a collaboratively built map will emerge as competitive if not better than those made by commercial providers.  There will be no middle man who bundles all the functions of mapping together and extracts rent after having done the work.  Instead there will be a diversity of organizations, including private companies, government, and individuals, who all work together to make accurate, up to date maps.

Currently the idea of a collaboratively built maps is still quite radical.  The work is being done mostly by amateurs (in the best sense of the word) and ‘true believers’, who know that it’s the right way to build open maps.  No traditional geodata providers seem to feel threatened at all, at least not yet.  This is very much like the early days of open source software, it was seen as some purist movement that would never have a big effect on anything.  But people stuck with it and ended up building a huge economic engine of change.  I am a true believe who is sure that collaborative mapping can become a more efficient way to build geospatial data, fully supported by a variety of business models.  So I’ve been thinking about how we can move from being rebels to becoming the default way of getting things done, as open source software has.  It took 20 years to go from starting the movement to mainstream success, and I think we can follow in their footsteps and do it even faster (and indeed leverage open source software as a base to build it upon)

Let’s start by fast forwarding to a future where we have economically successful collaborative maps.  Then from there we can look back and see how we might get there, what tipping points would be involved.  We are currently in a stage where business models around open source software are maturing.  Building software still costs money, even if it’s open source.  But there are a variety of ways to make money even with a collaborative base.  The key for me with this is that the functions of traditional software company have been decoupled from one another – you can buy support on open source software from one place, a manual on it from somewhere else, and then get training on how to use it from a third organization.  None of the functions of a software company have gone away, they’ve just been split up in to smaller pieces, and there is competition in the market for each of them.  Thus making them more efficient and more competitive.

The biggest providers of commercial geospatial data also wrap up a lot of functionality in to one package:

  •  pay people to go out and drive the roads to keep the database up to date.
  • Find and acquire data from public sources
  •  Process the raw data, doing quality assurance
  •  Ensure that the information is up to date – ie give people someone to sue if it goes wrong
  •  Services and Consulting – ‘analysis and proprietary research’, ‘business plan reviews and testing services.’ from
  • Geolocated yellow pages – ‘placing your business on the map

Since the commercial databases are not open there is no way to separate out this functionality.  With a collaborative map one could imagine niche companies doing one of them, or new companies that combine some of the processes here with other functions.  Navigation is an obvious one, and indeed TomTom is starting in on this with their MapShare.

So you could have a company that just goes out and drives the roads and turns over the data / adds it to the collaborative map.  Clients who want an area of the map more up to date could pay them directly.  You could also have small businesses who want to be sure that people get accurate directions to them.  We could even imagine ‘a man with a van’, but instead of for moving it’d be for driving roads with a GPS, and perhaps some camera’s strapped to the roof.  There then could be a company whose expertise is processing raw GPS data.  GM or FedEx might sell the data from their vehicles under permissive terms, and then a company could do a bunch of algorithmic analysis on the data to extract roads, and contribute those to a collaborative map.

Then there could be a class of companies who just provide guarantees.  Someone you can call up if there’s a problem, get a service level agreement.  They in turn would have internal people to drive roads, or contract out with the other companies when they needed a certain area to be at the accuracy they’ve agreed to provide others.  You have this in the open source software world, with companies like SpikeSource that test how things work together and give someone a number to call if things go wrong.

And of course the other big open source business model is to provide new services on top of open source software.  See Google and Yahoo! and most new internet companies.  They contribute to the underlying software to run the parts that they keep private.  Indeed those very same companies could become significant contributors collaborative mapping – they already spend significant money in licensing fees from commercial data providers, and if it made economic sense to put the money in to a collaborative map they likely would.

One could also imagine a company whose sole purpose is to do accuracy assessments of collaborative maps.  They would play a very key role, in that they’d be able to answer the question for companies ‘should I invest in collaborative mapping?’.  I maintain there is a tipping point for just about every organization, but it will be very painful if the area they need mapped has very poor coverage and they have a small budget.  So for a small fee there could be a company that lets you know how much investment it would take to get the area of interest to the accuracy that the organization needs.

Ok, this post is already long enough, I’ll continue soon with more on the business case, what steps might evolve us to a place where collaborative mapping is simply the smarter economic choice.  But my main point for this post is that it is possible to decouple the function of ‘ownership’ of a set of geospatial data from the functions that are needed for its upkeep.  Indeed such a decoupling could easily lead to a more efficient market around the upkeep of the data.  One thing we neglected to mention as well is that a collaborative map opens up the potential for non ‘expert’ contributors to do valuable work, as long as the structure is set up to minimize vandalism and the like.

7 thoughts on “Collaborative Mapping: The Business Thread

  1. “since the economic end result is a more efficient allocation of resources.”

    Over the years, I have become convinced that efficiency isn’t the number 1 goal of most organizations. It should, but it isn’t. Putting efficiency as a number 1 goal requires a change in behavior, which includes accepting not being able to lock in a client anymore and working collaboratively, among other things. So long as organizations will be ruthlessly competing and nothing else, it won’t be a matter of who offers the most efficient solution. And this doesn’t apply only to private organizations. Public services, educational institutions, heck they share a great deal of common needs that they could collaboratively help organize instead of reinventing their own little clunky wheels all over the place.

    Two interesting recent initiatives that IMO put efficiency as #1 priority :

    There could be many others, given a change in behavior happens and that change in behavior is the tipping point 😉

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