So if there is a future where collaboratively mapping could be economically competitive, how do we go about actually getting there? I actually think we’re further than many might think, though I believe there is still a lot of work to be done, innovating with the tools, communities and workflows to make this happen. But I’ll address that in another post, for now I just want to present a possible path for collaborative mapping to bootstrap in to the mainstream. I’m going to focus on street maps, since that’s the information that people pay big money for, and there is already early success with Open Street Map. Later will examine how the lessons learned there can feed in to other domains and back
So step 0 is proving that it’s possible for a diverse group of people to collaborate on an openly licensed map. I’d be hard pressed to entertain any arguments that Open Street Map has not already accomplished this. Of course in its current state you can’t navigate a car on it, you’re not going to do emergency vehicle response with it. But their driving principle has been they ‘just want a fscking map’, and a map they do have. There are many contributors running around with GPS’s and creating a map.
The next point in the evolution is when the map is good enough for basic ‘context’. Again, OSM is already there for several parts of the world. If you’re doing a mashup of your favorite neighborhoods you don’t really care if all the streets are there. You just need enough that it looks about like your neighborhood on other maps. Many mashups use google maps and others in this way – which is sorta like using the same quality water to flush your toilet as comes out of your kitchen sink (USA!). Which is to say a bit of a waste, but who really cares if someone else is paying for it.
Which speaks to another tipping point, which is when the big portals start putting ads on their maps. Or when they start charging to use their APIs. I concede now that this may never happen, that it’s a good loss leader to have people using your API for free as long as they put their maps out in the public. But a part of me feels like we may be in that period of the GeoWeb like the first web bubble, when you could get $10 off coupons from CDNow and B+N, allowing you to buy any cd you wanted for a few bucks. It wasn’t going to last, but it’s sure fun while it does. But at some point there may be a shift when they need to make some money, which could drive more energy to collaborative maps as people look to get ads off their service.
The next step starts to get fun, which would be once a collaborative street map gets good enough for basic routing and navigation. Right now it seems to be (though I could be wrong, I don’t know the OSM community intimately) people who set out to add data to the map, they want to get their area map. If they go to new areas they’ll bring a GPS along, but it’s often to a totally unmapped area. I think once large areas start to get close to completion we’ll have people hobble together ghetto car navigation kits. A laptop with a GPS and the collaborative map, either connected over some kind of wireless internet or downloaded to the car. One can drive around with this and it will show one’s place on the map, and directions to the end point as well. Note that this kind of usage is currently illegal with Google Maps or any of the others who get their data from commercial providers. From the API agreement: ‘In addition, the Service may not be used: (a) for or with real time route guidance (including without limitation, turn-by-turn route guidance and other routing that is enabled through the use of a sensor’. This is because the commercial mapping providers make big money off of car navigation, and license the (exact same) data to do that at a higher price.
With basic navigation on a collaborative map in place you can get people excited about going off in to a ‘new frontier’, going off the map and tapping in to their inner Lewis and Clark. Actively encourage people to Dérive (though I’m not sure how much the Situationists really would like the idea of people using cars to dérive) in to uncharted areas of the map.
On other fronts I believe that we’ll see niche areas getting high quality mapping. Governments and companies will realize that if there’s a map that’s 80% done and they just need to fund the last 20%, and that owning the map is not their key value proposition, then they’ll just look to fund the collaborative map instead of doing it themselves. Those that can think long term will realize that this will most always be cheaper, since they won’t have to keep paying to get it up to date. With a good collaborative structure much of that will happen on its own. And they may put a bit extra in each year. And in areas where a few different organizations all partner up it will definitely be cheaper. Already we’re seeing some enlightened folks fund Open Street Map contributors to have a mapping party and map an area.
We’ll also likely see collaborative maps for niche verticals. If you’re doing walking maps then you don’t need the turn restriction information to do car routing, for example. Someone may offer a map of the best drives in southern california, which would be a subset of the main map. Or a detailed map of which roads need to be plowed after a snowstorm, that leaves out the roads that don’t.
After that I think you’ll see people hacking commercial nav systems to make use of the collaborative map, and then navigation companies offering low price versions of their systems that don’t rely on the commercial data. Already we’re seeing navigation companies start to ‘leverage user contributions’, with TomTom’s ‘MapShare‘ to let people update points of interest and the like, and Dash Navigation‘s ability to leverage GPS from other cars to see if a new road has opened up. I think you may see people even more excited about this if they knew their work was going to a common good instead of just to the advantage of one company.
Once people are able to ‘correct’ the map that they’re driving on I believe we’ll see a really big tipping point. Build in some voice recognition to call out the name of a street while you’re driving. This could be billed as the ‘mapping game’, where one gets points for driving new areas. One could even imagine a company that sets up a business with sort of ‘bounty navigation’ where you can actually make money if you drive new areas of the map and do good reporting of road names and the like. This could be one of the decoupled functions of the economics around collaborative map making, the navigation company partners with the company that guarantees the map is up to date, and instead of contracting out another company to drive the roads they just put money rewards on driving in new areas. People could make it so their navigation is free, or even have it be like the electrical grid where if you generate a lot of extra navigation information they pay you. I haven’t thought through all the details of this, but I think it could work, and would be super cool for helping people think of geospatial data as a commons that one can contribute to and that we’re all responsible for and can be a part of, not just consumers of a service.
Which speaks a bit to a further point, which is when governments realize that they can tap in to and contribute to this as well. The census spends a ton of money keeping up to date road information. But their data is not entirely accurate, and it doesn’t do any turn restrictions. Instead of maintaining their own database they could combine with an open map, and plug in to that workflow. Indeed such a map likely would have started from one of their TIGER line maps anyways in the US. So government organizations can join the ecosystem, likely just as funders contracting out other companies to perform the work, as they are starting to do more and more with open source software. Some may want to try to do it themselves, but the smart ones will plug in to existing ecosystems.
The other tipping point towards the end will be when the big mapping providers decide to invest in collaborative maps. I had initially been thinking that things would need to be really far along worldwide before they’d make the switch, but a more likely solution might be that they use it in conjunction with their commercial maps. They already make use of TeleAtlas and Navtech in different places. So as long as the collaborative map didn’t have a restriction about combining with other sources they could just use it in places that have poor coverage from the major providers. And they could see where areas of the map are close to being done and strategically fund those. Another potential source of investment in this kind of mapping could be from aid agencies in areas that commercial providers haven’t mapped. They could hook up their GPS’s to gather information, and then employ a few people to help process and QA it to make maps they can use. Since it’s not a core value proposition to them they can share it with others, and start to build really good street maps in areas that no one has touched because it’s too hard for the money they would get. I would love to try a start up in Africa that hooks up the correcting car navigation systems to a bunch of vehicles and just starts building the living map. It’d be quite ironic if Africa ended up with more up to date maps than Europe.
They key with all this for me is the evolution of viewing mapping data as a public good, that we all collaborate on to make better. As GPS’s become more and more prevalent we are all just emitting maps as we go through our lives. All that’s really needed is a structure to turn that in to useful information, getting the tools better and setting up the economic reward structure. I’m not a business person, so I don’t have much more to throw out in terms of economic ideas. But I believe it is possible to set the levers right to encourage this. And I’m going to do my best to get the tools better and better to show what is possible and get us all moving towards as a future where an up to date accurate map is a commons available to all, and that all are a part of.