Cyborgs, part human and part machine: that seems like a reasonable way to understand the new group of mobile phone driving navigation apps that use your travel to build a collective real time map of roads, driving hazards and more. They are right in the middle of an important continuum - sensor devices capturing data, with more or less human involvement, for the purpose of aggregate analysis and the creation of new services.
On Wednesday crowdsourced mobile mapping startup Waze announced it has raised $25 million more in venture capital. Now this afternoon mobile speed trap and road hazard mapping app Trapster is reported to have turned its 9 million cyborg mapping army into a bidding war among big potential acquirers, in the end won by NAVTEQ for an undisclosed sum.
It's easy to see why these mobile, social world-mapping apps are desirable to investors and acquirers - their real time data raises the bar for consumer navigation. As Google's Brett Slatkin, co-creator of real-time data syndication technology PubSubHubbub, once told us: if you're looking to cross a street, you don't want to base your timing on a photo of the traffic on that street five minutes ago. Nor, if you are the traffic, would you choose delayed or static road data if up to the minute and real-time data is available. This isn't just a story about people using their iPhones to escape speed traps, though, this is just a snapshot in the early history of sensor-driven, smarter systems.
Some of those systems will be driven by people, acting in their individual interests and directly or indirectly contributing to a collective pool of knowledge, information and data that can serve as the foundation for products and services like real-time maps or more responsive local governments.
Above: Waze is growing fast, but Trapster has grown about four times as fast, hitting 9 million downloads in 2 years. Trapster has a simpler value proposition and a more direct pitch to craven self-interest; Waze is more high-minded and perhaps thus much smaller. Waze has also focused on international and commercial markets.
Other systems won't require human participation at all, though. The instrumentation of formerly dumb devices, into smart and network connected appliances and infrastructure, will yield the same kind of real-time monitoring and platform for innovation in fields such as power management, water delivery, food distribution, urban planning and more.
There will always be a continuum of human involvement. From the power utilities slowly catching up system-wide with the benefits of what's today called the Smart Grid but tomorrow will just be the standard experience for all customers, through the collaborative wiki-like mapping footwork done by communities of people using GPS devices, like Open Street Map.
It's not a surprise to see big money moving around for car-level, real-time mobile mapping software. It's just a taste of what's likely to come as more data creates more value and more valuation drives more data creation.