How 1.5 Million Volunteer Mappers Aim To Beat Google

Guest author Alex Salkever is head of product marketing and business development at Silk.co. An earlier version of this piece first appeared on his Tumblr.

I love Google Maps. I probably use it as much if not more than any other application on my iPhone, and I’m not alone. According to numerous sources, maps and directions are one of the most important search parameters on mobile devices (and Google tops the heap).

In fact, I think its safe to say that most hyper-local advertising will end up being tied to maps (when its not tied to location beacons). Independent brick-and-mortar stores may well live or die by the traffic coming to them through mapping applications.

See also: OpenStreetMap: The Maps In Your Apps Are About To Get A Lot Better

Maps go well beyond finding places. I use Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions. I create maps of places I would like to visit when I travel to other cities and use that to drive my vacations. I ride a bike a lot in the city and Google has the best bike-specific directions of any app.

I also use Google Maps to locate nearby stores in specific categories. If I need to find a good place for a coffee and I am at the corner of 2nd and Howard, then Google Maps is my first stop. (Yelp is a close second).

Google achieved this level of granular detail through expensive and time-consuming coverage executed by its fleet of data-gathering cars. And that detail effectively converted Google Maps into a marketplace. It is a marketplace with enormous potential, possibly the next multi-billion dollar online marketplace for Google. Anyone searching for things through a map will provide critical information that will help Google’s engines learn how to better match services, stores and restaurants to individual requests.

Open Competition Breaks Out

That said, marketplaces do best when there is competition. This is why I was so excited to hear that Telenav would be using OpenStreetMap to power its popular Scout GPS app, which provides maps, traffic and directions. OSM replaces data from TomTom.

Even more important, Telenav launched a Scout for Developers program. This allows developers to build applications that use OpenStreetMap-based GPS navigation into their own products on mobile, as well as for desktop. The most important thing here is that this creates a credible and powerful alternative to Google Maps.

For those who don’t know, OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free map of the world created by a crowd of local chapters. Think of it as Wikipedia for maps. Unlike Google’s Map Maker tool, OSM is based on open principles and is community driven on a global scale. A number of services use OSM to power their maps.

And OSM has a whopping 1.5 million registered editors globally. The active ones regularly contribute updates via their phones and computers. (Telenav underwrites OSM, not surprisingly.)

Scout doesn’t enjoy the widespread popularity of Google Maps, but many people do use and like it. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, has explosive potential. Google charges app companies and others that use its maps inside applications. The charges add up, sometimes to painful levels, as application usage rises.

No one blames Google for the charges. But the new Scout alternative, powered by OpenStreetMap, has the potential to disrupt the maps market. It undercuts Google’s rates significantly and allows developers to white-label mapping, something that Google doesn’t really do.

As more and more app developers adopt OSM, then the network effects become more pronounced. OSM can start to build in data collection systems that will allow its growing user base to collect more data from handsets (anonymously) to improve data quality. OSM, too, could become a competing marketplace for dollars made out from search.

That would loosen Google Maps’ hammerlock, although it would retain tremendous advantages. Integration of Google Now and Gmail with Google Maps makes Google’s mapping product much stickier.

OpenStreetMap doesn’t yet have the same rich ecosystem of tools and user communities that have grown up around the Google Maps. But maps are a form of information and information does want to be free.

Unlike the constantly changing Internet, which requires Google to maintain a massive infrastructure to effectively catalog and scan it, location data is comparatively finite and static, so it’s possible for an open-source effort to get its arms around it. Google has added crowd-sourced data from users of its Waze app, but these users aren’t actively participating in the mapping project, since they’re mainly reporting road conditions.

So collecting and collating all the location data in the world will become easier and easier geo-information rides the Moore’s Law Curve down and benefits from new data capture mechanisms such as drones, cheap sensors, and constellations of micro satellites. And having 1.5 million human powered sensors just might be enough to give OSM and Telenav the push to catch up and surpass Google Maps on data quality, at a fraction of the cost.

The race is on.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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