The Advantages of Crowdsourced Maps

Photograph by Tetra Images/Corbis

Given the craziness of the first two weeks in September in the tech world, an interesting hire that should have gotten more attention slipped largely through the cracks. Steve Coast, founder of the OpenStreetMap project, has joined Telenav, signaling a big move by the navigation outfit toward crowdsourced mapping.

OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of mapping. OSM’s dedicated community of 1.3 million editors has gathered GPS data while driving, biking and walking the streets of the world to build a map from the ground up. They’ve even gone so far as to mark objects that exist on few other digital maps, from trees to park benches. That map was then offered free to all comers.

What you probably didn’t know is that Telenav has been an active contributor to OSM for years, using the data it collects from its Scout app and other nav products to improve OSM’s maps. Telenav’s Martijn van Exel is currently president of the OSM board in the U.S., and he created, which identifies problem spots on OSM’s maps and suggests corrections to its editors. What Telenav hasn’t done, though, is actually use OSM’s maps in its products.

That’s all changing with the hire of Coast, who will oversee Telenav’s crowdsourced data-gathering efforts and integrate OSM maps into the company’s navigation apps and services. Telenav isn’t moving tentatively, either. OSM will eventually become the sole map data source for its consumer navigation software, starting with the browser-based version of Scout and then moving to its smartphone apps.

According to Coast, it’s a perfect marriage. For all of its strengths, OSM primarily has been a display map filled with an enormous amount of detail—Coast said editors will spend hours placing individual trees on boulevards. Many editors often don’t want to do the grunt work that makes maps truly useful for navigation, such as filling in address data or labeling which turns are allowed at an intersection. What Telenav brings to the table is a huge base of users actually driving the map, generating all those other bits of information that could make OSM navigable.

“Telenav and OpenStreetMap are sort of a yin-yang partnership,” Coast says. “OpenStreetMap has this great rich map data set. What it doesn’t have is huge amounts of GPS data to improve the map and millions of customers out there using the map every single day. When you combine those two things and get feedback from those customers—and there’s a variety of different pieces of feedback they can give to improve that map—it helps everybody.”

A decade ago the world’s streets were mapped by Navteq and Tele Atlas (now owned by Nokia and TomTom, respectively) and later by Google. They combined government data with satellite imagery and field huge fleets of mapping vehicles to generate detailed plans of our roadways.

But as GPS receivers became more readily available and mobile data connections more ubiquitous, regular old Joes like Coast started creating their own maps. After OSM got over the initial hump, its maps became, in many cases, more accurate than those of paid map suppliers, as editors would note road closures and new infrastructure long before a mapping vehicle’s next pass. Telenav made a fascinating video of Coast talking about the early days of OSM and the mapping parties that generated its first datasets.

With Waze, though, collaborative cartography really hit its stride. Waze maps are proprietary, not open, but they’re most definitely crowdsourced. Millions of Wazers drive around every day with their phones in constant communication with the network. Not only do those phones identify new details and problems on its maps (Waze has its own dedicated community of editors), but they also send real-time information about how those roads are being driven. Some of that is generated automatically by the app (speed or idle time), some of it comes from submitted reports on construction, accidents, and even weather. Wazers are also particularly keen on labeling speed traps and traffic light cameras.

The point is, Waze didn’t just create a static navigable map; it created a real-time representation of the current state of roads. The big mapping companies certainly took note. Google bought Waze for $1 billion in June, but it and other digital cartographers had been using crowdsourced data long before then to improve their products.

Before Coast joined Telenav, he worked at Microsoft for three years integrating crowdsourced data into Bing Maps. The fact that Coast left Microsoft would seem to indicate Microsoft has lost interest in crowdsourcing. But Coast’s departure coincided (probably not accidentally) with Microsoft’s announced plan to buy Nokia’s device division and license its Here mapping and nav platform.

Here may have old-school roots in Navteq, but it makes extensive use of crowdsourced data from Nokia’s smartphone apps to measure traffic, identify new roads and closures, and perform detailed analysis on how roads are driving.

For instance, in Here’s traffic center in Chicago, Nokia is using those data to determine the optimal points in a road curve to brake and accelerate in different types of weather conditions. That information will eventually go into its Here Auto connected-car system, giving drivers ever-more detailed guidance on not just how to drive, but also how they can drive more efficiently and safely. Nokia’s executive vice president of Here, Michael Halbherr, will at speak GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October to discuss how the map is becoming more an integral component of our Internet and mobile services.

Telenav is definitely taking a pioneering stance by eschewing paid maps for open-source maps, but it’s safe to say crowdsourcing is delving its way deeply into proprietary maps as well. Every time we switch on Google Maps, Scout, or Here, we’re making their maps better.

What’s going to be particularly interesting to watch is when that crowdsourcing moves out of our phones into the car itself. As vehicles become more connected, they’ll not only be able to contribute to the map; they will also be able to offer up much more information than our smartphones’ current complement of sensors could ever provide.

Cars are coming equipped with hundreds of sensors, measuring everything from tire traction to the distance to the car in front of you. Eventually cars will network with each other and the vehicles around them. Our future maps won’t just provide us with general views of real-time traffic conditions. They’ll know the actual position of every car around us.

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