It Is Time to Reclaim Our Maps — And Improve Them

Earth can finally speak to us, and her voice should be heard by everyone.

Map data is integral to applications we use in our daily routines. It is responsible for the immediate-fulfillment features that fuel our attachment to mobile devices — features that get us from point A to B, tell us where to eat and what to buy, and permit location tagging for live-streaming and for indulging our FOMO culture. To the companies that leverage their users to build out precise maps, the functional and economic value behind geospatial data is obvious. While our assistance helps improve the location context for these apps, the data itself remains proprietary; if I wanted to use this map to build a commercially viable location-based app, I would be met with high licensing fees and strict terms of use. In addition to charting our movements and spatial knowledge, organizations have collectively spent over a billion dollars in simulation and image recognition, depth-sensing cameras, and computer vision to create a superior 3D map of the world. Each organization’s need for a 3D map differ, but their strategy to success are the same: silo information for internal use and control access to the platform. If present terms and services are indicative of our future access, they set a precedent for a path that is opaque and potentially hostile for developers and users.

Location-data and geospatial intelligence are core components in a broad spectrum of applications, which include but not limited to, augmented reality, entertainment, social information, emergency and non-emergency alert notifications, public planning, and pathing for autonomous vehicles. As our applications’ services become more demanding, quantifiable and reliable data about the physical world around us becomes even more necessary. A superior 3D map and its spatial information is the base for all future innovation. We know from our experience with Web 2.0 that the system we have is problematic, but we have arrived at a crossroads where ongoing developments in blockchain technology gives us the opportunity to establish a Web 3.0. Much like how the Bitcoin blockchain was designed to address flaws in our monetary system, mapping on the blockchain is the open protocol we need to restore agency and ownership in the creation and usage of maps.

I believe that the liberation of mapping data will come from a transparent blockchain mapping protocol, to which anyone can contribute mapping information and from which information is freely accessed. A genuinely open and accurate 3D map of the world has purpose beyond safe autonomous vehicle navigation and cross-platform persistent augmented reality content; it will facilitate innovation, democratize the development of location-based applications and services, and establish a transparent reading and writing of our Earth’s information. This is why a 3D map of our world must never belong to a single entity — it needs to be managed and owned by everyone.

Mapping Aggregation Platform:

The Billion Dollar Competition Over Earth’s Voice

Ubiquitous companies like Google, Apple, Uber, and German automobile group (BMW, Audi, Mercedes) are in an active contest to create and own the best 3D map of the world, purchasing mapping companies and/or growing out their mapping capabilities in-house. This short list excludes a handful of smaller, lesser known companies in the race. For those unaware, a highlight reel of past major headlines provides insight on how much companies are willing to spend to keep their data proprietary and to avoid using a competitor’s solution.

In 2013 Google purchased Waze, a social map platform for $1.1B, beating out other bidders like Facebook and Apple. Note that Google also started street view mapping in 2007, and throughout the years, a handful of quieter acquisitions were made of other mapping companies.

In an effort to be self-reliant and not license and surrender mapping information, German automobile group purchased Nokia’s HERE maps for $2.8B. Ford Motors, not wanting be left behind, placed investments in Civil Maps and in other companies involved in improving mapping capabilities. In 2015 Uber acquired parts of Microsoft’s Bing Maps, and among other acquisitions, acquired deCarta for an undisclosed figure.

Apple was late to join the mapping war, and in their dispute with Google over access to voice-guided navigation, they released the much-maligned iOS 6 maps update. Between missing data (roads, buildings, landmarks) and faulty directions, the rush had an obvious effect on quality. Apple has since made up for lost ground with a handful of acquisitions, but in 2012, users were the casualties of a battle between two giants — a battle fought over ownership of user data.

As we all witnessed, Apple created their own map to avoid being constrained by Google’s terms and conditions, and to avoid both Apple and Google, other corporations have done the same. Somewhere along trying to out-maneuver one another’s dominance over mapping data, competitors forgot what it was like to struggle for access.

A universal map of the world is one created by everyone, by those who provide tools and infrastructure and by those who provide unique spatial knowledge of their communities. Billions of dollars is formidable, but it can never beat the spatial intelligence of a billion people.

What’s at Stake in Centralized Mapping

Today, we assist centralized mapping systems by volunteering our knowledge in exchange for their services. Therefore, it would be prescient to remain critical of centralized mapping systems.

Augmenting Public Perspective

In an increasingly interconnected world, those who control the funnel of information have the power to wield influence. The majority of us get our news from our preferred search engine and/or social platform, where thousands of companies bid top dollars for our eyeballs and use sophisticated geo-targeting and analytical tools to guide or affirm our existing beliefs. When the physical world is indexed and layered with augmented reality, 3D content can be geo-targeted and can engage you with sensory stimulation. Like their predecessors, this content on steroids will utilize knowledge of your digital profile to create a convincing reality that connects to your values, lowers your guard, and pushes an idea. Blade Runner 2049 depicts this potential reality in a scene where the protagonist experiences a targeted AR Joi advertisement, but we don’t need to live in Ridley Scott’s dystopian science fiction to imagine a future where marketing literally appears at “the right time and place” to ensure our brand loyalty. We are familiar with this tactic because we have seen it done with access to a less sophisticated map.

Usage of our existing maps bred an environment where coordinated special interests groups can pay to use Facebook’s advertiser tools to great effect. These tools were used to influence the results of the U.S. 2016 Presidential Election; though we can argue that people are inclined to seek out content that align with their beliefs, people with particular interests received specific, geographically targeted content intended to guide or affirm their existing beliefs. Reverse of advertisers using location to target content to consumers, users are using location to target things of their interest. About a third of Google’s total searches relate to location (a percentage significantly increasing over time). These location inquiries are often done on the go or inside a map app; people search for what is “nearby,” for both convenience and immediate gratification. The economic viability of local and franchised businesses are thus impacted by whether or not those who influence the map layer choose to limit or promote their visibility to users.

When entities can use a map that is much more precise than the ones we use today, how will this inform usage, and how will that then alter our relationship with our world?

Reporting and Safety

Waze implemented a way for users to report traffic conditions, but because Waze couldn’t (and shouldn’t) expect drivers on the road to submit all ongoing traffic conditions, they passively gathered things like speed and traffic in the background of their app. Optimized navigation can be a lifesaver, but our world hosts much more complexity than a slow driver and police sightings. Even in a specific use case like navigation, it is vital to collect other information, like public parades, planned maintenance, or city mandated changes to routes. Waze is rich in location information, but as a competitive business, it would not be in their self-interest to share this data to benefit the functionality of other apps.

In a hypothetical 2020, where multiple drone companies operate home delivery routes through the streets of major cities, each company tracks their drone’s intended path and actual progress through space to coordinate their shipping. Though this information can be leveraged for multiple use cases, sharing this information amongst other drone operators is essential for logistics and safety. If drones report to the platform that they are subscribed to, the information provided may not guarantee the safety of anyone not using the same platform. In today’s reality, we can follow our rideshare application’s GPS, but many of us simultaneously cross-reference our preferred map app for a faster route. In our present, not-hypothetical reality, we already ask and answer the question, “Do I check all map platforms, or the one that most people use?”

Equity In Our World

Geospatial information is not equitably distributed. The United Nations report states that the number of slum dwellers has increased to 55 million since 2000. These communities are dense, but the data, or lack thereof, on commercial maps suggests otherwise. Prominent mapping corporations don’t have monetary incentive (like advertising dollars) to map marginalized communities. This inaction means people who have been historically ignored — or worse, erased — have little to no public access to information that could impact their quality of life. Available map data influences decisions about public planning, resource management and for successful support during natural disasters. These places deserve to be mapped.

A Google Maps search of Kibera’s slums, a Nairobi settlement in Kenya inhabited by over 250,000 people, reveals a map that is too sparse to accurately depict its population (corresponding satellite images would agree). To remedy this, a combination of NGOs and mapping initiatives enlisted a group of cartographers to teach residents of Kibera and Mathare how to map their home. Marginalized residents were given the opportunity to make their voice heard through DIY cartography, and this case is a reminder that people are motivated to put real effort and care into advocating for their communities.

Our Society Needs A Transparent Mapping System

It would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t have unprecedented access to maps. It would also be naive to assume that every map we use depicts the same world. History has documented the myriad of times and ways colonial powers drew arbitrary borders on continents, creating countries and maps without consideration for whether or not these delineations represent their corresponding (and diverse) communities. Obvious colonization is generally frowned upon in today’s interconnected world, but disputed territories are very much an ongoing reality. If we uphold the status quo, we resign ourselves to accept a future where large entities are the sole map providers in a system that will, intentionally or not, contain distorted interpretations of our earth. To have a true history of our earth, we need an open protocol mapping system.

Each advent of new technology often provokes resistance to change, and when this resistance leads industries to experience declines, subsequent calls for action become a fight for incremental changes. Blockchain is a way for us to progress with the times, and evolve beyond the mindset that winning demands total dominance. The freedom for everyone and anyone to read and write a unified map gives us the collective power to help the Earth to speak. We have an opportunity to chart a better future, where end users like you and me, who rely on location-based applications and services, don’t become unwittingly crippled in a fight for our spatial knowledge. The labor of a global community bears fruit for everyone, and with our best interests at stake, we have the incentive to cultivate our world. The opportunity is here and now.

In 2017, we faced a reckoning and learned that if we want to be heard, we need to be active contributors in the change we want to affect. Though self-interested entities and corporations are capable of acting with good intentions, this assumes that the “best” actions made by centralized actors will always produce the best outcome for everyone (it doesn’t). We can be complacent and accept a centralized truth for our maps. Or we can take initiative and map the world — by ourselves and for ourselves. Visibility is power. For the first time, earth can finally speak to us, and we should all be able to hear her voice (and listen).