As CEO of Mapbox, Eric Gundersen coordinates product and business development. Eric has been with the team since the start, and splits his time working on projects in San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Eric got his start in the mapping and open data space at Development Seed, building open source tools for international development agencies. He holds a master's degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC, and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations.
Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Mapbox, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.
Before joining Mapbox, Alex was a developer and strategist for Development Seed. Prior to that, Alex managed information technology for an international development organization in Central America, where he became involved in the Central American open source community. In his free time, Alex has designed interactive robots and virtual reality interfaces, organized a traveling exhibit depicting life in Nicaragua and its sweatshops, and taken photos of his life and travels in Washington, DC, Nicaragua, and Austria.
Q: Mapbox is currently one of the coolest geo companies to work for, attracting top talent at neck-breaking speed. How do you do it, and how do you maintain the coolness factor?
A: So much of our work is out in the open, us coding on GitHub or editing on OpenStreetMap — working like this in the open lets us meet really cool people. When we find people who do cool stuff we ask them: You’re doing great stuff, would you like to get paid to do that?
Q: OpenStreetMap (OSM) relies on volunteers to map the world. Mapbox is relying on OSM to make maps. How do you help make sure there are people to map? How do you help recruit people to the platform?
Q: With all that you’re doing — will you always be tied to OpenStreetMap as a basemap?
A: Our platform is totally data agnostic. We have customers using TomTom or HERE data to power their basemaps in addition to OpenStreetMap. For us it’s all about being a platform and providing the building blocks for developers to do whatever they want to locations. That said, you know our bet is all on open data in the long run.
A: Working on it.
Q: Verizon, Aol, MapQuest — what’s going on there?
A: Finally we can talk publicly 😉 — what’s so exciting for us is that MapQuest still accounts for an insane amount of map traffic, and it’s growing. Their team is going to use our building blocks to make their next generation mapping product on both mobile and web. And while I can’t comment on specifics, what I have seen looks really hot.
Q: An official Mapbox-MapQuest partnership announcement was made after our initial talk. Congratulations! Still no word on the Verizon mobile location data stream, and whether the ODbL OpenStreetMap license will be a barrier to using it. Can you comment on that?
A: Mapbox maps are 100% owned by Mapbox and licensed under our TOS. So everyone using Mapbox never has to worry about any data licenses from the dozens and dozens of sources we all pull together to make our map.
Q: What meat will Mapbox barbecue on the funeral pyre of HERE?
A: Obviously brats if the German auto consortium wins. But I’m starting to get excited to cook Peking Turducken — looking like the Chinese are making a for-real play, maybe with an American partner. If our bid wins, and we get a snapshot of the data, it’s going to be tallboy beer can chicken coast to coast.
Q: Mapbox is opening offices in South America and India. What are the business opportunities there for Mapbox to explore?
A: The data teams in Peru and India have been amazing! These are our dedicated teams for making OpenStreetMap better. From processing probe data we collect, to analyzing errors in OpenStreetMap, to tasking new satellite imagery — these teams run 24 hours a day 5 days a week feedback loop letting us be ultra-responsive and laying the groundwork to grow even more.
Q: Where do you see Mapbox in 2020?
A: NYSE: MPBX
Q: Do you consider yourselves geohipsters? Why / why not?
A: Ah, you saw the garage full of fixies?
Q: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?
A: It’s the early days, and that is not meant to be prophetic.
A self-professed map addict, Gary Gale has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. He is co-founder and director of Malstow Geospatial, a consultancy firm offering bespoke consulting and services in the geospatial, geotechnology, maps and location based services fields. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he tweets about maps, writes about them, and even occasionally makes them.
This is very much an opinion piece of writing, and as such I want to start with a disclaimer. In the past I’ve worked on Yahoo’s maps, on Ovi/Nokia/HERE maps, and these days I’m freelancing, which means the Ordnance Survey — the United Kingdom’s national mapping agency — is my current employer. What follows is my opinion and views, not those of my current employer, not those of previous employers, and certainly not those of future employers. It’s just me. So with that out of the way and stated upfront, I want to opine on OpenStreetMap…
Dear OpenStreetMap, you are truly amazing. Since you started in 2004 with those first few nodes, ways and relationships, you have — to paraphrase a certain Dr. Eldon Tyrell — burned so very, very brightly. (Those of you who know your Blade Runner quotes will know that just after saying this, Tyrell was killed by Roy Baty; I’m not suggesting that anyone should take this literally.)
Just looking at the latest set of database statistics (over 4.6 billion GPS points, over 2.8 billion nodes, over 282.5 million ways, and 3.2 million relationships as of today’s figures) shows how impressive all of this this is.
The maps and data you’ve created are a key element of what’s today loosely termed the geoweb, enabling startups to create maps at little or no cost, allowing some amazing cartography to be created, stimulating research projects, and allowing businesses to spring up to monetise all of this data — some successfully such as MapBox, some less successfully, such as CloudMade.
After reading all of this amazement and adoration, you’re probably expecting the next sentence to start with “But …”, and I’m afraid you’d be right.
But times change, and the mapping and location world we live in has changed rapidly and in unexpected ways since OSM started in 2004. In just over a decade the web has gone mobile with the explosive growth of sensor-laden smartphones, and location is big business — $3.8 billion’s worth of big in 2018 if you believe Berg Insight.
In 2004 if you wanted maps or mapping data then you either went to one of the national or cadastral mapping agencies — such as the UK’s Ordnance Survey — or you went to one of the global, automotive-focused, mapping providers; you went to NAVTEQ or to TeleAtlas. Maps and mapping data are expensive to make and expensive to maintain, and this expense was and continues to be reflected in the licensing charge you paid for mapping data, as well as in the restrictions around what you could and couldn’t do with that data. The high cost of data and the license restrictions were one of the key drivers for the establishment of OpenStreetMap in the first place.
Eleven years on, and the mapping industry landscape is a very different one. NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas are no longer independent entities — Chicago-based NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia in 2008 after an EU antitrust investigation gave the deal the green light, and Amsterdam-based TeleAtlas has been part of TomTom since 2008. Both companies continue to license their mapping data and their services, with NAVTEQ — now known as HERE — powering the maps for Bing and Yahoo amongst others, and TomTom licensing their data to MapQuest and to Apple as part of the relaunch of Apple Maps in 2012.
There’s also been changes from the national and cadastral mapping agencies, with more and more data being released under various forms of open license — including the Ordnance Survey’s open data program, which in direct contrast to the old licensing regime is now under one of the most liberal of licenses.
In 2007 there was much attention paid to the NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas deals, citing uncertainty surrounding continued data supply to the maps and location industry. It was also predicted that the PND market — those personal navigation devices from TomTom and Garmin that sat on top of your car’s dashboard and announced “you have reached your destination” — would collapse rapidly as a result of the rapid growth of GPS-equipped smartphones.
These concerns and predictions got only half of the outcome right. The PND market did collapse, but the map data continued to flow, although it’s fair to say that as OSM matured and grew a reasonable chunk of revenue and strategic deals were lost — both directly and indirectly — to OSM itself, and to the organisations who act as a business-friendly face to OSM. But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, everything changes and nothing stands still.
In the last few weeks it’s been widely reported that Nokia is looking to sell off HERE, the company formed by the (sometimes unwilling) union of NAVTEQ and Nokia Maps. Speculation runs rife as to who will become the new owner of HERE, with Uber seeming to be the pundits’ favourite buyer. But whoever does end up owning HERE’s mapping platform, the underlying map data, and the sizeable mapping and surveying fleet, it now seems to be clear that just as the days of NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas as independent mapping organisations came to an end, the days of HERE are coming to an end. This also has shone the spotlight onto TomTom, who whilst making inroads into NAVTEQ’s share of the automotive data market, seems reliant on their deal with Apple to keep revenue flowing in.
Even before the speculation around HERE’s new owner, there are really only three major sources of global mapping, location and geospatial data: NAVTEQ in their current HERE incarnation, TeleAtlas under the mantle of TomTom, and … OpenStreetMap.
When — rather than if — HERE changes ownership, there’s a very real risk than the new owners will turn the data flow and services built on that data inwards, for their own use and their use only, leaving just two major global maps sources.
Surely now is the moment for OpenStreetMap to accelerate adoption, usage and uptake? But why hasn’t this already happened? Why hasn’t the geospatial world run lovingly into OSM’s arms?
To my mind there’s two barriers to greater and more widespread adoption, both of which can be overcome if there’s sufficient will to overcome them within the OSM community as a whole. These barriers are, in no particular order … licensing, and OSM not being seen as (more) conducive to working with business.
Firstly I want to deal with making OSM more business-friendly, as this is probably the biggest barrier to wider-spread adoption over licensing. For anything other than a startup or SME with substantial geospatial competency already in-house, dealing with OSM and comprehending OSM can be a confusing proposition. What is OSM exactly? Is is the community? Is it the OpenStreetMap Foundation? Is it the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? Is it one of the companies in the OSM ecosystem that offers services built on top of OSM? All of them? Some of them? None of them?
There’s no doubt that OSM has a vibrant and active map-making and developer-friendly ecosystem in the form of the OSM Wiki and mailing lists alone, even before you factor in the supporting, indirect ecosystem of individuals, community projects and organisations. But this isn’t enough. Business needs to be able to have a single point of contact to liaise with, actually it often insists on this and will look elsewhere if it can’t find this point of contact with anything more than the most cursory of searches. Whether it’s OSM in some shape or form itself, or a single organisation that stands for and represents OSM, this is the biggest barrier to continued OSM adoption that there is, although it may not necessarily be the one which requires the most work to overcome. For that barrier you need look no further than the ODbL, the Open Database License, under which OSM’s data is licensed.
This is a contentious issue and one which is usually met with a deep sigh and the muttering of “not this again“. Prior to 2010, OSM data was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, normally shorted to CC-BY-SA. This license says that you are free to …
Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially
But CC-BY-SA’s key weakness for OSM was that it is a license designed for the concept of “material“; for creative works and not specifically for data or for databases. This is understandable; at the time OSM adopted CC-BY-SA, such a data-centric license simply didn’t exist, and CC-BY-SA was the best option available. But in 2010, after much discussion and dissent, OSM switched to the data- and database-specific Open Database License. The ODbL maintains the same attribution and share-alike clauses, but phrased in legal language specifically for data sets. It seems like the perfect license for OSM, but it’s not.
The attribution clause in both CC-BY-SA and ODbL are not at issue. Such clauses mean that the efforts of those who have made OSM what it is are formally acknowledged. The issue is the share-alike clause in both licenses, although it’s fair to say that there are subtleties at play due to the many and varied ways in which OSM data can be “consumed“.
If your consumption of OSM data is a passive one, then the share-alike clause probably has little or no impact. By passive, I mean that as a user you are consuming data from OSM via some form of service provider, and your consumption takes the form of an immutable payload from that service, such as pre-rendered map tiles.
But what about if your consumption of OSM data still comes from a service, but takes the form of actual data — such as the results of a geocoder, or some other geospatial search? Such results are typically stored within a back-end data store, which means that by doing so the end result is a dataset which comprises the original data, plus the results of a search added to make a new dataset. Does this trigger the share-alike clause? This is still an ambiguous area, although current guidelines suggest that the resulting, aggregate data set is a produced work rather than a derived one and so are exempt from triggering the share-alike clause. But there is also a counter-argument that suggests that such an action is indeed a derived work, and so the share-alike clause does apply. This ambiguity alone needs to be resolved, one way or another, in order to make OSM an attractive proposition for business.
The final share-alike complication rears its head when your method of consuming OSM data is to merge one or more data sets with OSM to use the resultant data for some purpose. This sort of data aggregation is often called co-mingling in licensing and legal parlance.
If all the datasets you are dealing with are licensed under ODbL, then the share-alike clause potentially has little impact, as effectively ODbL plus ODbL equals … ODbL. Things are a little less certain when you co-mingle with datasets which are deemed to be licensed under a compatible license. Quite what a compatible license is hasn’t been defined. OpenDataCommons, the organisation behind the ODbL, only says that “any compatible license would, for example, have to contain similar share-alike provisions if it were to be compatible“, which while helpful isn’t a clear cut list of licenses that are compatible. At the time of writing I was unable to find any such list.
But if the data you want to co-mingle with OSM, or indeed with any ODbL licensed data, is data that you don’t want to share with the “community” — which of course will include your competitors — the only way to prevent this is not to use the ODbL-licensed data, which means not using OSM in this manner. To be blunt, mixing any data with a share-alike clause means you can lose control of your data, which probably is part of your organisation’s intellectual property and has cost time and money to put together. It’s acknowledged that not all co-mingling of datasets will trigger the share-alike clause; that there needs to be “the Extraction and Re-utilisation of the whole or a Substantial part of the Contents” in order for the share-alike, or indeed for the attribution clauses of the ODbL to kick in. The problem is that what’s classed as “substantial” isn’t defined at all, and OpenDataCommons notes that “the exact interpretation (of substantial) would remain with the courts“.
If you pause and re-read the last few paragraphs, you’ll notice that there’s words and phrases such as “ambiguity“, “isn’t defined” and “exact interpretation“. All of which adds up to an unattractive proposition for businesses considering using OSM or any open data license with a share-alike clause. For smaller businesses, finding the right path to navigate through licensing requires costly legal interpretation, and where money is tight such a path will simply be ignored. For larger businesses, often with an in-house legal team, a risk analysis will often result in an assessment that precludes using data with such a license as the risk is deemed too great.
OSM as a community, as a data set, as a maps and map data provider, and as an entity is at a crossroads. It’s been at this metaphorical crossroads for a while now, but with the way in which the industry is rapidly changing and evolving, this means that there’s these two challenges that OSM should be encouraged to overcome, if there’s a concerted will to do so.
In almost every one of my previous corporate roles I’ve tried to push usage and adoption of OSM to the business, with the notable exception of my time with Lokku and OpenCage Data, where OSM is already in active use. Initially, reaction is extremely positive: “This is amazing“, “Why didn’t we know about this before?“, and “This is just what we’re looking for” are common reactions.
But after the initial euphoria has worn off and the business looks at OSM’s proposition, the reaction is far from positive. “Who are we doing business with here? OSM or another organisation?“, “We can’t have a business relationship with a Wiki or a mailing list“, and “Legal have taken a look at the license, and the risk of using ODbL data is too great, I’m afraid” are paraphrased reactions I’ve heard so many times. To date, not one of the companies I’ve worked in has used OSM for anything other than the most trivial of base mapping tasks, which is such a loss of potential exposure for OSM to the wider geospatial and developer markets.
In short, the lack of a business-facing and business-friendly approach, coupled with the risks and ambiguity over licensing, are what is holding OSM back from achieving far more than it currently does. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
More than anything, OSM needs a business-friendly face. This doesn’t have to be provided by OSM itself; an existing organisation or a new one could provide this, hopefully with the blessing and assent of the OSMF and of enough of a majority of the OSM community. It’s also worth considering a consortium of existing OSM-based businesses, such as MapBox or GeoFabrik or OpenCage Data, getting together under an OSM For Business banner.
Coupled with the new approach to engaging with business, the licensing challenges could be solved by re-licensing OSM data under a license that retains the attribution clause but which removes the share-alike clause. Unlike the need for time to pass in order for the ODbL to be created to enable the transition from CC-BY-SA, such a license already exists in the form of the Open Data Commons Attribution license.
I do not claim for one second that making OSM business-friendly and re-licensing OSM are trivial matters, nor are there quick fixes to make this happen. I also do not doubt that some sections of the OSM community will be quick to explain why this isn’t needed and that OSM is doing very nicely as it stands, thank you very much. And I wouldn’t contest such views for a second. OSM is doing very nicely and will, I believe, continue to do so.
This isn’t about success or failure; OSM will continue to grow and will overcome future challenges. But OSM could be so much more than it currently is, and for that to happen there has to be change.
Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it
These words rang true in early 2014 when Serge first published his post, and they ring doubly true in today’s world where the number of sources of global mapping data are being acquired, when the number of options available for getting and using mapping data are shrinking, and where there’s a very real possibility that the power to say what is on the map and what is under the map ends up in the hands of a very small, select group of companies and sources.
So, dear OSM, the world needs you now more than it needed you when you started out, and a lot more than it needed you in 2014. OSM will continue to be amazing, but with change OSM can achieve so much more than was ever dreamed when the first nodes, ways, and relationships were collected in 2004 — if you just get your community finger out and agree that you want to be more than you currently are.
(For non-British readers, “get your finger out” is a colloquial term for “stop procrastinating and get on with it”)
Kate Chapman is the Executive Director at the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Her most recent work has been in Indonesia working on a three-year program with the Australia-Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction using OpenStreetMap and InaSAFE to help disaster managers better develop contingency plans. Previous to working at HOT, Kate was involved in development of multiple web GIS applications, including GeoCommons and iMapData.
Q: So, Ms. Kate Chapman, how did you dive into the world of geospatial?
A: I was attending George Mason University focusing on Computer Science, but I wasn’t often going to class, and I ended up on academic suspension. During the semester I was not attending school I found a job with a mosquito control company as a pesticide applicator (this was back when West Nile Virus was going to kill us all). Unfortunately the first day we discovered I was allergic to the pesticide being used. Instead of being fired for not being able to do the job I was hired for, I was given a pirated copy of ArcView 3.2 and told to learn it. At this point I decided mapping was pretty cool, and discovered switching to Geography at GMU when I returned would allow me to graduate way more quickly than computer science. So I switched majors and continued working as a cartographer for the mosquito control company.
Q: As I have said — let he who has not pirated ArcView 3.2 cast the first stone. So you are now the executive director for HOT. For those who do not know — what is HOT? What does the executive director do?
A: My ArcView 3.2 came pre-pirated.
HOT is short for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. HOT applies the principles of open source and open data sharing to improve the welfare of the communities where we work, especially those at risk of natural disaster or other crisis. That essentially means two major things: First, we organize international volunteers to create data in OSM — primarily through digitizing and using already open data — and second, we provide training and technical assistance to communities and organizations in areas prone to disaster.
As the Executive Director I’m responsible for running the operations of HOT under strategic guidance from our Board of Directors. It is a position not dissimilar to that of a CEO.
Q: Nothing like the fabulous life of a CEO. If I’m not mistaken, you ended up in Jakarta, Indonesia, hopping islands, teaching locals about mapping in OpenStreetMap. All of that was in preparation for a tsunami event in the future. What was it like teaching the concepts of OSM and open data to an entirely different culture?
A: It is true that OSM brought me to Jakarta. The program name is Scenario Development for Contingency Planning (SD4CP). The goal of SD4CP is to help disaster managers use science to inform their contingency plans. What that means is the World Bank, Australian and Indonesian governments were working to build software that could do impact modeling (the software is now called InaSAFE). They had scientific models on hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis, but were missing exposure data such as buildings, schools and health facilities. I came in with HOT to see if we could help foster an OSM community to collect that data. Things have grown and now our team is responsible for the curriculum for the program and providing training. They teach OSM, QGIS, and InaSAFE to government, NGOs, individuals, and educational institutions.
Q: What was the best thing that happened — and the goofiest — while you were there?
A: The best thing was that I got to travel all over Indonesia with a great team. It was amazing to see how diverse the country is, and to meet all kinds of people. As far as the team, HOT Indonesia was divided into two training teams at the time, Team A and Team B (yes, we were so creative).
Hmmm, the goofiest… I think that would be the quantity of “jumping photos.” Jumping pictures are exactly what they sound like. Everyone in the picture jumps so they are airborne when the picture is taken.
Q: I notice on the HOT mailing list sometimes you guys respond to a request from an aid organization, and sometimes you just start mapping. Who are some of the humanitarian organizations that ask for help?
A: We get a lot of different mapping requests. Sometimes it can be as simple as someone has a particular interest in an area — they are from there, they have friends there, etc. Though often requests are from larger organizations. Recently we launched the Missing Maps project in partnership with the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders UK. This is a way to bring people together and support HOT in filling in gaps on the maps.
We also receive requests from other International Non-Governmental Organizations, offices of the United Nations, and national governments. It really depends on the disaster and the need.
Q: How do you sustain an organization that maps for free (plug for money if you want)?
A: We sustain the organization primarily through grants for specific projects. We are also a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, so donations to HOT are tax-deductible to US taxpayers. http://hot.openstreetmap.org/donate
Q: So what about this Geoglobal Domination Video thing? What is that about?
A: Well, you can always post the link to GeoGlobalDomination: the Musical.
Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?
A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.
I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.
Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.
A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.
So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.
Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.
Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?
A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.
#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.
Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?
A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.
Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.
In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.
BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.
Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?
A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.
Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?
A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.
And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.
As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.
But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.
Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?
A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.
Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.
For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.
Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?
A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.
Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?
A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.
I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.
Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?
A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.
Q: Last week was the 10th anniversary of Open Street Map, which you founded. Congratulations! OSM and you personally got a lot of press, all of it good. Will that further the cause or OSM?
A: It’s a key part of the PR effort. At least it used to be. I’m not sure it has the same importance today, because there are so many people doing the same thing, but it’s part of that.
Q: My wife is my one-person focus group who has been remarkably accurate on most things Internet. She doesn’t use OSM. How will you convince her to start using it?
A: Open Street Map itself is not particularly designed to be used as a consumer product. It’s other people that make stuff on top of Open Street Map that package it in such a way that it’s usable by anybody. An example in the United States and now in the rest of the world would be Scout — a navigation client that Telenav makes. So we take Open Street Map and we spend a lot of time making it usable, so consumers can use it for turn-by-turn navigation. But today the focus of Open Street Map itself is about getting people to contribute data, not necessarily to use it. So it’s perfectly fine if your wife or anyone else wants to use another product, that makes a lot of sense.
Q: You currently work for Telenav, whose mission is to make people’s lives less stressful. Does your job make your life less stressful? What do you do for Telenav?
A: Historically I have been working on making sure that Scout works for consumers. Making sure the navigation information is there, making sure the addressing works, making sure the consumer experience is great behind Open Street Map. So I work with a team of a large number of people, 120 now we are up to, to make it all work. My official title is Head of OSM.
Q: In your most recent video you talk about why “Open Street Map is going to win”. What do you mean “to win”? Win what?
A: I mean having the best map in the world. Not necessarily the best consumer experience but the best map data. It’s already the best display map, right? So the next question is can it also be the best addressable map and the best navigable map. Those are the next two things to go after.
Q: What is the future of OSM? Gamification? Monetization?
A: Lots of people have monetized Open Street Map, including Telenav. The gamification, personally I love that, but OSM today is a lot of communities and lots of people, and you have to make a case for those people that it should be gamified. And in fact people do make apps on the side to try and gamify things like the collection of data on mobile devices, but getting changes and integration into the main site is hard because it affects a lot of people. But that doesn’t stop you from making your own app on the side to do these things.
Q: Is there a future in which the majority of contributions to OSM will be from passive sensing of location?
A: Again, with Telenav we’ve purchased a lot of GPS traces to get the navigable information into the map itself. So people already do that. OSM itself started with GPS traces, before we had aerial imagery. So I guess you can say we started with passive stuff and we just got better at it over time.
Q: What do you think of CC BY-SA?
A: I think Creative Commons is great. It’s fantastic. It works very well for creative works like books and photos. Unfortunately it didn’t work super well for data, like we have in OSM. Which is why we spent a lot of time on the Open Database License. Which is designed to be actually very similar to Creative Commons, just different enough that it covers the data use cases.
Q: Some have asked “Why not just release the data in the public domain?”, but isn’t the issue that in some countries in Europe (not in the US), you just can’t release your work into the public domain? You must release it under some kind of license?
A: That exists. In some countries it’s called the moral right. You can’t give up the copyright in the same way you can’t sell yourself into slavery. Do I particularly care? No, as long as I don’t live in one of those countries, and you can always sign a waiver that effectively does the same thing.
Q: Does OSM have a moral imperative? Is OSM out there to do good? Should the GUI be developed to maximize the diversity of participants? Enhance democracy? Is there such goal?
A: I think that it’s good that there are people involved in the project that do want to do that, and they are interested in OSM from a different perspective. That enhances what we get done, because of the diversity of opinion. Me personally, I was just out to create a map. Those other things are good things, it just wasn’t my focus, but it’s good that there are people on OSM who are focused on that.
Q: Little is known about Steve Coast, the person. Tell us more about yourself — any hipstery hobbies? I hope you ride a unicycle or grow your own hops. Do you?
A: I go hang gliding. I am completing my private pilot’s license. I ride bicycles. I think that’s it.
Q: What is going on with Map Club?
A: I shut it down. Everyone in OSM is a volunteer, and the question was could we create some sort of membership organization that could be self-supporting and go do things. Whether those things are building tools, or collecting more data. We have two choices: either everyone’s a volunteer or everyone works for a company. The companies tend to have overlapping interests with OSM but they are not the same interests. We can work together, and it can be beneficial, but it’s not like you have directly identical goals. So the question is could you do something in-between? A membership organization came to be the one way to go. Unfortunately wasn’t convincing enough so it didn’t work out. But it was worth a try.
Q: What is the takeaway from this experience? What’s the lesson learned? That people don’t want to pay for mapping?
A: I don’t think it is that people don’t want to pay. It’s two things. One: The amount of money required was a bit more than I’d hoped. You could pick $100/year but then you’d need a lot of people, but if it could be $50/month — which is what people are paying for their cell phone — then you can get a lot more done. The actual model could work if it was slightly different. I was undercharging. Second: What is the value that you are offering. And there wasn’t a clear value proposition. It was an experiment. What can we achieve? And it was difficult to find out what we could go do because we didn’t have any money. It was very chicken-and-egg.
Q: This from a GeoHipster contributor: You are so playful and fun… After being in the industry so long, how do you keep a smile?
A: Ha ha ha. That’s a really good question… I just don’t take this stuff seriously I guess. On one level I take it very seriously because obviously finishing the project and getting the data out there is important, but on another level, I think, the simple answer is being very aware that you’re going to die one day. So it’s hard to get upset and angry about stuff when you realize that. It’s more important to go build things and show people and just be happy that 90% of the stuff that you’re gonna do is going to fail, like Map Club, for example. Most people never try to do anything at all. So you try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that.