Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Google shakes up the geospatial data industry

Well, the big news of the day is that Google has dumped Tele Atlas as the main data provider for Google Maps in the US, and is providing its own map data from a variety of sources (presumably also including its own Streetview teams). They've also added the ability to point out errors in the map, another addition to the crowdsourcing techniques they've been using. The announcement has caused a flurry of discussion of course. James raises questions about various aspects of the data (especially parcels). Steve speculates that the same thing will happen in Europe and that the beneficiary there will probably be AND.

The new Google data certainly adds details in some places, from a quick random sampling - for example check out Commons Park in downtown Denver using the nice GeoFabrik Map Compare tool. None of those paths were there previously in Google. Still not quite as good as OpenStreetMap in this case though :).

This does dramatically reshape the geospatial data industry though. Previously there were two commercial providers with a detailed routable database of roads in the US, NAVTEQ (owned by Nokia) and Tele Atlas (owned by TomTom), now at a stroke there is a third in Google. OpenStreetMap is a fourth provider of course, not quite up with the other three in terms of coverage and routing quality in the US yet, but getting there very quickly.

This raises lots of interesting questions:
  • Will Google sell its data to providers of third party navigation systems and compete with Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ? Or indeed will they sell/license it to others who could use it (users of GIS, etc)?
  • Will Google Maps on the iPhone (and other mobile devices) get real time turn by turn directions? This was previously prohibited by licensing terms from Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ. Existing real time navigation systems using data from these two providers generally cost in the region of $100. Will Google add this to the free maps offering? Or sell a version that does real time turn by turn directions?
  • Will Google contribute any of this data to open data initiatives like OpenStreetMap? Or make it available to USGS for the US National Map? In the past they have cited licensing constraints from their data providers as a reason for not being more open with their geospatial data, that reason largely goes away now (though we don't know all the new data providers and their terms). I'm not holding my breath on this one, but we can hope!
  • Will this negatively or positively impact OpenStreetMap? Previously in areas with active communities, OpenStreetMap had significantly more detail, and more current data, than Google - this appears to move Google forward in that regard. But will Google taking another step towards total world domination encourage more people to want an open alternative?
So anyway, definitely a very interesting development for the geospatial data industry (albeit one that has been on the cards for a little while). It will take a little while to understand the full implications. I'm sure Tele Atlas is glad they are no longer an independent company, I wouldn't like to have seen how their stock price would have dropped today otherwise :O !!

Update: some more discussion and a link to a podcast on this topic featuring Steve Coast, James Fee and me in this follow up post.


dk said...

Confirms the NAVTEQ and TA exits were smart moves (from a shareholder view point) in retrospect.

Indeed cannot be long now until the big G launches free turn by turn, with their own POI's and an ad supported model... (probably on a limited number of platforms to start with).

by James said...

Europe next? Perhaps they'd like to use their resources in the developing world too....

Peter Miller said...

For the few months I have been speculating about how much investment commercial companies are making into the OpenStreetMap project in aggregate and comparing that with investment in Linux, Firefox and Apache. I am talking about money spend on improving the OSM data, supporting the collection of data by providing better tools, buying or contributing data or aerial photography. I am not talking about people developing products that use OSM data.

I guess that CloudMade pays for about for about 4-6 full-time-equivalents (possibly less since the ambassadors left). AND could probably put a value on the data they contributed. My company (ITO World Ltd) pays for a bit less than one full time equivalent to contribute effort towards the OpenStreetMap project, , Geofabrik about 1 person? Surrey Heath puts paid effort, 1 person full time equivalent? In terms of cash the Foundation has an incoming of about £50K per year. £5K was raided to buy photography for the Gaza Strip ( There is a current appeal for £5K to buy 2 meter satellite photography for the West Midlands in the UK (total £5K needed) (

By way of comparison, I understand that IBM has invested some £1billion into open source, that Google invests about $50m in Firefox etc.

What will happen when companies realise that the only way to compete with Google on mapping is to work together? Is OpenStreetMap not the logical vehicle for that cooperation? What would OpenStreetMap do with $10million of investment either in cash or in paid time in the financial year April0 to May11 from a range of companies - not in direct payments, but in paying people to contribute in key ways?

For starters $1.4million could pay for 100,000 sq km of satellite photography of key urban areas from which OSM contributors could digitize mapping which would be a great start.

As will any Open Source project the funders can't 'control' what happens in the way they can in the private business but they can most certainly help speed things along the way and then make use of the free mapping data in many ways.

Does Google's move into map data (together with the sale of TeleAtlas of Navteq) not send clear message to many other companies that rely on access to top-quality mapping data without strings that they should work together collaboratively in the same way the industry did in response to Microsoft's hold on operating systems and browsers.

Anonymous said...

how exactly does Google propose preventing proprietary data from other map companies being added by users in their "crowdsourcing"..... hope they've put some money aside for the inevitable law suits...

Rory McCann said...

If Google wanted to do something to help OpenStreetMap they would sort out the licencing and allow people to trace over their aerial imagery Yahoo do this and have done for a while.

When it comes to geospatial stuff Yahoo have been much more OSM friendly and have done more to embrace OSM, even using them as maps in flickr.

litsl said...

Recently discovered this... which, through using a new Garmin API can squirt a Google MyMaps route to my 60CSx GPS.

Have been planning a long-ish bike route, from west london to cambridge. Figured out you need to create specific waypoints in Google MyMaps and drag those, not the whole route, to the GPS. The GPS then uses it's navigation algorithms to fit a route around my way-points. Not very neat, and involved a lot of manual faffing about, but it is quite nice you can do this.

I figured if I tried to ride 65 miles across half of london and then through country back roads I would spend at least a cumulative hour stopping to pull a map out. Let's see how it works with the GPS strapped to my handlebars. Keen to try but am expecting some trouble.

Skippern said...

I am currently contributing to OSM, but the work in my area goes slow. There are no good areal data available on internet, and PD data is of formats that requires a lot of work to import. For my part I do not have the time to investigate how to do these imports, but are more than willing to help out in analyzing and importing the data when a procedure is prepared.

If it would be possible to get some form of scholarship, i.e. to upgrade my gps unit and pay for fuel consumption gathering the tracks needed, than I am sure my wife would let me spend a little more time contributing.

I think it is important with a free open source alternative, and will work for improving the data quality and spreading the knowledge of the project. The better the background data is, the easier to recruit new contributors.