Avoiding the Chasm

October 17, 2009

Google Takes Another Bite

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 5:58 pm

Quietly, and almost overnight, Google have moved into another market. At the time of writing there is not yet any announcement on the Official Google Blog but it looks as though Google have begun the process of unveiling maps based on their own data.

The Google Maps product that we have all grown so used to was driven by data from Tele Atlas, a Netherlands-based company, as witnessed by the map data copyright notice that appears in the bottom right hand corner of a Google Map.

TeleAtlasCopyright But now Google Maps, in the US at least, have started to replace these with Google map data copyright notices. We should probably expect to see these changes rolled out elsewhere in due course too.

GoogleCopyright Although Google have not revealed the sources of their map data, the suggestion is that it is a by-product of the work they did in building Google Street View with additional data coming from other public domain sources, such as the rather poor quality TIGER data in the US. Interestingly, Google did blog about the introduction of the Street View Trike in the UK and how they are being used to reach those parts that they cannot easily reach by car – they even invite readers to suggest locations that are poorly mapped.

The other big map data provider is NAVTEQ who provide data for roughly 85% of the world’s in-car navigation systems as well as for portable GPS devices from Garmin and Magellan and for Bing, MultiMap and Yahoo! online maps. Last year NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia and Tele Atlas was acquired by TomTom. I would imagine that both NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas are now feeling rather relieved.

Map Quality

One of the first indications of a change was that users had noticed a sudden degradation in the quality of Google’s maps. Roads that used to be mapped no longer appeared on the maps and roads appeared where buildings had recently been built. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality seems higher in those areas that have been visited by a Street View car and lower elsewhere. Google has started to aggregate data from a number of public sources and to combine them with their own map data, in particular, US land parcel data is now also visible on the maps. Some users have observed that buildings which had previously been unlabelled, for security reasons, are now clearly labelled.

Data Liberation

Google have introduced a link at the bottom of the map inviting users to report problems that they spot. They must be aware that the map quality is not as good as it used to be but they must also be confident that any failings can be rectified by their enormous user community. Perhaps this early lack of quality is the main reason why the whole process has been kept quiet. Rather hypocritically, for a company that started the Data Liberation Front whose mission statement says:

“Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products.
Our team’s goal is to make it easier for them to move data in and out.”

Google don’t provide a mechanism for users to retrieve the map corrections that they have submitted to Google. I wonder if that will change.

Good News for Mobile Users

All of this is probably very good news for users of mobile map devices. The licence that Google had previously signed with Tele Atlas precluded the use of the map data for turn-by-turn applications. Such navigation applications are often expensive because of the extra cost of purchasing such a licence which has to be passed on to the end user. Google will now be able to move forward without being tethered by such restrictions.

An advantage to Google of owning their own data is that a mobile Google Maps application will now be able to pre-download map data to the device, enabling the maps to work where either there is no reliable mobile signal (such as in the Lake District in the UK) or in places where the cost of downloading the map data over the mobile network could be prohibitively expensive (such as when travelling abroad with a mobile data plan). Currently, on the iPhone at least, this kind of offline mapping is only available at no cost to applications that use the excellent OpenStreetMap data, such as the OffMaps application.

The value to Google of the flow back of data from mobile devices that are using Google Maps is enormous. Feedback from Android phones and other devices that allow background processing will almost certainly be used to enhance map data. As an example, consider a GPS enabled mobile device travelling in a vehicle along the road network. The Google Maps application running on the device will be able to feed back to Google not only information about the likely locations of new and unmapped roads, about one-way streets and permanent and temporary speed restrictions, but also information about the average speed at any given time of day on any road. This kind of information can be used to provide accurate and optimum routing. And once you know all of this information, it is not difficult to see how, by comparing it with new real-time data, it can be used to spot traffic incidents and hotspots as they occur. Nokia and TomTom already have agreements in place with mobile phone providers that allow such data to feed back but Google will be cutting out the middle man.


If you haven’t already contributed towards the construction of the map of your own town or city you should really take a look at OpenStreetMap and contribute at least a little of your time to enhance the excellent free and open map of the world whose data belongs to everyone.

OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of the mapping world. As other Wikipedia-like sites prove there is really only room for one such successful system at a time (remember Google Knol, Citizendium, and the late Encarta). Both Knol and Citizendium still exist, but how many times a year do you refer to them? The ease with which ordinary people can contribute towards the construction of accurate maps of the world and the effects of such crowd sourcing is evident in the surprisingly high quality of the OpenStreetMap maps. It is still a work in progress and some parts of the world are better covered than others. But at the current rate of improvement it has been estimated that within a year or two, OpenStreetMap will also contain enough good quality routing data to start to compete with the commercial offerings from Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ.

OpenStreetMap is possibly already the biggest threat to Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ but now that Google has entered the mapping market other large companies may be persuaded to lend their support to OpenStreetMap. Yahoo has already allowed OpenStreetMap to use their aerial imagery for the purposes of tracing map features. What if Microsoft or Apple were to get involved? It is likely that within a 12 to 24 month time span Microsoft may well re-enter the mobile market with a competitive operating system. It seems unlikely, however, that they will be happy to display the Google logo on their maps.

With feedback from mobile applications and the input of ordinary users OpenStreetMap could well be the map data source of the future. But there is clearly going to be a lot of competition from all of the data providers to gather a good deal of accurate and useful data and to offer it at a reasonable price. In the meantime, for those of us who are mobile map users, I think we are in for a good time.


October 8, 2009

Satellite Above – I Watched it for a Little While

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 9:24 pm

Orbitron - Satellite Tracking System

A moving light in the sky is guaranteed to catch my attention. If it is slow moving and flashing then I know that it is likely to be an aircraft. If it shoots across the sky in an instant then I know it to be a meteor or shooting star. If it is fixed then I conclude that it is a star or a planet. But what if it is none of these? What if it is bright orange and moves across the sky slowly over a period of thirty seconds or so?

I asked myself that very question recently as I watched in amazement as an object that looked to me like a distant ball of fire passed silently and slowly from north-west to south-east across the clear evening sky. My initial thoughts were that I had just seen my first fireball but I knew that to be very unlikely and, besides, I was sure that fireballs were associated with freak weather conditions and on this night everything was still.

The object, whatever it was, appeared to be some distance off and moved across the sky with a speed that I readily associated with that of orbiting satellites which I had seen many times before. But these had always been white in colour and this one was a distant flaming red.

I wondered if it would be easy to check whether any satellites had passed overhead and so turned to the Internet for a solution. I came across a number of great resources which provided more than enough information to solve the mystery.

The first was a free piece of software by Sebastian Stoff called the Orbitron Satellite Tracking System which gives graphical and tabular information about the position of satellites and their visibility at a given time and place. The Orbitron software suggested that what I may have seen was a satellite which goes by the name of Iridium 43, one of a family of about seventy such satellites that provide communication services and orbit the earth from pole to pole at a height of about 500 miles and at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour.

The Iridium satellites made the news back in February of this year when one of them, Iridium 33, collided with a retired Russian satellite and with a combined impact speed of 26,000 miles per hours both were destroyed leaving thousands of pieces of space debris to fall back to earth over the following days. The Russian satellite had been uncontrolled since, at least, 1995 but the authorities had predicted that the two satellites should have missed each other by about half a kilometre – they were clearly wrong.

Iridium satellites are known to give rise to an interesting phenomenon – the Iridium Flare. The satellites are equipped with three highly reflective door sized antenna made of silver-coated Teflon on polished aluminium  and occasionally one of these will pick up light from the sun and reflect it down onto the earth’s surface generating an illuminated spot on the earth about 6 miles across. To an observer on the surface of the earth the satellite appears as if from nowhere as a faint object that slowly increases in brightness to a maximum and then just as quickly dims until it is no longer visible, with the whole show lasting no longer than, perhaps, thirty seconds. A simulation is shown here. The satellite that I saw appeared a rich flaming red in colour but I put that down to atmospheric conditions and its effect on the light as it was reflected from the satellite down to earth.

A really excellent web site that makes it easy to determine when and where to look out for satellites that are likely to be visible to the naked eye is Heavens Above. Start by declaring your location and follow links from the main page to get predictions for when Iridium flares, the International Space Station or other such objects will be visible in your area. The site also displays charts showing you where in the sky these objects will appear.

If you like to see a more earth-based and dynamic view of how any given satellite is orbiting then this real time satellite tracking web site has a mashup showing the live movement of selected satellites superimposed over the familiar Google Maps background. You can combine this view with an Iridium flare  prediction from the Heavens Above web site to get a Google Maps view of the expected track of a visible satellite too.

It is all a little geeky, but I find it reassuring to be able to get an explanation for such phenomena.

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