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.

OpenStreetMap

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.

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September 15, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job: Comparing GPS Devices

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 10:11 pm

I have just walked the first 100 miles of the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk; the section between St. Bees and Reeth in Swaledale. Before setting off I was keen to ensure that, as well as the obvious set of guides, maps and compass, I had a good GPS device to help with navigation when visibility got poor. I’ve been caught out in dense fog on a high fell in the Lake District and I know how difficult it can be to find the right route down in such conditions.

I already own two GPS devices: an iPhone and a TomTom GO 730 both of which are excellent devices and purchases that I am entirely happy with. I have seen a lot of discussion in online forums about the merits of various handheld GPS units and was aware of more and more software for the iPhone that made use of its built in GPS hardware. I wanted to know if either of my existing two devices could be usefully used on a trek or if I needed to invest in yet another gadget.

After much research I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was very very happy with it. I carry an iPhone all the time but I wouldn’t even bother switching it on if I had the Garmin with me. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its uses. For example, RouteBuddy have released a series of Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale maps of the UK National Parks which are stored on the iPhone and so can be viewed even when out of network contact. Their free iPhone application `Atlas’ can also be used to view the free OpenStreetMap map of the UK (and the rest of the world) and of course there are the excellent iPhone Google Maps and Google Earth applications. All of these are good for browsing in the pub or at home.

There are, however, a couple of big problems with the iPhone when used outdoors. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. With location services enabled to allow a GPS fix I estimate that you would be lucky to get more than two or three hours of continuous service from it, possibly less. A separate battery pack might extend that by a factor of two or three but you’d still be worrying about your chances of lasting for a good day’s walk and you would have the additional inconvenience of having to lug the weight of the battery pack. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously as far as safety is concerned, you will find that the iPhone is useless in the wet because when you are wet you won’t be able to operate the touchscreen. I discovered this inconvenience on a particularly wet day when I needed to call a Youth Hostel to book a bed for the night.

The map that comes with the Garmin is hopelessly basic, but if you download the free contour maps from the Scottish Mountaineering Society website and install (either manually or from the Internet) some routes and waypoints or POIs onto the Garmin it is an excellent hiking tool. Oh and it’s waterproof to 1 metre depth of water, its GPS is considerably more accurate than an iPhone and having it on continuously for 100 miles of walking it only got through 4 AA batteries. I’d rather have the combination of a paper map in a waterproof case (or one of those waterproof laminated ones) and a handheld GPS than risk having my map in the GPS. At least then if the device fails you still have a map (and, it goes without saying, a compass). The Garmin will give you a very accurate grid reference to read off on the map.

My advice is stick to the right tool for the job: iPhone for indoors, Garmin GPS60CSX for outdoor on foot and a TomTom (or similar) for the car. I don’t think any of the devices work well in the wrong environment.

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