Map Happenings

Mapping Industry Tidbits, Activity and Musings

  • 12 Map Happenings That Rocked Our World: Part 2

    The Birth of Coordinates

    As I considered the list of Map Happenings that Rocked Our World, it seemed obvious that the next most significant event after the invention of the first map was the invention of coordinates.

    However, after I did some digging, I was a little surprised. The geographic coordinate system of latitude and longitude was invented way, way before the simple x, y, z coordinate system (also known as the Cartesian coordinate system).

    Personally I would have thought some bright gal or bloke might have invented a local coordinate system using x and y for their village or town way before some other bright person invented a system for plotting your location on the entire world. But no, apparently that was not the case. 

    The concept of latitude and longitude was essentially invented by a Greek chap called Eratosthenes (c. 285-205BC). He wrote on a wide range of subjects — including mathematics, geography, astronomy, poetry and music theory. In about 245BC the King of Egypt, Ptolemy III, appointed him to be the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. Eratosthenes’ work included inventing the first global projection of the world and inventing the concept of parallels and meridians — thus lines of latitude and longitude.

    Latitude and Longitude
    Latitude and Longitude as we know it today. Credit: Wikimedia

    One very interesting fact about Eratosthenes is that he is usually credited for inventing the term ‘geography’ and founding the science of geography. How about something like that on your résumé, eh?  

    But wait there’s more! 

    Eratosthenes’ other achievements include being the first to accurately calculate the circumference of the earth and the earth’s axial tilt, inventing the armillary sphere and for developing a simple algorithm for finding prime numbers. His masterpiece was a (now mostly lost) three volume work called “Geography” and an accompanying world map.


    Eratosthenes' Map of the World
    A speculative rendering of what Eratosthenes‘ map of the world looked like. Credit:
    Etching of an ancient seal identified as Eratosthenes. Philipp Daniel Lippert, Dactyliothec, 1767. Credit: Wikimedia

    So what happened next?

    Well let’s fast forward to the first century AD and the Roman province of Syria. It was there that the geographer and mathematician Marinus of Tyre was born.  Like Eratosthenes, Marinus wrote a treatise on geography. Alas his work is lost and is only known due to being referenced by other scholars. But Marinus did some awesome work to advance coordinate systems:

    His main legacy was assigning latitude and longitude coordinates to thousands of places — essentially he built the world’s first gazetteer. But this was well before the time when Greenwich, England was the prime meridian1. Marinus compiled a map of cylindrical projection, thereby also inventing the equirectangular projection. For longitude he designated the zero point to be the Fortunate Isles which passes through the Canary Islands (now ~ 14°1’W). At that time the world was thought to stretch from the Fortunate Isles in the west to China in the east. He designated the island of Rhodes in Greece as his zero reference point for Latitude. This is perhaps not surprising as Marinus lived in Rhodes.

    Oh, one other thing — Marinus also coined the term Antarctic — that being opposite to the Arctic. 

    Yup, clearly another outstanding résumé. 

    Next up: another superstar geographer — Claudius Ptolemy2 (c. 100-170AD). Like Eratosthenes,  Ptolemy lived in Alexandria and like Eratosthenes was also multi-talented: a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and a music theorist. During his life he devoted most of his energy to astronomy, but geography was far from ignored. His seminal work in this area  was “The Geography”, an eight volume masterpiece. Building on Marinus’ work he extended the gazetteer to over 8,000 places. 

    But it was Ptolemy who suggested that the lines of latitude be divided into degrees and minutes. The equator would be defined at 0 degrees and 90 degrees north at the North Pole. Lines of longitude were divided into 180 degrees east and west of a prime meridian, which, like Marinus, he kept at the Canary Islands. Ptolemy thus laid the foundation for all modern maps we use today. His work was so highly regarded it was copied and referenced for many hundreds of years and it was still influential in the Renaissance. Alas no manuscript of the Geography survives from earlier than the 13th century. 

    Ptolemy "The Alexandrian"
    Ptolemy “the Alexandrian”, as depicted in a 16th-century engraving. Credit: Wikimedia

    In the 18th century most countries in Europe adopted their own prime meridian, usually through their capital. Hence in France the Paris meridian was prime, in Germany it was the Berlin meridian, in Denmark the Copenhagen meridian, and in the United Kingdom the Greenwich meridian. It was the work of Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811) that eventually tipped the balance towards Greenwich. Maskelyne was the fifth British Astronomer Royal. Between 1765 and 1811 Maskelyne published 49 issues of the Nautical Almanac based on the meridian of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This almanac was the first to contain data dedicated to the convenient determination of longitude at sea. Even the French translations of this almanac continued to reference Greenwich as the prime meridian.

    In October 1884 the Greenwich Meridian was selected by the delegates to the International Meridian Conference held Washington, DC to be the common zero of longitude throughout the world. The French argued for a neutral line, but eventually even these cheese-eating surrender monkeys abstained.

    Thus history was made.  

    But what of today?

    Well a number of organizations have developed their own coordinate systems, with varying success. Countries did it to help them increase the accuracy of land surveys3. For example, the British have the Ordnance Survey National Grid and in the USA there is the State Plane Coordinate System

    On the commercial side various organizations are valiantly trying to wrench people away from latitude and longitude. Why? Because it’s really difficult to designate a precise, easily-to-remember designation for a location when that location has no address. And it’s certainly very difficult to remember long strings of numbers.

    There are two companies active in this space that I’ll highlight: one is Google and the other is an organization called What3Words.

    • Google’s approach to solving this problem is to assign six character alphanumeric codes to every place on the earth called Plus Codes. For example the Great Pyramid at Giza is located at X4GJ+98. Each individual code represents about a 14 meter by 14 meter square, which is about half a basketball court.
    • What3Words’ approach is a little more ‘cute’, assigning, you’ve guessed it, three words to each location. So in their system the Great Pyramid of Giza is located at ‘rooms.collect.denim’. It’s also available in 50 languages, so the same location in Greek is “κανονικά.καλώδιο.φώτα”. What3Words is a little more precise than Plus Codes and has a resolution of about 3 meters. 
    The Pyramid of Giza in Google Maps
    X4GJ+98 Plus Code in Google representing the location of the Pyramid of Giza. Credit: Google
    The Pyramid of Giza in What3Words
    “rooms.collect.denim” in What3Words representing the location of the Pyramid of Giza. Credit: What3Words

    While Google has open sourced Plus Codes they’re frankly still struggling to get traction. Personally I don’t know anyone in casual conversations that has given me, asked me for or even talked about Plus Codes. Unfortunately I think the general public has little or any awareness of their existence. But they exist in plain site. Go check Google Maps. 

    What3Words has been more successful — a number of well known organizations have adopted it. Even the whole country of Mongolia has adopted it. But What3Words has another problem. Google doesn’t need to make money from Plus Codes because it’s not central to their business. But coordinates are What3Words’ only business — so they have to make money. Unless some big rich company decides to buy What3Words out of the goodness of their heart (unlikely) — it’s going to remain a closed, proprietary system. As a result many organizations, particularly tax funded organizations, will continue to be trepidatious. 

    Both Google and What3Words tout their systems as being valuable for first responders and emergency services, and while it can help, it’s not always a rosy picture. I must credit Nick Heer at for pointing out the limitations. Nick stumbled across a catalogue of how What3Words is insufficient for emergency use: see What 3 Words is a Mess. Not a pretty picture. However, I’m also guessing there are probably as many good stories as there are bad and nobody’s put a similar catalogue together either. 

    But will these systems ever get adoption? I can’t see Google Maps using What3Words as it competes with Plus Codes. And I’d be very surprised to see Apple Maps adopting either system. I’m guessing the producers of other popular mapping apps in use around the world feel the same way. Time will tell. 

    Well that’s about it for this week — but there is one more thing…

    Remember my earlier reference to the simple x, y, z coordinate system, also known as the ‘Cartesian’ coordinate system?

    The Cartesian Coordinate System
    The Cartesian Coordinate System

    Well it was actually invented by none other than the famous French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes in the 17th century. Let me credit Wild.Maths.Org for telling the story:

    The coordinate system we commonly use is called the Cartesian system, after the French mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650), who developed it in the 17th century. Legend has it that Descartes, who liked to stay in bed until late, was watching a fly on the ceiling from his bed. He wondered how to best describe the fly’s location and decided that one of the corners of the ceiling could be used as a reference point.

    Imagine the ceiling as a rectangle drawn on a piece of paper: taking the left bottom corner as the reference point, you can specify the location of the fly by measuring how far you need to go in the horizontal direction and how far you need to go in the vertical direction to get to it. These two number are the fly’s coordinates. Every pair of coordinates specifies a unique point on the ceiling and every point on the ceiling comes with a unique pair of coordinates. It’s possible to extend this idea, allowing the axes (the two sides of the room) to become infinitely long in both directions, and using negative numbers to label the bottom part of the vertical axis and the left part of the horizontal axis. That way you can specify all points on an infinite plane.

    One last tidbit before we part ways: the word ‘Cartesian’ is an adjective meaning “relating to Descartes and his ideas”. 

    There you go. 


    1 The prime meridian, also known as the zero meridian is the origin or zero point of longitude. 

    2 Not to be confused with King Ptolemy III

    3 The earth is not a perfect sphere. As a result compromises have to me made in global coordinate systems that reduce accuracy. A dedicated local coordinate system can compensate for this imperfection and increase the overall accuracy of a land survey.

    Credits and Acknowledgments:

  • Location Harvesters, Personal Information Brokers & Assholes

    First let’s talk about assholes.

    I recently read a rather brilliant book called “Build” by Tony Fadell, who led the team that invented the iPod and who founded Nest.

    It’s basically a primer designed to mentor people building companies and what you should look out for along your journey. It’s an easy read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to build a business. One of the chapters in Tony’s book is about the various types of assholes you’ll meet along the way. In this chapter he does a splendid job of categorizing them into the following basic types:

    • Political Assholes: the risk averse assholes who take credit for everything and who are focused only on reaching the top
    • Controlling Assholes: the micromanaging assholes who strangle all creativity
    • Asshole Assholes: the aggressive or passive aggressive assholes who suck at work and suck at everything else
    • Mission-Driven Assholes: these are the ‘good’ assholes who are unrelenting and crazy passionate about the product. But they also listen. Yes… Mr. Jobs was a mission-driven asshole

    So all this got me thinking. 

    Could the world of location harvesters and personal information brokers — or as I like to call them, “PIBs” — also be classified into various types of assholes? 

    Call me a chicken, but I suddenly hear the many lawyers I’ve come to know and love over the years whispering warning signals in my ear…

    So on second thoughts maybe I’ll just leave the job of asshole classification to you lot. 

    Now of course much has already been written about location harvesting and location privacy. It’s been the topic of many articles and many blogs and I’m sure there’s more to come. Rather than regurgitate past articles I thought I would at least draw your attention to various ‘Happenings’ in this world. Hopefully I’ll provide a little bit of something you didn’t already know. Perhaps I can also provide an additional perspective. 

    So let’s look at the spectrum — from the good to the bad to the ugly. 

    And let’s start with the ugly.

    I’m sure you’d agree that ugly part of location harvesting is surveillance. I’m assuming you’ve all read about misuse of Apple AirTags to track people and the emerging legislative efforts to prevent it so I’m not going to cover that in detail here. 

    Instead I did want to draw your attention to an organization called Fog Data Science that has been singled out by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). They provide “a proprietary platform [that] analyzes billions of commercially available location signals to provide insight into digital device locations and movement patterns”. Their typical customers are law enforcement agencies. To quote EFF:

    Fog Data Science is a company that purchases raw geolocation data originally collected by applications people use every day on their smartphones and tablets. Those applications gather location data about where your phone is at any given moment and sell it to data brokers, who in turn sell it most often to advertisers or marketers who try to serve you ads based on your location. That’s where Fog swoops in. According to documents created by the company, Fog purchases “billions of data points” from some “250 million devices” around the United States, originally sourced from “tens of thousands” of mobile apps. Then, for a subscription fee that many law enforcement agencies are happy to pay, Fog provides access to a massive, searchable database of where people are located. 

    This means that police can open up their Fog map and do a number of things. They can draw a box and see identifiers representing every device within that geographical area at a given time frame. They can also use a device’s ID to trace that device’s precise location history over months or even years. Fog does not require police officers to obtain a warrant or other court order before acquiring this location data (unlike communication service companies that hold their customers’ location data and generally do require a court order). Likewise, many police departments that use Fog do not require their officers to get a warrant.

    Just catching the bad guys? Or is this potentially very ugly?

    Ok, so this is what happens, but let’s go into how the data get built…

    Well, just about any mobile app developer on the planet wants to get analytics on how, when and where their app is being used. As an app developer you don’t have to develop your own analytics software, you can simply leverage a third party API — or strictly speaking — an SDK 1. Many app developers also want to generate advertising revenue, and of course there’s an SDK for that too.  No surprise, but these SDK providers don’t provide you the SDK just for your benefit. They provide it primarily for their own benefit. They suck all the usage information out of the apps that use their SDK into one giant data “lake”. This can equate to trillions of locations, each with its own time stamp and device identifier. 

    That’s a ton of data. 

    But wait, there’s more.

    Back in the old days, Personal Information Brokers,  or PIBs, used to rely on data collected from national censuses to provide demographic data down to the city block level. Over the years these data have been refined and expanded with tons of other data, for example, information on financial transactions, product registrations, warranties, loan applications — the list goes on. Not only is the data now hugely enriched it’s now available at the household or even the individual level. These companies now know an enormous amount about your income & age, your immediate family, your lifestyle and your spending habits.

    Here’s the thing though: the advent of mobile devices has brought a seismic revolution to this data marketplace.

    No longer are you limited to just getting personal information on where people live. Now you can pick any location and get personal information on the people that are there now. Or even information on the people that are predicted to be at a location at some point in the future. And you can even tell where they came from and predict where they’ll go next.

    How is this done?

    One way to accomplish this is to take all the location data and timestamps mined from the app SDKs to see where devices spend the night. Bingo. Now you can marry the location data and device ID to the detailed income, age, lifestyle and spending habit data for a particular household or individual. And now all of that demographic data can travel with the ID of the device. 

    In other words: you now know the demographics of the people at any location at any time. 

    Because there is so much money in the advertising business there are a ton of companies piling into this location information business2. One such company is Placer.AI. Others include Foursquare, Near, PlaceIQ, SafeGraph, Unacast, and Veraset. In Placer.AI’s case you can take any location, for example, a shopping center, and get information on the visits by time period, the aggregated demographics of the visitors, where they came from and where they went to afterwards:

    Foot Traffic to and from Westfield Shopping Center in San Francisco – Credit: Placer.AI

    How is this data being used? Well one example is outdoor advertising, a.k.a. “out of home” or OOH advertising. More specifically it is being used for electronic billboards. 

    Using all the location data mined from apps — which is now married to rich demographics — billboard owners can not only tell how many people pass a billboard everyday but they can also tell the demographics of the people that pass it by time-of-day. So, they can run one ad on Monday morning to match the demographics of the people on their morning commute and a different ad on Saturday afternoon to match the demographics of the weekend traffic. And if you’re standing by a screen, say at a bus stop, the screen can use the SDK running inside an app on your phone to show you an ad that’s personalized to your device ID. 

    If you want to learn more, I suggest you read this great article in Consumer Reports from Thomas Germain: “Digital Billboards Are Tracking You. And They Really, Really Want You to See Their Ads.” Thomas explains:

    When we go out into public, we are often surrounded by screens showing ads. They can be on the side of the road, at the gym, in store windows, in doctors’ offices, and in elevators. You might assume that the marketing messages are playing on a loop, but sometimes these ads are changing because people like you are nearby.

    Data including your gender, age, race, income, interests, and purchasing habits can be used by a company such as Five Tier to trigger an advertisement right away. Or, more often, it will be used for planning where and when to show ads in the future—maybe parents of school-age children tend to pass a particular screen at 3 p.m. on weekdays, while 20-something singles usually congregate nearby on Saturday nights.

    Then the tracking continues. Once your phone is detected near a screen showing a particular ad, an advertising company may follow up by showing you related ads in your social media feed, and in some cases these ads may be timed to coordinate with the commercials you see on your smart TV at night.

    It doesn’t stop there. Advertisers are keenly interested in “attribution,” judging how well a marketing campaign influences consumer behavior. For instance, is it better to target people like you with online ads for fast food right after you see a restaurant’s new TV commercial, or to wait until after you drive by a new billboard the next day? The advertising industry looks for the answers by watching where you go in person, what you do online, and what you buy with your credit card.

    It doesn’t stop there. 

    There are two additional ways you might be tracked:

    • Ultrasonic Beacons in Ads: Ads on any TV, any radio or electronic displays can embed ultrasonic sound waves that humans can’t hear. But your device’s microphone can hear them just fine. Coded in the sound waves are data telling your device what ad is playing. The SDKs running in the background in that app your downloaded are happily listening out and transmitting the information back to a server. Now the advertiser knows how many people heard the ad, where it was heard and can also deduce the demographics of the people that were in the vicinity at the time. A lot of the tech for this seems to have been pioneered by a company called Silverpush about 10 years ago. They claim 150+ brands use them, including, eh-hem, Apple. So the technology is not new. Kaveh Waddell at the The Atlantic wrote a good article about it back in 2015: “Your Phone Is Listening—Literally Listening—to Your TV”.
    • Facial Recognition in Stores: so here’s the concept: you go to a TV/appliance store. While you’re there you linger in front of the latest Samsung TVs. At the same time a camera is watching you and assigning an ID to your face. A little later you pick up a charger for your phone and head to the cashier to buy it. The cameras are still watching you. When you make the transaction the store now has your personal information from your credit card. Eureka! Now they can match that face ID to you. Now they know you lingered in front of those Samsung TVs. Nice. So now you can enjoy the ads for Samsung TVs with that special discount coupon when you get back home.  For further reading  take a look at Kim Hart’s article in Axios: “Facial recognition surges in retail stores”.

    If you find all this rather depressing and you haven’t totally given up there are a few things you can do:

    • On Apple devices you should definitely “Ask app not to track”.
    • I’d recommend the location setting for most of your apps be “Only when using”. 
    • Don’t grant apps access to things they shouldn’t need. For example, does a weather app really need access to your microphone?
    • Got a Smart TV? Make sure you check those information sharing settings very, very carefully. Better yet, don’t connect your TV to the internet. Instead use a third party device like Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire stick or Roku. 

    [Somebody from the land of Android — please chime in with some additional suggestions…]

    Is there any good that can come from location harvesting? 

    Well it turns out yes — absolutely there is.  Let me end with two good examples:

    • Disaster Recovery: disasters happen all too often. When they do the First Responders need to know where people are, and more importantly who’s been left behind. A very visible example of this was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But it’s not just in America. It’s a global problem. As I write this Hurricane Fiona is battering Puerto Rico and Typhoon Nanmadol is battering Japan. And then there are wildfires, earthquakes and wars. In all cases the people and organizations responsible for public safety are desperate to get a clear and current understanding of where people are or, as they call it in the industry, a ‘situational awareness’. Companies and organizations in the location harvesting business should look to do some good and not just focus on figuring out how to make the next buck. It’s very difficult for disaster response  organizations to get a clear picture – the big companies that have this data don’t have any products designed to provide the needed information. I’ve experienced this having worked for a few large mapping organizations during my career. In the event of some disaster organizations would call, sometimes in desperation, to see how we might be able to help. There was never a clear answer. No product. No easy solution. Organizations have to go begging to anyone they can think of who might be able to help. To give them their due it is normally the cellular carriers that end up coming through. But still I’m not sure they have a readily available product for these situations. So, while there is tremendous potential there is clearly much more work to be done. I would respectfully suggest that the big boys — Apple, Google, Esri and the many hundreds of carriers of the world — step up to the plate and create a product that would benefit humanity. And yes — it can be done in such a way that doesn’t compromise privacy. @Google in particular: to a certain extent you do this already, it’s just not a product for first responders3
    • Transportation Planning: this is a lesser example than Disaster Recovery, but nonetheless still very valid and important. I’m sure you’ve all been stuck in traffic jams. Additionally there have probably been times when you’ve wished there was a public transit stop or route where one didn’t exist. Or perhaps you pine for a dedicated bike lane on a particularly busy street. Addressing these concerns is the work of transportation planners globally. Getting the information they need to make data informed decisions is hard. Really hard. In a perfect world they’d be able to mine anonymous, aggregated data feeds from the organizations that have it so better decisions could be made. It’s the same situation as for disaster recovery — the data exist, it’s just not in a form that’s easily consumable by the organizations that need it. Kudos to Strava for getting into this business with their Strava Metro product. Ditto Uber for the Uber Movement product. But what about those big boys in Cupertino and Mountain View?

    What’s stopping location data from being widely used for these two important cases? Mainly I think it’s cold feet from the big tech companies. They don’t want to be seen as sharing personal data, particularly with governments. But it’s happening anyway (see Fog Data Science). Big tech should figure out a way to enable location sharing for the general good in a non-creepy way. They’re smart — I know they can do it. Society as a whole would benefit. 

    Thanks for reading this far. I look forward to your commentary…

    1 Good article from Shanika Wickramasinghe: “SDK vs API: What’s The Difference?

    2 I found this great chart in an article from Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng in the Markup: “There’s a Multibillion-Dollar Market for Your Phone’s Location Data” listing 47 companies in the business. It’s about a year old, so there’s probably more companies to add to the list:

    Chart from 2021 indicating 47 companies in the location information business – Credit: Jon Keegan & Alfred Ng

    3 Note Google’s “busyness score” in Green Park near Buckingham Palace in London during the Queen’s funeral on Monday. Note the unusual spike: 

    Foot traffic to Green Park in London during the Queen’s Funeral – Credit: Google Maps
  • Why Rating Systems for Places & POIs Suck… and a Possible Fix

    When you’re using an online map as a consumer, one of the things you will undoubtedly do is search for places — or as the mapping industry likes to call them ‘places of interest’, ‘points of interest’ or ‘POIs’ 1

    In performing these searches there are generally two factors: one factor is almost always proximity and the other is commonly quality.

    Unless it’s something mundane like a fuel station this quality factor is incredibly important, especially for categories like restaurants, hotels and service providers.

    But have you ever gone to a restaurant with tons of great reviews and then found yourself totally underwhelmed… questioning why you even went there in the first place?

    Maybe it’s just my curmudgeonly self, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in this regard.

    Apple Maps and Google Maps have been adorned with ratings and reviews for places pretty much since their inception. After an initial affair with Zagat’s, Google quickly went their own way and built their own home grown rating system — almost destroying Zagat’s in the process. For many years Apple Maps took a partnering approach, first with Yelp, and then later with organizations like TripAdvisor, OpenTable, and LaFourchette2 . More recently you’re starting to see Apple’s own rating system creep gingerly into the picture, so it’s becoming a real melting pot. 

    The fundamental problem with all these rating systems is that none of them take your own preferences into account, so the ratings you see are this amorphous, unwieldy glob of data that provides little information that is tuned to the individual. Ipso facto you get good recommendations for crappy places and you may also get poor recommendations for places you actually think are quite good. 

    This, in my mind at least, makes all the rating systems pretty much useless. 

    Now of course there are work arounds: 

    • Work around number one: invest copious amounts of time delving into the reviews, and in doing so trying to pull out little nuggets of information that might indicate someone has said something that resonates with your own tastes or concerns. At the same try to guess which of these reviews were actually written by a human and whether or not someone was nefariously incentivized to submit the review in the first place. Ugh. If you’re like me you probably don’t have the energy to do this, especially as there’s no guaranteed success after expending all the effort.
    • Work around number two: ferret through curated reviews from publishers. Now here you’re onto something perhaps a little more reliable. If you happen to know a place on one of these curated lists then you can use that nugget to deduce whether you trust their recommendations as a whole. So, for example, if a particular hotel is highly rated and you agree with their rating then the level of trust you can put in the rest of the ratings from that publisher might increase. Conversely, if the highly rated hotel was, in your opinion, ‘meh’ or an armpit then you can probably ignore this entire set of recommendations and treat them as places to avoid. The fact that Apple Maps incorporates dozens of curated guides from well known publishers provides useful fodder for this work around. 

    But it all kind of sucks.

    So what have organizations done for rating systems in other industries?

    If you look at the big, nefarious world of online retail — and Amazon in particular — then it used to be that you’d see “People who liked X also liked Y”. However I see that this approach is now being replaced by advertising (which also sucks): 

    If we look at music, Apple Music has something called “Similar Artists”, but it’s not clear what algorithm they use to determine the recommendation. I’m not a Spotify user, but it does appear they might do a better job at providing recommendations.

    In the accommodations world, Airbnb doesn’t appear to offer any recommendation features other than generic ratings and reviews. In the restaurant world OpenTable now has a “news for you” feed, but like Amazon’s product recommendation feature it seems to be driven by promotional advertising.

    Moving over to social media networks it gets a little more interesting. By having the ‘follow’ concept built right into their foundations these networks provide a framework to get recommendations from people who you know or at least trust in some way. For example, perhaps your friend Yevgeny might create his favorite list of Paris restaurants and share it as a guide on Instagram3. Like Julia Moon who uses TikTok, you might stumble across a particularly enticing video about some new doughnut shop, but frankly this a approach still a bit of a crap shoot and it all takes time and effort. 

    It seems that only Snapchat comes close to a genuinely useful concept — it combines the set of people I know, their activity (and therefore their likes) with a map, specifically a Snap Map. But again it’s not perfect as it all takes energy to sleuth out where my friends are going and what they’re doing. And the whole thing breaks down completely if I elect not to participate in social media networks. 

    What I’m really asking for is the perfect automatic recommendation machine that takes zero energy and is not sullied or adulterated by advertising. 

    So is there a solution or am I in fairy tale land?

    Well perhaps I might posit one approach based on a classic Venn diagram:

    Recommend F, G to me & recommend A, B to person X

    There is the set of places that I like. If you combine that set of places with another person’s set of places that they like then they might overlap. So, for example, we might both like some of the same restaurants in London. But I might also like some restaurants in Paris that the other person does not know. Equally the other person might have liked some restaurants in Berlin that I don’t know. So the system recommends the Paris restaurants I like to the other person and recommends the Berlin restaurants that I don’t know to me. 

    I think the parlance for this kind of analysis is called ‘collaborative filtering‘.

    The approach has several advantages:

    • You don’t have to be a member of a social network
    • You don’t have to know anything about the people from whom the recommendations are drawn
    • You don’t have to spend endless time and energy rummaging through reviews trying to determine their pedigree
    • It maintains privacy — other users don’t get to see my lists of favorites
    • The recommendations are inherently personalized based on the set of people who have similar tastes to you.

    Now obviously an actual system would need to be more complex and would need to process a ton of data. But in today’s world that’s not out of the question. 

    Why has nobody taken this approach for a rating or recommendation system for places? 

    Perhaps the reason is that there simply isn’t enough raw data from which to provide any useful recommendations.

    To solve the data volume problem you need to make it super easy to rate places. Apple is doing this a little bit with their new rating system in Maps. Opentable encourages ratings after you’ve been to a restaurant booked via their platform. Airbnb does something similar. Google Maps has it even easier—  they have so much mindshare that businesses themselves encourage you to rate them on Google. So surely there must be enough data?

    Perhaps, like online retailers, companies are now much more interested in chasing advertising dollars than providing useful recommendations.

    The lack of any decent recommendation system for places feels like I’m missing a wheel on my bicycle. I can’t get anywhere useful. 

    So in closing I have a number of questions to ask the Map Happenings audience:

    • do you feel the same way?
    • why is collaborative filtering not used more broadly?
    • is there a better solution than collaborative filtering?

    1  I recently rented a Nissan Murano and was surprised to see their navigation UI used the term ‘POI’. Are you kidding me, Nissan? Do you really expect consumers to know the meaning of that TLA?

    2 Now part of TripAdvisor

    3 Although the Yevgeny I know would never, ever do that because he wouldn’t want to let the world know about his secret culinary haunts.

  • 12 Map Happenings That Rocked Our World: Part 1

    The First Map

    Now, before we get started, let me set the record straight. I am no historian, and certainly no map historian. My degree was in computer science. For the most part history classes did not get my full attention, although there were one or two exceptions.1

    As a result I generally know diddly squat about history, so you’re just going to have to put up with that. 

    However, as I got thinking about the key Map Happenings that rocked our world, it became quickly obvious that the very first one had to be about the invention of the first map. So a dive into ancient history was unavoidable.

    So, the question is, who started all this nonsense? 

    As you can imagine it turns out to be a somewhat difficult question to answer. There’s lots of information on the topic of early maps and, as as you’d expect, many differing opinions as well as quite a few disputes. We’ll get to all that in a moment. 

    The main problem is that these historical records don’t answer the question — there’s absolutely no way we can know who created the first map. 

    So let’s look at this in a different way.  

    If you think about any map let’s answer the fundamental question of what it is trying to achieve. I think the answer to this question is simple: it’s trying to communicate information. More importantly I think it’s trying to communicate information by providing an abstraction of the real world. So if we can all agree on this for a moment, let’s now think about it in the context of the human race. When did humans first become able to understand the concept of an abstraction? 

    If you can answer that question then it’s quite likely that around the same time some rather smart chap or chapess happened to take a stick, draw some lines in the dirt, and proceed to explain to their mates where to some find some juicy goodies. That, I believe, was the likely dawn of the first map. 

    To find out the answer as to when this might have occurred let me draw your attention to a rather good article from 2002 in the New York Times: “When Humans Became Human”, written by John Noble Wilford. In it he provides a brief overview of human history starting 2.5 million years ago and covers the various intellectual debates about the dawn of human creativity. 

    One point of view is that there was some sudden genetic advance and that in turn caused creativity to appear suddenly2. This is proposed in a book “The Dawn of Human Culture” by Dr. Richard G. Klein, a Stanford archaeologist:

    In [Dr. Klein’s] view, 40,000 years ago was the turning point in human creativity, when modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe and left the first unambiguous artifacts of abstract and symbolic thought. They were making more advanced tools, burying their dead with ceremony and expressing a new kind of self-awareness with beads and pendants for body ornamentation and in finely wrought figurines of the female form. As time passed, they projected on cave walls something of their lives and minds in splendid paintings of deer, horses and wild bulls.

    It was around this time that the first known paintings were created, the oldest of which was a cave painting of a pig from some 45,000 years ago.

    In my mind paintings are like maps and require abstract thought — although one could argue that maps require a little more abstract thought than a painting. I’m willing to bet that the first map was created somewhere around the same time as the first paintings. 

    But if we don’t know exactly when the first map was created or who created it, the question then becomes: “What do we know about early maps?”

    The first known map might be the Çatalhöyük3 cave painting from 6,200BC near Konya in Turkey. It was discovered by James Mellaart in 1963. It is thought to depict a volcanic eruption around a Neolithic village:

    Çatalhöyük Cave Painting – Konya, Turkey – around 6200BC
    Credit: Keith Clarke, UCSB

    Here’s what the painting is thought to represent:

    The Çatalhöyük Cave Painting is thought to depict an erupting volcano above the village
    Credit: Grant Cox, Art As Media

    As is common with ancient artifacts there is some controversy.  Is it a map, or is it just a painting? Some think it might just be a drawing of a leopard skin. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest listening to this three minute article from National Public Radio.

    A second contender for the first known map is a particular Babylonian clay tablet from around 2500BC. This was found in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ga-Sur which is near Kirkuk in Iraq. According to the Mughal Library this clay tablet has been generally accepted as “the earliest known map”. It was unearthed in 1930:

    Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (7.6 x 6.8 cm / 3” x 2.5”), most authorities place the the date of this map-tablet from the dynasty of Sargon of Akkad (2,300-2,500 B.C.); although, again, there is the conflicting date offered by the distinguished Leo Bagrow of the Agade Period (3,800 B.C.). The surface of the tablet is inscribed with a map of a district bounded by two ranges of hills and bisected by a water-course. This particular tablet is drawn with cuneiform characters and stylized symbols impressed, or scratched, on the clay. Inscriptions identify some features and places. In the center the area of a plot of land is specified as 354 iku [about 12 hectares], and its owner is named Azala.

    Babylonian Clay Tablet 
    Ga-Sur near Kirkuk, Iraq – 3800BC – 2300BC
    Credit: Mughal Library

    A third contender for the earliest known map is the Turin Papyrus Map which is an ancient Egyptian map, and according to Wikipedia is generally considered the oldest surviving map of topological interest from the ancient world. It depicts gold mines in Egypt’s eastern desert and was drawn about 1150BC, and so it is actually the earliest known geologic map. If you’d like to learn more I’d suggest reading this article from National Geographic. The map is on display at the Egyptian museum in Turin:

    The Turin Papyrus Map – Egypt – around 1150BC
    Depicts Gold Mines in the Eastern Desert 
    Credit: World History Encyclopedia

    The oldest surviving map of the world is likely the Imago Mundi which is on display at the British Museum in London. It depicts the Mesopotamian world with Babylon in the center and dates from 700BC to 500BC. Contrary to American geography, Babylon was actually about 50 miles / 80 km south of Baghdad and is not located on Long Island.

    The Imago Mundi – Babylon  (Iraq) – 700BC – 500 BC
    Considered the Oldest Known Map of the World
    Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

    So there you have it:

    • First map: likely a scratch in the dirt, probably about 45,000 years ago
    • Earliest known map, candidate 1: Çatalhöyük cave painting in Turkey from around 6,200BC
    • Earliest known map, candidate 2: Babylonian clay tablet from Iraq, created around 3800BC – 2500BC
    • Earliest known geologic map: Turin Papyrus Map from Egypt, created around 1150BC
    • Earliest known map of the world: Imago Mundi from Iraq, created around 700BC to 500BC

    There is just one more thing …

    If you’re into old maps and happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area I suggest you visit the David Rumsay Map Center at Stanford University which opened in 2016. Since the early 1980s David Rumsay has collected more than 150,000 rare maps from the 16th through 21st centuries. The Center contains maps and atlases in addition to interactive, high-resolution screens for viewing digital cartography. Sadly I’ve yet to visit myself, but I hear it’s tremendous. You can also see some of David’s collection by visiting his own web site.

    So that’s this week’s Map Happening. I hope you enjoyed it. 

    Stay tuned for the next exciting episode. 

    1 There were two exceptions that I found quite gripping:

    Exception 1: the British burning the White House in 1814.

    Exception 2: the Second Battle of Canton, fought by the British and Chinese in 1841. The battle was triggered by a severe trade imbalance between the British and the Chinese. The British were importing tons of tea, silk and porcelain from China. To equal this trade the British exported opium to China. According to Wikipedia: 

    The number of people using the drug in China grew rapidly, to the point that the trade imbalance shifted in [Britain’s] favor. In 1839 matters came to a head when Chinese official, Lin Zexu, tried to end the opium trade altogether by destroying a large amount of opium in Canton. In response to Zexu’s actions, in January 1841 the Royal Navy bombarded Chinese positions near Canton and landed troops ashore in several locations. Local officials surrendered and signed peace treaties with the British.

    2 An alternate point of view is expressed by Professor Ian Hodder, also from Stanford, but from the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology. He wrote a book called “Consciousness, Creativity, and Self at the Dawn of Settled Life”.  In his book Professor Hodder test the claims of cognitive revolution and argues that when the data are examined there is little evidence for it. 

    3 Pronounced “cha-tal hay OOK”

  • The Long Journey of Apple Maps: Abject Horror to Surprise & Delight

    As you might already know I worked at Apple Maps for a little while. I had the privilege of joining the team back in October 2013 and I finally elected to part ways earlier this year. When I arrived in 2013 things were in a pretty sorry state and there was a huge mountain of work to be done. Actually — several mountains. 

    Back then Maps — as Apple calls the team internally — was pretty much the laughing stock. The product got grilled and rightly so. Tim Cook had to issue an apology and Scott Forstall, the SVP in charge of iOS software and responsible for Maps, got fired.

    At the same time some of the criticism was actually pretty hilarious. One particularly acerbic piece of wit came from someone at Transport for London (TfL). For those of you not familiar, TfL often provides very specific information and advice in each London Underground station. In September 2012, shortly after the release of iOS 6, this sign was spotted in a tube station on the Victoria line:

    Credit: @binny_uk on Twitter

    My favorite criticism, however, came from a fantastically creative group called Puppet Shed Films who created a sumptuous parody of the Apple Maps Flyover feature.

    Flyover allows you to, well, fly over city scapes using high resolution photography draped over 3D models. Today Flyover is actually very good, but unfortunately in its original form the 3D models were a bit, shall we say, melty. This resulted in some very peculiar and unintended effects like bridges that dissolved into rivers.

    Puppet Shed picked up on this and developed this masterpiece video:

    Credit: Puppet Shed

    All joking aside things have changed quite a lot since 2012…

    Ten years later Apple Maps is not too bad. 

    Now, before someone on the Maps team lynches me and inflicts grievous bodily harm, I should hasten to add that when I say “not too bad” I am writing in English, not American. If you speak English as a second language — and, yes, I include all of you Americans in that group — then you may not be aware that English people tend to take pride in the understatement. So “not too bad” in English roughly translates to “pretty fucking good” in American. 

    [Side note: If you ever struggle with understanding what British people mean then I advise that you refer to this rather useful translation guide. It’ll go a long way to keep you out of trouble. I’m not sure who wrote it, but whoever did deserves a medal.]

    “What do you mean Apple Maps is pretty fucking good?” I hear the fans of the Mountain View mapping app and that popular cartoon mapping app say.

    Well, let’s just agree that it’s come a long way. It now has some pretty useful features — some of which are now better than the competition. But let’s also agree that while the accuracy and reliability of Apple Maps has been vastly improved there’s still work to be done.

    And like any product there are nooks and crannies that people don’t always know about. 

    So with that in mind, let us now switch to a few tips that I use all the time …

    Tip Number 1: Quickly Flip Maps Between Dark Mode and Light Mode 

    Personally when I use iOS I much prefer dark mode1. I’m guessing many of you  feel the same way. 

    However, when you select dark mode it also automatically flips Apple Maps to dark mode too. 

    Now I don’t know about you, but while the aesthetics of dark mode maps are lovely, for an aging curmudgeon like me they are a tad more difficult to read. Unfortunately there is no separate setting in Maps that allows you have light mode maps and keep dark mode for the rest of iOS. 

    So what is one to do?

    Well, here is a workaround:

    Go to Settings > Control Center and add Dark Mode to the list of Included Controls:

    Then, whenever you want to quickly switch from dark mode to light mode in maps, just swipe down from top right and tap this button:

    Voilà! You’ve switched iOS from dark mode to light mode — and therefore also switched maps from dark mode to light mode too. When you’re done looking at Maps you can quickly switch it back. 

    Tip Number 2: Create & Share Lists of Your Go-To Places

    For some time now Apple Maps has included curated guides from well known publishers around the world. They’re pretty cool and they can be quite informative and useful. Maps has also given you the opportunity to create and save favorite places like home or work (not that ‘work’ may ever be a true favorite of yours I realize). 

    But what you can also do is create your own lists of places, or to use Apple Maps vernacular — your own Guides. I have a number that I’ve set up in Maps myself: 

    To create one simply tap the “add to Guides” button on the place card for a business or landmark. You can then very easily add the place to an existing Guide or create a new Guide:

    The cool thing is it’s also very easy to share these personalized guides once you’ve created them. 

    I did this only the other day. One of my good friends was on her way to London, so I shared the list of my favorite London restaurants with her:

    Guides can easily be created, edited, renamed, deleted and shared in Maps on iOS, iPadOS or macOS. On macOS you can also easily drag and drop places from one Guide to another. 

    Number 3: Use Siri to Effortlessly Share Your ETA

    Now some of you may already be familiar with the “Share ETA” feature in Maps. In iOS 15 you get to it by tapping “Share ETA” when in navigation mode.

    Now when you’re in the midst of driving this can be a bit of a pain, particularly if the person with whom you want to share your ETA is not in the pick list that Share ETA provides. 

    So, instead you can use Siri. 

    Now, personally I hate Siri. Well, I don’t hate Siri per se, I just hate having to say “Hey Siri!”  I wish Apple would allow you to rename the wake words as Alexa does… then I could issue a command like Captain Kirk: “Computer!”, or perhaps if I’m feeling particularly grumpy: “Oy, Bozo!” 2

    The workaround for this dilemma is of course simple: press and hold the crown of your Watch for a second or so, or on iPhone, the right side button. Siri will then thankfully activate without you having to utter those nauseating wake words.

    With Siri thus engaged you simply give the command to share your ETA, for example: “Share my ETA with Tina!”

    There are two nice things about this feature: 

    • First it will automatically give the recipients updates if you get delayed, for example, due to traffic
    • Second, the feature plays nicely with Android users: they’ll be sent SMS texts instead of Maps notifications

    So that’s this week’s Map Happenings. I hope you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for reading and stay tuned for future episodes!

    1  Settings > Display & Brightness > Appearance

    2 This of course raises the whole ethical topic of AI assistant abuse. I’m sure we’ll see much discourse on this topic going forward. John Gruber has already mused on this: “I like saying thanks to my AI assistants. My wife thinks I’m nuts. But I worry we, collectively, are going to be dreadfully rude to them by the time they’re essential elements of our daily lives.”

  • Amazon + Roomba = Indoor Map Vacuuming? Discuss.

    So Ron Knox recently wrote a great piece for the Atlantic: “Amazon’s Dangerous New Acquisition”.

    In it he covers Amazon’s planned purchase of iRobot, the maker of Roomba, and talks about how we should be concerned about Amazon’s latest foray:

    Owning Roomba would give the world’s most dominant spy-tech maker yet another portal into our homes and lives. It could map where we live, what we own, and what it should be selling to its hundreds of millions of captured customers

    The latest Roomba models capture information that Amazon, at the moment, doesn’t have access to. iRobot’s new operating system maps the floor plan and contents of the spaces in which it operates. The vacuums are now equipped with a camera so it can respond to commands like “Clean in front of the couch.” But that means it knows what kind of couch you have—and crib, and dog bed, and so on.

    His piece dovetails nicely with my recent post on indoor maps

    Yes, in case you didn’t know iRobot’s latest vacuums automatically create an indoor map of your home. Here’s an image courtesy of iRobot’s website:

    So, let’s now put on our super-paranoid hat and riff on this idea a little, but in jest of course…

    Let’s say our mission is simple: make as much money as possible so our largest shareholder can hand out even more sub-orbital joy rides to his friends and family. 

    And let’s take a quick inventory of some of our successes so far:

    • Global domination of online retail: Check. Achieved with
    • Global domination of product search:  Check. Also achieved with
    • Global domination of warehousing & logistics: Check. Achieved with infrastructure
    • Global domination of delivery: Check. Well on the way.
    • Global domination of compute utilities: Check. AWS

    So continuing with this Dr. Evil theme, what else could we dominate?

    Some of you have opined that Amazon is clearly going after global domination of the home. After all, consider their products and acquisitions so far:

    • Amazon Alexa 
    • Amazon Ring people monitors, err, I mean doorbells
    • Amazon Blink security cameras
    • Amazon Eero routers
    • Amazon Fire TV Sticks
    • Amazon Prime Video
    • Amazon Music

    Now the acquisition of iRobot helps complete the picture, right? Not only do we get Roomba robot vacuums and Brava robot mops but we also get Aeris air purifiers. 

    But I put it to you that Amazon’s strategy is not about dominating the home. Yes, sure, selling you some more gizmos for your house can help fund more sub-orbital joy rides and perhaps another very expensive yacht that won’t fit under a bridge, but that’s not where the true value is. 

    The value is in the data — and this value could be substantial.

    I believe it was Clive Humby who originally coined the term “Data is the new oil” back in 2006. In 2011 Peter Sondergaard, formally of Gartner, took the concept further: “Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine.” 1

    So, now let’s say you’re anointed to be the new product manager in charge of global domination of data. More specifically you’ve been put in charge of a new product called “Complete View” which of course is designed to get a complete view of every consumer on the planet.

    So with your company’s existing assets you’ve got some great ingredients. You already know what people are buying, when they are buying it and at what frequency. You know what music they listen to and what TV they watch. And from the home routers you know what people look at online. And you also know when people are at home, when they are away and when someone comes to their front door.2 Pretty cool.

    The missing component?

    You don’t have a map to stitch it all together and add another dimension to your data. 

    But if you vacuum up indoor maps via Roombas you can create a much more holistic picture for your Complete View product. From system setup and room designations you can learn which room is which. You can even record who sleeps in each bedroom from the users who want to enable commands like “Alexa, go clean Timmy’s room!”  And of course from the camera you can associate objects with rooms as well as their current condition. 

    So now with the data tied to rooms and potentially also to individuals you can start to analyze this treasure trove to your advantage. 

    Imagine fast forwarding a few years and experiencing the following scenario: you’re sitting comfortably on your couch and suddenly Alexa perks up and says: 

    “I just wanted to let you know, your Aeris air purifier noticed a high concentration of ScaryPox-25 in Timmy’s bedroom. Do you want me to get Timmy a doctor’s appointment at Amazon One Medical? I can order an Amazon Zoox to pick Timmy up at 11am and take him to the doctor when you’re back from your errands!” 

    or perhaps:

    “I noticed the couch in your living room is looking a bit ratty. I found a great couch sale that’s going on right now. Do you want me to make some recommendations?”

    So if Amazon were to create such a data product, what would they do with it? Would they compete with traditional data vendors?

    The market for this kind of data is actually very mature and perhaps ripe for disruption. Organizations like Claritas have been in this kind of data business for almost 50 years. They can tell you where people live, their demographics, their psychographics, their lifestyles and their lifestage. And they can tell you about spending patterns and habits. And it’s all tied to location. One of the ways in which they do this is through something they call “segmentation”.  Claritas’ segmentation product is called PRIZM and it’s actually rather fun:

    If you live in the US (or know somebody that does), enter your ZIP code into Claritas’ web site here. Try it, you’ll enjoy it I promise!

    The result you get is a breakdown of the different categories (or ‘segments’) of people that live in that ZIP code. The segment names do a wonderful job of describing what kind of people live where. For example in the infamous Beverly Hills ZIP code, 90210, the dominant segments are ‘Upper Crust’, ‘Movers & Shakers’, ‘Money & Brains’, ‘Gray Power’ and ‘Urban Elders’, whereas in ZIP code 36617, which is in Mobile, Alabama, the dominant segments are ‘Toolbelt Traditionalists’, ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Li’l City’, ‘Lo-Tech Singles’, ‘Struggling Singles’ and “Park Bench Seniors”. Each segment is backed up by details, so for example ‘Toolbelt Traditionalists‘ have the following lifestyle and media traits:

    • Owns a Lincoln
    • Eats at Long John Silvers
    • Shops at Stein Mart
    • Attends NASCAR events
    • Cruises on Carnival
    • Visits AARP
    • Listens to Gospel

    So what am I saying here? Is Amazon going to go full tilt and swoop in on Claritas’ legacy business? They certainly have the means and the raw data to do it.

    But will they? 

    It seems more likely to me that Amazon would want to keep the data proprietary and for only for themselves. 

    I think the answer is simple. They don’t have to sell or license the data because they already have a derivative product. 

    It’s called advertising. 

    Amazon can use all the data they collect to support their mushrooming ad business3. So if your company wants to reach families who live in 3 bedroom homes, with three kids and a dog, who buy lots of Keurig coffee pods and watch Fleabag then, boy, do we know exactly who those families are! We’ll put up an ad front and center when they search for your product on Amazon. The conversion rate will be amazing — just you wait. 

    Am I being too paranoid?

    Does Amazon’s planned acquisition of iRobot/Roomba mean that Amazon is going to use it to help create a world dominating “Complete View” data product? Or does it simply mean that Amazon is trying to trounce Dyson?

    You decide. 

    1 The metaphors have been discussed at length by many. I throught Amol Mavuduru’s article on this topic was rather good: “Is Data Really the New Oil in the 21st Century?”

    2 Yeah, I know Amazon may not actually do all this snooping, but it’s fun to speculate, right?

    3 $31B and growing.

  • The Underlying Angst of Google Maps and Apple Maps

    So, if I may, I’ll start this week’s post with a little personal history:

    I first set foot in Silicon Valley back in 1985 with a freshly minted computer science degree from the University of York. Having only a tourist visa, a few hundred bucks in my pocket and no return ticket to the UK it was a case of “beggars can’t be choosers”.

    Little did I know the journey I was about to begin. 

    I stumbled around, dealing out my feeble CV, sorry, résumé, to anyone that would take it. After much unsolicited prodding and poking I arrived at just two options: one was with a somewhat boring pre-IPO relational database management company based in Redwood Shores1 and the other was with a rather exciting startup called Etak who had invented an in-vehicle navigation system, the likes of which you would only have seen in Q’s laboratory. It was an easy choice, and looking back most definitely the right one. 

    But Etak was way ahead of its time — about 20 years it turned out. It took that long before personal navigation devices — or “PNDs” as they were called at the time — started to become common. The price of the systems was partly to blame, many hundreds of dollars for a PND and thousands of dollars if you chose the navigation option from an auto OEM. Ouch.

    Mapping and navigation technology didn’t really reach the masses until February 5, 1996 when a new website called MapQuest launched. I was working at MapQuest at the time and, boy, was it thrilling stuff. Initially providing just interactive maps and later providing driving directions MapQuest took off like a rocket, riding the dot com wave to internet stardom. At that time If you got on a plane nearly everybody had their MapQuest printout, giving them turn-by-turn directions from the rental car facility to their ‘final’ destination. 

    Of course back in the late 1990s many people were still using paper maps. In the US it was the Rand McNally road atlas, in California it was the Thomas Brothers Guide. In London it was normally the “A-Z”.  But tremors ensued. Rand McNally’s response to MapQuest was, shall we say, “limited” and it wasn’t too long before business schools used Rand McNally vs. MapQuest as a case study on the impact of the internet. 

    With the advent of Google Maps in 2005, MapQuest sadly suffered a similar fate to Rand McNally. By then MapQuest had been acquired by AOL and AOL was wholly distracted with its acquisition of Time Warner. MapQuest was subsequently left to wither and Google took over. 

    But neither Rand McNally nor MapQuest suffered a fatal blow. Both still exist today (yes, really!)

    So now let’s fast forward to the present day. In the western world we have grown accustomed to two prominent mapping apps, one from a company based in Mountain View and another from a company based in Cupertino. Together they are the most dominant mapping apps in many countries around the world.2

    Upon launch their mission was almost identical to MapQuest. Their tag line could have easily been: “Find it, Get there!”

    This focus on finding a location and getting driving directions to a destination has remained the signature dish of these apps for many years. Now they both have a few more tasty morsels on their menu with the addition of navigation for pedestrians, public transit and, more recently, cycling. 

    But underlying all this has been a distinct ambition to offer more.  I think their aspiration has always been not only to enable “Find it, Get there!” but also to enable “Explore & Discover”. 

    You can see this through the evolution of the apps over the years. It was of course apparent with the inclusion of restaurant ratings and reviews. It has also been made clear with ever increasing features and eye candy to entice you to poke around more: from Google we got StreetView and, just announced, “immersive” maps. From Apple we got Flyover, Flyover tours, Look Around and, I would say, some rather delectable 3D city renderings.

    Google has remained steadfast in their process to crowdsource data, particularly for information about places. Apple, on the other hand, has tended to take a much more curated approach, as is their tradition. This difference is best illustrated by the now extensive set of guides from well known publishers that are built right into Apple Maps. 

    The question is, will all this effort work?

    Will people use Google Maps and Apple Maps as their favorite starting point for exploring where to go and discovering new places? Or will people just continue to use Google Maps and Apple Maps primarily for navigation?

    There’s been a lot of chatter about this lately. 

    Some of you may have seen the recent TechCrunch article where Google’s SVP for Knowledge and Information, Prabhakar Raghavan, stated:

    In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search … they go to TikTok or Instagram.

    Gulp. Pretty scary, right?

    I must credit Kevin Dennehy for pointing out this fascinating article from Slate on his Location Business News blog: Why I Use Snap and TikTok Instead of Google. It’s written by Julia Moon who’s starting her freshman year at Brown University in the fall. In it she says:

    I’m sure that idea sounds wild to older readers who are deeply enmeshed with Google’s simplistic search engines. But Raghavan’s research is spot-on. It all comes down to the fact that teenagers don’t just want straightforward information. We want a richer experience, one that is more visually appealing, and one informed by our friends and people who are like us.

    To be clear: I use Google products regularly. But I use them for only the most straightforward tasks: checking the spelling of something, looking for a quick fact, finding directions. If I’m looking for a place for lunch, or a cool new pop-up, or an activity my friends would enjoy, I’m not going to bother with Google.

    So let’s dig into this a little:

    Snapchat, for some time now,  has had a prominent map feature — Snap Map. You can use it to discover where your friends are and to discover the location of Snapchats around you. The map includes place search, popular places and even a heat map of where the action is taking place. 

    I suspect partly in response to Snapchat, Instagram has recently added their own map feature. I’m no doubt missing something, but the Instagram map does appear to be somewhat buried. The interesting part of what Instagram has done, though, is add local guides. Unlike Apple Maps the guides are crowdsourced rather than curated, but because of Instagram’s reach there’s a ton of them — for example 500+ in San Francisco alone.

    TikTok doesn’t have a map. But does that even matter? In her post, Julia Moon tells us:

    But I do use TikTok, even if it doesn’t have a map component. When the algorithm brings you to a certain video, it can be like finding a gold mine. I recently saw a video from a woman in my area sampling a new doughnut shop, complete with details on menu items, the best flavors, and a quick tour of the interior. Just after watching it, I made plans with my friends to go next week. Finding that shop on Google search would have probably required wading deep into results crammed with chain and established stores.

    I love recommendations I find on TikTok, because I get so much more information from a video than I would from perusing a restaurant’s menu or looking through Yelp reviews. For a technology-addicted generation with short attention spans, there is little incentive to go out of our way to find new restaurant openings, or click beyond the first page of a Google search for nearby activities. TikTok videos with recommendations are quick, informative, and visually immersive—factors that easily convince us to try something new.

    So the question I have is this:

    Will Google Maps and Apple Maps succeed in being the prominent “Explore & Discover” platforms, or will they forever be stuck in a “Find it, Get there!” world?

    That, I propose, is their underlying angst. 

    1 err, Oracle anyone?

    2 Baidu Maps, KakaoMap and Yandex Navigator are, I believe, the most popular mapping apps in their respective countries.

  • Tsunami Warning: Indoor Maps

    So here we are in 2022 and we’ve been digitally mapping the world in earnest for about the last 37 years. 

    Back in 1985 the nascent in-vehicle nav industry began mapping street centerlines and road names. Later they added attributes like turn restrictions and one ways. As technology allowed, the world of national mapping agencies digitized even more — land use, hydrography, contour lines, key landmarks as well as building outlines. Local governments did the same, focusing on all the information needed to run their cities such as parcel boundaries, sewer lines, water lines and fire hydrants. Utility companies joined the club, mapping their infrastructure so they could better manage and operate their investments. 

    2022 is a remarkably different world for digital maps than it was back in 1985. 

    Just as consumers would be lost (literally!) without their favorite consumer mapping app I venture to say that all of us in the corporate and government world would be lost without our enterprise maps and apps. How could we even think about running our cities or our businesses without them? It would be like going back to typewriters.

    However, there’s something still missing — and you no doubt guessed it from the title of this post. 

    While we’ve been earnestly mapping the outdoors we’ve been more or less steadfastly ignoring the indoors. There are exceptions of course — and I’ll get to that in a moment. 

    But think about it. 

    For indoor maps we’re maybe just beyond the era of the brick phone and about to enter the world of the first flip phone. Back then the only people who commonly had mobile phones were CEOs and VPs. Even in the late 1990s you would have to ask the question: “Do you have a mobile phone?” before you asked the question “What’s your mobile number?”

    We’re at about the same point today with indoor maps.

    How many of you have detailed indoor maps of all your facilities and buildings? I’m not talking about the CAD drawings or BIMs that were used in construction. I’m talking about interactive indoor maps and associated apps that get used to operate your building and provide valuable services to its inhabitants. 

    I’m guessing very, very few of you …

    So if we fast forward to the point of indoor map versus outdoor map equality, what might it look like?

    Well first of all you’ll be ridiculed if your buildings and facilities are not fully map-enabled. It would be like not having a smartphone. Anyone selling or leasing a building would be at a significant disadvantage if their buildings were not fully map-enabled, just as they would be if their buildings didn’t come with power, water and a high speed data connection. 

    Just as the use of outdoor maps is broad, the use of indoor maps will be equally broad. Yes, of course people will use indoor maps for wayfinding. That will be a given. But they’ll also use them for so many other important things:

    • to guide people with accessibility challenges, providing them with ‘stepless’ routes or voice navigation 
    • to locate people and mobile equipment, providing substantial increases in operational efficiency
    • to supercharge facilities management, so workers don’t have to wander aimlessly, hunting for that fixture in need of repair
    • to optimize resource allocation by using indoor analytics to determine the best location for a department or a piece of equipment like a copier
    • to get first responders to where they’re needed, fast
    • to help people in emergencies, allowing consumer mapping apps to flip automatically to “emergency” mode and guide users to the nearest exit

    This isn’t a complete list. There are sure to be new inventions along the way. Who, for example, predicted Uber or Pokémon Go when iPhone launched?

    For any building there will be multiple views into the map, just like any modern database provides multiple views into the data. So, from the single map-of-record there will be the visitor map, showing only the publicly accessible areas. And there will be the map for staff, showing offices, meeting rooms and “back-of-the-house” corridors. And then there will be the map for facilities management, helping them easily visualize the underlying building infrastructure. In large public facilities like an airport there might even be a map for security, perhaps showing locations of armories or a jail. 

    But how will all this happen?

    Well, there are a fair number of companies focused on indoor today, but we’re still a few years away from indoor map ubiquity. Some companies are more focused on indoor mapping while others are more focused on indoor positioning. 

    The list of companies includes: Apple, Dent Reality, Esri, EVS Software, Google, IndoorAtlas, IndoorVu, Inpixon, Magicplan, MappedIn, MapsPeople, Mapsted, Mapxus, Navenio, Navv Systems, NextNav, Office of Museum Research, Point Consulting, Pointr, Pole Star, Situm, VenueX, Visioglobe and Yinzcam. If you think I’m missing someone please let me know. I suspect I might have to add Amazon to this list shortly, given their intention to acquire iRobot. Ha ha.

    I hope to go into greater detail about the players in a future post, but in the meantime I’ll highlight a few companies that I think are distinctive:

    • MappedIn: MappedIn has a super easy content management system (CMS) to create, edit and maintain indoor maps of your facilities. And … you don’t need a degree to use it. As a result they’ve had a lot of success: MappedIn is used by the majority of US shopping centers and many of the Fortune 500 are using it for their corporate campuses. But the game changer may be MappedIn’s entry into public safety: they just launched a product developed with the US Department of Homeland Security to give first responders the situational awareness they so desperately need.
    • Mapxus: Mapxus is having similar success across the Asia Pacific region. They’ve map-enabled about 150 buildings across Hong Kong, including museums, hospitals, shopping centers and train stations —  with many more in the works. In partnership with Kawasaki Heavy Industries they’re expanding into Japan. What distinguishes Mapxus is their work to support accessibility by providing ‘stepless’ routes and non-visual guidance. You can see a video of their app here — it’s in Cantonese, but you’ll get the gist. 
    • Navv Systems: Navv Systems has developed an amazing indoor platform to supercharge logistics inside hospitals. They call the system “Care Traffic Control”.  As you might have guessed it’s inspired by the FAA’s air traffic control. Hospitals using the platform gain complete, almost real-time visibility into the precise location of doctors, patients and equipment. This makes dispatching and patient transportation incredibly efficient. It also eliminates the situation where doctors waste valuable time trying to find their patient. And equipment management becomes much simpler, for example: you can use it to quickly locate those 649 IV pumps that are still subject to a recall. 

    So what’s holding back the indoor maps tsunami wave? 

    I think there are three key things: 

    • First we’ve got to make it even easier to create “as built” maps. The problem is many floor plans of existing buildings fail to match ground truth due to the various building modifications and renovations that happen over the years. One set of plans might match one part of the building, but there’s no single version of the truth for the whole facility. Collating plans and making sense of reality is time consuming and expensive. Another more efficient way needs to be devised. Apps like Magicplan do an awesome job of this and iOS 16’s new Room Plan API should only make them better. By simply scanning a room with an iPhone you can more or less instantly create a floor plan 1. There may be some limitations with these apps due to the range of the LiDAR sensor, but it’s still a huge step forward. Here’s a challenge to Trimble: why not do the same with your longer range scanners?
    • The second issue is getting from the scan to a reusable floor plan with zero effort. The scanning apps that create floor plans should go one step further: they need to support export of the floor plan into a standardized format. One such format might be IMDF which is becoming a popular data exchange format for indoor spaces. Imagine if you could take a high-end LiDAR scanner, hit ’Start’, wheel the device around the facility, hit ‘End’ and the resulting vector floor plan was then exported as IMDF ready for importing into your favorite indoor CMS. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone’s done that yet. What I’m saying here (and will emphasize in more detail in future posts) is that widely adopted data exchange standards are fundamental to success. For example, where would we all be without PDF? Thank you Adobe!
    • Lastly there’s one piece of the puzzle that has to be solved to make everything work: you have to have an incredibly easy way to enable indoor positioning, so you know exactly where you are or where things are — not only the latitude and longitude but also which floor. For those of you who aren’t GPS nerds: GPS doesn’t work indoors and it doesn’t provide floor numbers. Fortunately there’s a ton of activity in the indoor positioning space, but there’s still more work to be done. No one has made enabling indoor positioning insanely easy. Some approaches require installing (and maintaining) substantial infrastructure. As a result they are expensive. Other solutions don’t require infrastructure, but still require walking the entire building to record the ambient radio waves from Wi-Fi and other devices. None are instant or perfect. The take away: it’s not like GPS. I hope to go into detail about the state of indoor positioning technology in a future post. 

    So in summary, dear readers, indoor maps are a Map Happening in the making. I will go on record to predict that indoor map ubiquity is not too far away.  

    Get ready for the tidal wave.

    1 The issue of correctly geo-referencing the resulting floor plan to latitude and longitude coordinates is also part of the challenge. There’s more work to be done by organizations to make this super simple and easy. 

  • The Intriguing History of the Map Navigation Symbol

    The question is: who out there knows the provenance of that vehicle symbol used in nearly every navigation app worldwide? As a follow up question — and perhaps even more intriguing — who knows why it was used?  What symbol am I talking about? Well this one of course:

    If you look at nearly every navigation app out there today, they use this symbol. The list includes Apple Maps, Google Maps, auto OEM navigation apps, Baidu Maps, KakaoMap and Yandex Navigator. It is the global standard. 

    So here’s the little story behind this ubiquitous symbol …

    It all starts in 1983 at a small start up called Etak, based in Sunnyvale, California. Etak was founded by the amazingly brilliant Stan Honey who had the idea of building the first truly ground breaking auto navigation system, the Etak Navigator. Stan is a sailor, and a world class one at that. He is renown for his marine navigation skills. One of the people that Stan sailed with back then was Nolan Bushnell, famous for founding Atari.

    Nolan agreed to provide Stan with the angel round to get Etak off the ground. He also provided Etak space in his incubator building in Sunnyvale. It was in this building that many of Nolan’s tech companies did their work.

    Etak also happened to be the place that yours truly got his start as a young engineer. The Etak Navigator was well on the way to launch by the time I got there, but there was still a ton of work to do and many problems to solve. 

    You have to remember how limited the resources were. GPS was not an option1, LCD screens and CD-ROMs were barely invented and hard drives were small capacity. All the latest technologies were cost prohibitive. On top of that CPUs were puny and memory resources were extremely limited — the Etak Navigator used an 8-bit Intel 8088 CPU which had just 29,000 transistors — take that M2

    Finally, pixel displays were, well, ‘pixelly’ and not good for showing detailed maps. They also required too much memory. The only good option was a vector display (like an oscilloscope). The downside of vector displays was that you could only draw so many lines on the screen at once or the screen would start to flicker. Maps and street labels meant tons of lines, so the engineers were always looking to optimize. 

    A traditional symbol for a car — 🚗 — required a lot of lines. It also didn’t clearly connote direction. Something simpler was needed. 

    But the Etak engineers had an inspiration. The inspiration came from one of the other Nolan Bushnell companies housed in the same building as Etak. 

    That company was Atari and one of their most popular games was … Asteroids.

    The spaceship symbol used in Asteroids was a natural choice. Just four lines! Clear indication of direction! Perfect!

    History was set.  The Asteroids spaceship has been enshrined in navigation systems worldwide forever more.

    So there, dear readers, is your first Map Happening. 

    1 GPS did not become fully operational until 1993. In the early days of GPS the receivers were large and expensive. Even if all of these barriers could have been overcome it would not have been a good choice: from the early 1990s to 2000 the accuracy of GPS signals was deliberately downgraded by the US government using a process called Selective Availability.

  • Welcome to Map Happenings!

    So after 37 years in the mapping industry I thought it might be fun to inflict my view of happenings in the geospatial technology world on a few of you.

    I’d like to throw you the occasional tasty tidbit of various ‘goings on’ and, from time-to-time, do a deeper dive into some relevant topic or company. Oh, and I might try to invoke a reaction from one or two of you through a particular musing or postulation.

    While I’m sure much of the focus will be on what’s happening now, it’s always fun to make guesses about the future. And, of course, let’s not forget the past. As Churchill said: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

    I will aim for quality, not quantity. Hopefully I’ll meet your expectations.

    Thanks for reading and stay tuned…

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