Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TomTom says crowd-sourced maps are better for mobile LBS

The phrase “crowd-sourced” often causes brows to wrinkle when it comes to mobile or on-line services. But Rik Temmink, VP of global product management for GPS navigation experts TomTom says that crowd-sourcing when it comes to digital maps doesn’t lead to subjectivity and low standards. In fact, he claims, it can lead to much more accurate results.

Speaking at the Location Business Summit in Amsterdam, Rik Temmink took us through TomTom’s experience with crowd-sourcing, and how it feels the area will develop.

Three years ago, TomTom enabled user contributions to mapping through a service called Map Share. It was based on the notion that people “on the street” are much more keyed to local map information than any company is. They can see in real time what happens in their local area - roads closing and opening, traffic flow changing direction as one-ways systems change, even new areas opening up in the form of housing developments. But there’s more information that the “crowd” can provide. They have local knowledge, and can provide opinion on areas along with just raw data. Map Share allowed them to correct mistakes and make changes to their maps. They could add or remove roundabouts or roads, and change the direction of traffic flow on a street. These edits could be pushed through to the user community, and once they were validated they became an official part of the map.

The thing that surprised TomTom here was the great response it got from the user base. Since launch, over 11 million Map Share reports have been uploaded from over 2 million devices. This includes 1.7 trillion updates that TomTom refers to has “passive” GPS measurements. These are updates that the user doesn’t actually know they’re making… but don’t worry, every effort is made to ensure the anonymity of those updates. But what these passive uploads provide is a rich field of information including altitude, speed and direction. In effect, TomTom can see exactly how a large body of people are driving through a city. Rik showed the example of the Russian city of Minsk - a city that TomTom has no mapping information for. But by mapping the passive updates from people who drove through the city, it was able to not only create an accurate street map based on user movement alone, but also to see where all the major traffic choke points were on that map.

In 2008, TomTom formally combined with digital mapping provider TeleAtlas - and it began to use both crowd-sourced and professionally gathered data to create maps. And this is what you might call the “secret sauce”. For those who ask “how can you trust something that has been crowd-sourced?” the answer is that you cross-reference that data with information from other sources - like government ordnance surveys. TomTom regards professional and crowd-sourced map information as equally important, and both sources feed into a joined map.

Crowd-sourcing also allows TomTom to see what areas of the map they need to update. As Rik said “map maintanance is the hardest part. It’s a horrible job having to continually monitor roads to make sure the maps are up to date. But since we can accurately see what direction cars are driving on a street, we can constantly update directionality of roads through GPS. It also allows us to find a new road… or eliminate an old one.”

What we think?

I remember when I first encountered the OpenStreetMap project - it’s a completely user-generated world map, created to offer an open source alternative to services like Google Maps and TeleAtlas. At the time I thought, “can user-generated maps ever really compete with the big boys?” It turns out that the question is redundant - the big boys are already doing it.
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