Mapping technology, which leverages GPS and Earth Observation data, has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, so much so that we trust it implicitly even when it’s not perfect. Case in point, the examples of GPS directions taking drivers on wild journeys through parks and lakes. But even with its current imperfections, innovations in mapping have undoubtedly changed our lives for the better and generated attractive investor returns along the way. To better understand where future opportunities may exist, let’s look back at where it all began.
In the 1990s there were a few pivotal moments in the realm of computer architecture, computational infrastructure, and computer hardware that enabled the next generation of mapping technology. It was because of these technical innovations (GPUs, APIs, etc.) that in the early 2000s a company called Intrinsic was able to come to fruition and ultimately change the consumer mapping industry. Intrinsic was a group of pioneering engineers determined to build a cross-platform video game engine (a ten year predecessor to Unity) that accidentally created Google Earth. Now known as Keyhole, the technology was acquired by Google in 2004. After it was acquired and relaunched as Google Maps and Google Earth, the first web-app for consumer facing mapping content was born.
The Google Effect
Google Maps launched the first version of their product, a desktop application, in 2005 as a solution to help modern consumers navigate from Point A to Point B. This product competed directly with Mapquest, the first free online web mapping service, which provided turn by turn directions that users would print out and take with them on their journey. Shortly after, the company launched Google Earth ushering in a new kind of digital exploration using high-definition satellite images spanning 36 million square miles of Earth. Immediately following, the team announced the Google Maps API, a developer tools offering that has since been used on more than 5 million websites. From 2005-2007 the mapping team focused on building out core navigation functionality, including the Google Trips planner and Real-time traffic. Then, in November of 2007, version 2.0 of Google Maps was released on mobile, forever changing the consumer experience and expectations for mapping. Since then the team has iterated on this core product offering, rolling out an expansive collection of features that range from offline navigation to “global localization with augmented reality.”
After Google launched location-enabled products, mobile maps quickly became the new consumer standard. Today, these use cases are powered by four main components of the modern mapping stack: Data, Maps, Visualization, and Analytics. This led to a burgeoning need for highly precise location data, recommendations and routing, which is one of the reasons why in 2013, Google acquired Waze for $1.2 billion granting them access to the movements of nearly 50 million users.
While crowdsourcing started to change the fabric of how consumers interact with places, giving rise to companies like Foursquare and Yelp, at the same time there was a surging demand for better quality data in places beyond urban metropolitan areas. There to heed the call was OpenStreetMap and the movement’s volunteer mappers.
The Impact of Open-Source Mapping on the Next Wave of Companies
Launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free collaborative open-source online mapping service that is built on a network of volunteer contributors and open data. While this infrastructure has continued to evolve since the founding of the platform, it now enables contributors to tag, trace, and tile map data on a near-real time and continuous basis.
“As the data becomes more valuable and is used for an ever-increasing list of projects, the integrity of the information has to be almost perfect. These companies need to make sure there’s a good map of the places they want to expand in, and nobody else is offering that, so they’ve decided to fill it in themselves.”
Each month hundreds of millions of users interact with OSM services by way of the growing number of private sector companies. This influx of private capital has also led to a shift in the discourse about participation in the OSM community; more specifically focusing on “the motivations for why members contribute map data and the resulting data quality.” With corporate editing representing the latest stage in the evolution of corporate involvement in OSM, questions arise about the multiple uses of OSM. One company that preempted Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook with a new idea was Mapbox.
How Mapbox saw the Strategic Advantage of OSM First
Valued at $1 billion in 2018 after raising a $160 million Series C from SoftBank, Mapbox is a premiere developer tools platform that sells APIs, Mobile SDKs, and Location-Solutions. The company spun out of Development Seed, an international development consulting company focused on working with governments to visualize large geospatial datasets. In 2008 the team built a suite of developer tools on top of OpenStreetMap for customers that needed location data beyond the borders of the United States. At a high level, these tools focused on creating new ways to ship geographic data to client devices where data can be rendered on the fly. Shortly after engineering teams began to see the value-add of the Mapbox product stack, the team signed their first commercial client, Foursquare. Then in 2013, the team raised a $10M Series A from Foundry Group to build the future of interactive, mobile maps.
Early on Mapbox was focused on building for mobile-first; an approach that helped drive the core product development to be modularized, nimble, and lightweight. The cross-platform infrastructure that spans offline use cases, AR, and dynamic map updates are some of the key differentiators that set this technology apart. While the team has made impressive contributions to open data and open source over the past eight years, the team has yet to go public after raising over $300 million. While the core technology strategy remains fundamentally the same - leverage the telemetry from their mobile SDKs to collect, aggregate, and anonymize foot traffic data as well as video (through the use of their Vision SDK) - there is an unclear path forward. While Mapbox may be unclear of how it wants to move forward, they face fierce competition from new players in the game.