Will the mobile map application decentralize?

When in Rome, use the mobile map app that the Romans use

When Google Maps crowdsources the density of smartphones to tell you how busy the Italian restaurant down the street is, they demonstrate a powerful result of being the most likely map app in everyone’s pocket: a near-monopoly on global location data. Other apps may provide similar information—real time or at least estimated crowdedness of a place—but Google does it best. Similar might be traffic density maps. But how often are these categories information from a local provider?

Thinking of local providers, GTFS comes to mind, the format that public transit providers adhere to which helps your Google Maps app estimate travel time by train or bus. This is a key part of many mapping applications, where you really don’t want to switch over to the SNCF app if you’re in France or the RTA app if you’re in Denver, but might rather just calculate in Google Maps how to get from home to the mountains, with a time estimate and transit schedule.

When it comes time to buy a ticket, you do have to often go back to the local app. In Denver I’d buy a ticket on the RTA app to get from the airport to downtown, while in Salt Lake City I used the local parking app to pay for my parking while strolling the city. The local app often still rules, though Google is changing this, too. Centralization at its best, all for the convenience of the user.

Last month, however, India announced a collaboration between MapMyIndia and the Indian space program. “MapmyIndia CEO Rohan Verma specifically named Google Maps and Google Earth as the products he hopes the new solution would replace",” reads the linked article. Verma specifically points out:

“…foreign search engines and companies claim to offer ‘free’ maps, but in reality they make money by targeting the same users with advertising based on invading user privacy and auctioning those users’ private location and movement data. This should be very alarming to all citizens”.

And so a new local app is born, which if not by organic popularity, then by government decree will become the best mobile map app in India—and also the best conduit for gathering data such as density of people at a given time, popularity of specific POIs, and search rankings. This brings a lot of value to a government, for better or worse.

Singapore already has such a app, called OneMap, which claims to be “authoritative national map of Singapore with the most detailed and timely updated information”, with local government agencies contributing data, and all in spite of major ma companies like Google and Grab having offices and a market to serve in Singapore. Meanwhile, in Kuwait, the Kuwait Finder app provides a similar service. In South Korea you may try NAVER Map, Baidu when in China, while in Russia maybe Yandex. There are various others, and it may be arguable that in countries less connected and globalized—think perhaps Uzbekistan, Bolivia, Bhutan, or Armenia—map data may be very difficult for a distant global company to obtain and digest.

This is why OpenStreetMap is of monumental value to any company with ambitions of a global map: it sources local data from local people. However, OpenStreetMap volunteers this data, while you probably don’t remember volunteering to Google your presence at the Italian restaurant, or the fact that you’re stuck in a traffic jam. These extra features, aside from just a basemap, are what really help drive engagement. Google can get these data in Armenia, even if none of the addresses are working well and the basemap is outdated.

Google’s efforts to activate local guides and crowdsource map errors have gone a long way, but OpenStreetMap still has soul in places where Google just has error logs and tourists making reviews. It may be something of a cold war that the users of each don’t really feel they participate in. With initiative’s like India’s new national map app, it is certain that Google is being pushed out, but will OpenStreetMap be leveraged to build these national maps?

Without OpenStreetMap, building national maps to displace Google Maps means a lot of proprietary data, even if converted to open data, and a lot of effort from GIS departments, land surveyors, and other groups collecting data who probably are not passionate volunteers. Singapore’s OneMap is an example, but in a small country with a good budget, and perhaps motivation to also have official ownership of the data Google would otherwise be extracting, it’s certainly possible to achieve.

On national scales, would small governments like Switzerland or Colombia or New Zealand be interested in assembling all the geospatial data they collect, filling in the gaps with new data, designing an engaging user experience, then launching and maintaining a mobile app? What is the benefit to them? What is the cost? All are very debatable.

What is probably unlikely is a mass decentralization of the mobile map app. It’s not just difficult for startups and even alliances of large private companies to compete with the Google Maps mobile app’s hegemony, but even governments with their ability to promote an app still lack many of the resources and even imagination to be competitive in this space.

What may be likely is that specific governments will succeed because of a few factors: first, lack of great map data locally that only a well distributed government service can collect and update efficiently; second, a motivation to get access to the user data that Google has proven such mobile map apps can extract; and third, conflict between Google and the national or local government, whether because the government is protective of citizen privacy, or hostile to globalized influences.

Overall, it may be questionable to see government map apps compete with Google Maps, because the same privacy issues may arise, but nonetheless if it is achieved, it could begin to chip away at Google’s geospatial supremacy on the global scale, receding Google out of many countries, including markets of billions such as China and India but also millions from Nigeria to Iran to Brazil, if the government so desires. Whether OpenStreetMap is the friend to any enemy of Google remains to be seen, but in a possible decentralized future we may be saying: “When in Rome, use the mobile map app that the Romans use.”