Map Accuracy, Google, NAVTEQ and “Free”
In one of my last columns, a reader raised the issue of the real “value” of free data, suggesting that with Google’s free map data that you get what you pay for. Since that comment, Nokia decided to enter the “free” map market by provisioning a subset of its higher-end phones with NAVTEQ Maps (Nokia owns NAVTEQ).
I think there are at least two strategies at work here. First, Nokia is attempting to protect its market position as a handset provider in the United States and Europe by offering a service competitive or superior to Google in terms of the quality of its map data. The second part of the strategy may be an attempt to expand its market dominance in areas where Google currently does not have the navigable map database coverage that NAVTEQ can provide Nokia. On the other hand, Google, through inputs from Google Map Maker, can provide navigation for pedestrians in more locations than those in which NAVTEQ has car-navigation databases and this may allow Google to be more successful in countries where cars are not the principal means of transportation.
However, as we have postulated before the key differentiator in many geographical markets may not be the map data or the navigation services themselves, but the supporting role they play in local search and, perhaps, social networking in respect to geo-targeted advertising.
In an interview with Kevin Dennehy of GPS World http://www.gpsworld.com/lbs/did-googles-market-grab-spur-tcs-purchase-nim-9246 I indicated that “…Google is not competing directly with TeleNav, TeleAtlas, MapQuest or anyone else who is not in the advertising business. All the poor souls in mapping, navigation, LBS and Local Search are being crushed by Google’s relentless innovation to produce a better advertising engine. It is impossible for most application companies to compete with Google today, because Google regards their “apps” as a means to an end, not as the core business. They are making so much money that they can afford to innovate, spend 50 million on a project and “dump it” if it does not work they way the want it to work.” I added, “While the end user may think of Google as a utility providing search services, map services, routing services and information services, Google thinks of itself as an advertising engine that has an opportunity to touch its end-users with advertising everywhere they go.”
If my insights on this topic have any value, it is in raising two interesting questions. First, “Just what level of accuracy does Google require to support its advertising business?” Next, “What influence will Google’s data quality have on the rest of the industry?” The most troubling aspect of this latter question, at least to me, is the difficulty of increasing the accuracy of map databases while dealing with the increasing costs of data acquisition in a market that seems destined to provide free map data and routing services. However, let’s get talk about the Google data quality issue and then move on to other topics next week.
As noted previously in this blog, Google dumped TeleAtlas because they were unhappy with the accuracy of the product and thought they could do better. Perhaps this is where we can start the trail of trying to determine Google’s map accuracy goals. Although it is still very early in the game, Google is not providing data that is more accurate than its competitors are providing and in most cases is not providing data as accurate as its competitors map data. Google seems to have adopted its “free” model based on this sentiment – “We will provide the map base and keep it relatively current, but you, Mr. or Ms. User, need to fix what doesn’t work for you.” Is it possible that this will become the entry-level standard in the mapping industry? Of course, that means that you can provide input on map errors that is actually accepted, but let’s discuss that some other time.
Although Google has built an map compilation engine that should be able to solve the map accuracy and currentntess problems of the industry, having built the engine is neither the measure of an ability to integrate it into a system that can solve the problem, nor a measure of the ability of the Google Team to manage a workable map update system to produce the desired level of results.
Some of the errors in the Google-mapbase are unforgivable. For instance, its maps are missing the I-195/I-95 re-alignment in Providence, even though their Street View offering provides imagery of the new alignment (I guess they just didn’t know that the road segment they were driving on was a new section of I-195). If you want more detail, take a look at this note from the Rhode Island DOT website. The DOT’s note ends with this interesting sentence, “Keep in mind that online mapping programs and GPS systems will not reflect these changes.” Thanks to Jim for pointing this out.
According to the Rhode Island DOT this is the situation on the ground. as of last October. You can download a PDF of this image that you can zoom to your hearts delight from the Rhode Island DOT.
Of course, if you look online at Bing Maps, you will see this
If you look at Navteq, you will see this (at least the traffic is stopped).
and look at the aerial image Google provides.
Ouch! If this is the best of premium data and free data, well, bring back the days of paper maps. Maybe there is an alternative. Let’s talk about that next time.