Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

More On Bing Maps

March 24th, 2010 by MDob

Last time, I focused on Microsoft and the potential future for Bing Maps. In the blog, I noted that three factors might impede their progress:

1. Reliance on NAVTEQ.
2. No obvious source of user generated content.
3. No difference-making presence in the mobile world.

In regards to the first point, let me be clear, NAVTEQ (isn’t the use of all caps in their trademarked name irritating?) provides high-quality map data that, in my opinion, is more accurate than the data of any other commercial provider of navigable map databases.

The issue for NAVTEQ is whether they can continue to afford to field the type of research effort they have funded in the past in the face of increased competition, deteriorating revenues from their online and PND markets and Google’s innovations in the world of mobile mapping. In turn, if Microsoft depends on NAVTEQ, can they expect the map database they license to remain the best in the market? A second concern for those using NAVTEQ data is that while NAVTEQ touts its activities with User Generated Content, it is, at this time, simply not a major player in the capture and use of UGC data for map updating.

Of course, that could change, but doing so would require a partnership between NAVTEQ and a company with a consumer-facing brand. While Nokia could be that partner in the mobile world (a significant advantage), there is no apparent partner for NAVTEQ in the online world, except, perhaps, Microsoft and Bing.

The second point I noted was that Microsoft currently has no obvious source of User Generated Content to improve their Bing mapping system. Even if they did, integrating user changes into external databases (such as the one they license from NAVTEQ) can be a legal and technological nightmare, although all of these problems are solvable. Further, if Microsoft decided to turn on the spigot for User Generated map changes, it is likely that their traffic levels would result in significantly less information being communicated than is currently being garnered by Google using the UGC approach. However, even these reduced levels of change information might work well with NAVTEQ data, since it is already more accurate than that served by the best of Microsoft’s competitors. Finally, did you know that you can map OSM’s data with Bing?

My third point was that Microsoft is at a clear disadvantage in the mobile world. Although their latest version is quite slick, the Windows Mobile platform is likely to experience decreasing take-rates because of the increasing successes of the iPhone, Android, Rim and Nokia smart-phone platforms.

So, where does that leave Microsoft? Maybe it leaves them thinking about “multiple representations” and augmented reality.

Multiple Representations, Microsoft and Maps

In an article in ArcWatch (published by ESRI), Mark Artz quotes Michael Goodchild (the VGI (Volunteered Geographic Information) poster boy) as stating, “One of the criticisms leveled at GIS has been its insistence on a single point of view.” According to the article, Goodchild continued, stating that a framework is needed “…in which individuals are able to assert their own views of their surroundings and play a part in local decision making.” Hmmm, does that mean that everyone can be authoritative?

Maybe this is what Microsoft is intending for Bing through the application of the imagery base map project that I mentioned here. Is Microsoft thinking about creating a highly detailed, up-to-date imagery database so that could serve as the “Philosopher’s Stone” of cartography? If users want to “see” their view of the world, or the view of the world espoused by their preferred source, what better way to show it than as an overlay on a highly accurate image of the surface? It would then be the users’ role to accommodate the discrepancies between the layers, if that was even important to them.

In other words, Microsoft may be thinking about taking the position that the imagery base is the best representation of reality and that any map is just another view of reality. For example, Bing’s preferred “street and road map” views might be the ones shown by the NAVTEQ database. Perhaps Microsoft realizes that in today’s world, everyone considers their view of reality to be the most convincing and, thus, the Company wants to use a highly accurate Bing Maps imagery layer to accommodate these varying points of view.

While an accurate base map would make most other representations more reliable (e.g., it would add positional value and authority to views like my favorite bars, my favorite restaurants, my favorite bike rides, my favorite neighborhoods, etc.), spatial accuracy is not the most important issue for many users. In fact, if I were to make a driving map of Los Angeles for tourists, there would be streets, freeways and segments of the city that I would omit, as they would add no touristic value to the message I want to send. My tourist map would be a “view” of Los Angeles and, potentially, authoritative for the use for which I designed it, but for no other purpose. Of course, in this scenario, the notion of “authoritativeness” would be decided by the crowd, but on what basis? Hmmm, maybe we should think about that sometime?

But wait, isn’t the concept I just described the idea behind map mash-ups? Hmmm. On the other hand, does anyone in the industry back-up the mash-ups (cute huh?) with a rectified imagery database at a uniform scale, like the one Microsoft is undertaking? No. So, maybe it is an opportunity for them.

Augmented Reality, Microsoft and Maps

Augmented Reality (AR) is probably a misnomer when used with maps, since maps are not reality, but a generalized representation of reality captured at a moment in time. Perhaps better thought of as an example of “mediated” reality, the use of computer graphics to mold “view” information to a map in a manner that can enhance a person’s physical experience with the environment, is a powerful tool. For example, in the last blog on Microsoft I included a video of Blaise Aguera y Arcas demonstrating the use of Photosynth as an AR tool augmenting Microsoft’s Streetside imagery. By adding visual cues and clues to overlay map-like imagery on an actual map, one can construct useful tools that help people perform tasks important to them, like providing a path right to the door of the second floor music shop that for all your looking you cannot seem to find from the street or from a look at the map.

Microsoft seems determined to enable Bing Maps to “reflect reality as perceived by the user”. While this initiative will undoubtedly prove popular, it does, once again, raise the question of authoritativeness and its role in mapping. (My sizzling six-part expose on authoritativeness, done last year, can be found here.). Regardless, it appears that Microsoft is hard at work carving out a niche in the mapping world that they may be able to solve better than anyone else does.

A Final Note

While reviewing my notes for this blog, I thought that perhaps it is time to throw in the towel on accuracy in mapping. After all, Google has finally fixed the I–195 realignment in Providence. However, Bing (and NAVTEQ – a company I touted as having the most accurate navigable map database) still have not fixed the five-month old problem of “missing” the closing and destruction of a major section of interstate highway. Guess that’s just a different “view” of the interstate network in the United States.

User “views” may soon be considered by some to be more important to mapping than “authoritative views”. Sometime in the future, someone may wake up and realize that this has been a terrible mistake. And so it goes.

For those who have asked – you can see some of the photos from my trip to the Mojave Desert on the ThereArePlacesblog.

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Posted in Authority and mapping, Bing maps, crowdsourced map data, Google, map updating, Mapping, Microsoft, Mike Dobson, Navteq, Nokia, OSM, User Generated Content

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