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

Why Nokia And MetaCarta?

April 18th, 2010 by MDob

Last week the press was full of reports of Nokia acquiring MetaCarta, a privately held company focused on “Geographic Search and Referencing Solutions”. MetaCarta claims that its geosearch and geographic referencing software makes geographic information actionable with geographic text search and content referencing.

The press release issued for the action was uninformative, and looked like this – “Espoo, Finland – Nokia announced today that it has acquired MetaCarta Inc. MetaCarta, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a privately owned company which employs over 30 people and has expertise in geographic intelligence solutions. MetaCarta’s technology will be used in the area of local search in Location and other services.”

The obligatory “About MetaCarta” section of the press release was slightly more informative, indicating in “marketing speak” that, “MetaCarta Inc. provides powerful technology for finding anything written about any place. MetaCarta unique technology combines geosearch and geotagging capabilities allowing users to find content about a location in internal and external data stores. MetaCarta’s products make data and unstructured content “location-aware” and geographically relevant for easier organization and quicker action.”

This modest acquisition caught the attention of Reuters, Information Week the Washington Post and other major new sources, but it appears that no one has a clue about what attracted Nokia to MetaCarta.

Somewhat curiously, one source reporting the acquisition indicated (in error) that MetaCarta was specialized in GPS navigation, which, I am sure, came as a surprise to MetaCarta.

Another curiosity is a reference at the MetaCarta site, under a page titled MetaCarta Research (2005 section) that for some reason cites “Unlocking your Nokia Phone” by Schuyler Erle in Nokia Smartphone Hacks published by O’Reilly.

I have followed MetaCarta since I first heard about them in 2001 and have spoken with the company’s founder John Frank. In addition to hearing him speak about the company at a few conferences, several years ago he and I spent some time discussing MetaCarta and its business model at the NCGIA conference on Digital Gazetteers held by the Geography Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Even with the insights provided by John, I was never sure that I saw a sustainable market for their products, which, as noted above, are aimed at making data and unstructured content, which include “geographic” references, spatially aware. I realized that their software might be of use in the intelligence community where thousands of place names in news reports need to be geographically referenced. In addition, I could understand the attraction of the software to energy companies whose legal departments needed to review the “geographical” descriptions of places contained in the exploration and drilling leases they held around the world. But I was not sure that MetaCarta had a model that would allow them to be considered authoritative across a wide spectrum of users in a large marketplace such as local search, where everyone is searching for a unique, sustainable, competitive advantage. And yet, Nokia takes them off the table.

Place name geography is a difficult thing to parse and MetaCarta has been actively exploring this challenge for several years. While Nokia might be content to let MetaCarta continue serving the energy, defense and document industries, these are clearly not of core interest to Nokia, not huge money makers and may be abandoned. So what’s the real interest in MetaCarta?

I guess you could speculate on this for hours and not come to a definite answer on the “why” of the acquisition. While speculating can be interesting and good fun, deals often come down to a simple, but unexciting explanation; corporate big wigs like to “do” deals, as running a business day-to-day is quite boring for most high-powered executives. However, in this case, I think Nokia had a reason. Let’s look.

MetaCarta is a glorified gazetteer. Yep, it has elegant software and algorithms that help it “localize” unstructured text into valid place names associated with a spatial context, but more importantly, under the hood MetaCarta has a authoritative gazetteer. However, since Nokia already owned NAVTEQ, why would they need to add any more location awareness to their local search capabilities?

Oh, that’s easy. OVI maps are available for over 180 countries with car and pedestrian navigation available for 74 countries. Conversely, according the NAVTEQ website, it provides map coverage only in 78 countries.

Let’s see, that means that Nokia has maps for 102 countries not provided by NAVTEQ. It is unlikely that Nokia had the metadata and contextual gazetteers for those 102 countries and without these data the company would likely be hampered in fielding a meaningful local search platform. The answer to solving this problem was to buy MetaCarta, a company that the goods, but in my opinion was failing and could be had for a song.

Why could MetaCarta be had for a song?

Nobody else wanted MetaCarta! Google already has the gazetteer and contextual data, much of it from user generated content and their own search systems deployed in countries around the world. Yahoo purchased WhereOnEarth several years ago and used the assets from the company to develop segments of its location search platforms. Microsoft appears to have similar capabilities that it originally developed for its Expedia offerings and migrated to local search. It’s good to be wanted, even if only by one company. And so it goes.

One More Thing

One of the problems of mobile local search is what I call “farcasting”, which is communicating information about something you intend to do while in transit to your eventual destination. While the GPS coordinates generated by your phone can tell your carrier where you are and provide targeting for advertising, it often lacks the ability to contextually associate an action with a place at which you have not yet arrived. Having guidance on the location of the place to which you intend to travel and your planned activity would allow location based advertisers to up the bid for the geospatially targeted advertising they could serve you. So, if you texted “dinner in laguna hills at 5?” when you were leaving LAX airport, Nokia could parse that message to reveal spatial and behavioral clues that might be very interesting to advertisers. However, thanks to MetaCarta, Nokia can now provide that same service just about anywhere in the world.

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Posted in geographical gazetteers, Local Search, local search advertising, Mapping, Navteq, Nokia, Nokia Ovi Maps, place based advertising

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