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

Unintended Consequences – The Roles of Google and Crowdsourcing in GIS

March 18th, 2013 by admin

The following blog is a concise, non-illustrated version of a keynote address I gave at the North Caroline GIS conference last month in Raleigh, NC.

There is little doubt that Google has created an incredibly successful mapping product, but it is at this point that the law of unintended consequences may occur and diminish not only the success of Google Maps, but also hinder mapping and GIS in the wider world.

Let’s start by looking at what I mean by “unintended consequences.” In simple terms an unintended consequence is not a purposive action, it is an outcome. Outcomes can be positive, such as a windfall. Outcomes can be negative, such as a detriment. Or, results can be perverse, in which case the outcome is contrary to what was expected. My focus in this blog is on the negative outcomes, although some may typify them as a case of the glass half-full.

The romantic notion that cartographers wandered the world with charts and map tables so they could compile map data as they explored is the stuff of history. For countless decades map publishers have created map manuscripts by compiling data collected from sources that were considered authoritative and it is this model that Google had adopted. From a practical perspective, it is impossible for any single company to map the entire world at a street and road level without the help of contributors from the public sector, private sector and ordinary citizen scientists interested in maps, geography and transportation.

It is my belief that Google, due to the success of its search engine and the pursuit of its corporate mission “…to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, has been unusually successful in convincing authoritative sources around the world to allow Google to use their data in its mapping products. In some cases this has involved licensing or use agreements, and Google has advantaged itself by integrating data from sources that it considers the “best of breed” to enhance its products.

Most of these “trusted” sources are “official sources”, such as the USGS, the Bureau of the Census and other governmental agencies at all levels of administration from around the world. In areas where Google has been unable to reach agreement to use specific data, or in those locations where “trusted” data does not exist, it has relied on its own industrious endeavors to compile these data, although it has been helped tremendously by crowdsourcing.

It is clear to me that Google turned to licensing and crowdsourcing to remedy the unpalatable variations in the levels of spatial data quality in the map data that were supplied to it in the years when Google Maps was primarily based on data licensed from Tele Atlas (now TomTom) and Navteq (now Nokia). It appears that Google’s transition to able compilers of navigation quality map databases has been quite successful. However, I wonder if this success is not unlike the magnificent willow tree with a tremendous girth and abundant leaves on massive flowing branches, but slowly dying of decay from the inside.

Google’s move into GIS by providing the power of the GoogleBase as a GIS engine is an attractive notion to many organizations and for good reason. However, people who are responsible for funding budgets in these organizations (such as legislators) are beginning to ask these overly simplified questions: “Why are we paying people to do this mapping stuff when Google is giving it away from free? “Can’t we just use their data?” I am sure you are all thinking, “Nobody could be that shortsighted.” I guess you have not spent much time with politicians.

Recent events have led me to conclude that Google has now realized this very flaw in its approach to mapping. Did any of you think it was unusual that Google released two different strategic studies recently showing the economic benefits of Geospatial data (see 1 at end of blog). You know, Google is always releasing its strategic studies. Why the last one I can remember was in …..hmmmm?

In a study commissioned by Google and carried out by the Boston Consulting Group, it was indicated that the U.S. Geospatial industry generated $73 billion in revenues in 2011, comprised 500,000 jobs and throughout the greater U.S. economy helped drive an additional $1.6 trillion in revenue and $1.4 trillion in cost savings during the same period.

A second study by Oxera was equally interesting and focused on the direct effects, positive externalities, consumer effects and wider economic effects, including the gross value added effect of “Geo services.” One section of this report that caught my eye was a discussion (page 15) of Geo services as an intermediate good – one that is not normally valuable in themselves, “…but help consumers engage in other activities.” When discussing the “economic characteristics of Geo” the Oxera report indicates (page 5) that, “This question is relevant because it has implications for the rationale for public funding of certain parts of the value chain and for the market structure of other parts.”

Neither of the released reports (at least in the form they were published) mentions Google, its mapping business or how these studies should be viewed by the Google-ettes.

While Google may have had many reasons for funding these two reports, I think that the “law of unintended consequences” is rearing its head in Google land. If the public/governmental sources that provide data to Google through license can no longer afford to produce the data because their funding sources thinks that collecting and presenting map data is something that can be handled better in the private sector (such as Google is doing), the data underpinnings of the geospatial world will start to collapse. Yes, I know that Google does not do what its licensors do with spatial data, but have you seen the decision tree of a politician who really understands the complexities of GIS and mapping, why they cost so much, take so long and can’t be shared through the enterprise?

OK – let’s turn to crowdsourcing. While Google did not invent crowdsourcing, it certainly knows how to use it to its advantage. Now that its users are willing to compile and correct the Google Mapbase for free, how will anyone else in the business make money compiling data using a professional team of map data compilers? The economics weigh against it and it may be a practice whose time has come and gone. The reasons for this are, in their entirety, more complex than I have described. However, without developing the argument more in this essay, I will simply skip ahead to my conclusion, which is that professional map database compilers are an endangered species. It is likely that their “retirement” will not be noticed – at least not until crowdsourcing falls out of vogue, as it will, when people begin wondering why Google cannot afford to keep its own damn maps up-to-date.

As all of you know, maps are near and dear to my heart. The problem of unintended consequences in regards to Google and crowdsourcing to GIS and mapping are nearly as worrisome to me as the planet-wide loss of electricity. I’m going to squirrel away a cache of paper maps, just in case. Laugh if you want, but when you need to buy one from me you will begin to understand the meaning of monopoly, as well as to really appreciate the concept of unintended consequences.

1. Links to both studies can be found in this article at Directions Magazine

Bookmark and Share

Posted in Authority and mapping, crowdsourced map data, Data Sources, Geospatial, Google, Google Map Maker, Google maps, map compilation, map updating, Mapping, Mike Dobson, Navteq, Nokia, Tele Atlas, TeleAtlas, TomTom

2 Responses

  1. Chris

    Warning: I am probably a bit biased being that I work for Waze… 😉

    It seems that there are lots of different types of maps out there and I don’t think all of them should be treated or discussed the same. In this case, are you referring to the navigation maps Google creates?

    If so, I am not sure I agree that there will be a moment that there are no longer professional road mappers, crowdsourcing falls by the wayside and we are screwed.

    This is especially true when everyone’s phone is a sensor (anonymously) and we can aggregate it together to understand a network of roads, their turn restrictions, etc. After that you need interested parties that love contributing to take care of the tricky cases.

    We like to reference the fact that until recently Wikipedia didn’t exist and now Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that biographers, topic report writers, specialized historical records, etc. have no place or a possible paid industry…

    Anyways, love the discussion. It is something that is happening in a lot of industries. One of my favorite writers, Clay Shirky, touches on it regarding education and newspapers…

    Hi, Chris:

    Nice to hear from you (and indirectly WAZE).

    In other blogs here I have commented on “passive’ crowdsourcing or those actions that do not require active input on the part of users – mapping the GIS trace of a phone would be an example of this category of crowdsourcing. However, monitoring the path of the trace does not provide details on the majority of the street/road attributes or any of the “invisible” information on maps such as legal boundaries, zip codes, address ranges, etc. It is this type of information that requires “active” input. Even within the “active” input category there are sub-categories. While people actively contributing to OSM might digitize roads from satellite imagery, it is my belief that their contribution becomes more valuable when someone with local knowledge adds attributes that identify the name of the segment, as well as other details about it. However, there are limits to local knowledge and a great deal of the map data we deal with about our world originated at some government agency and are adapted for use by other map makers.

    While I was focusing on navigable map databases in this example, I have found that the great majority of maps that exist, whether they are street maps, road maps, reference maps, or thematic maps are based on data compiled by some government agency (or agencies depending on the scale or complexity of the map). The world maps that you see today largely owe their heritage to the CIA’s World Database I and II (WDB I and II, while others owe their heritage of the then DMA’s Digital Chart of the World (DCW). I understand that Waze in the U.S. is based on Tiger, originally produced by the Geography Division of the U.S. Census. Let me know if my source on this is incorrect. Suffice it to say, the the success of all modern mapping, particularly Google’s, rests on the spatial data infrastructure provided for us by others. It would be a shame if the success of commercial mapping (in whatever form it may take) degrades the environment in which the majority of map data is compiled and distributed. Without access to the date compiled by public sources, most map making efforts would be considerably less informative.

    Thanks for getting me started this morning. Best of luck to you and Waze.


  2. Caroline

    Hello Mike,

    I enjoyed your piece here about mapping, especially:
    “If the public/governmental sources that provide data to Google through license can no longer afford to produce the data because their funding sources thinks that collecting and presenting map data is something that can be handled better in the private sector (such as Google is doing), the data underpinnings of the geospatial world will start to collapse.”

    “The problem of unintended consequences in regards to Google and crowdsourcing to GIS and mapping are nearly as worrisome to me as the planet-wide loss of electricity. I’m going to squirrel away a cache of paper maps, just in case.”

    Lots of people are enamoured with technology.

    While I think it is great that online maps can be wonderful and I dearly love my computer and the internet, what will we do when these magnificent tools are taken away?

    Especially as these tools require so much energy to maintain?
    Just see how much power is sucked out of you iPhone when Googlemaps is trying to locate you; just so you can be in the centre of the map!

    So, I say ‘Yes, I do love your shiny, shiny online maps and ooooh, look at that…’
    but detailed paper maps like Ordnance Survey deserve the respect that’s due.

    Complicated science and art coming together to make detailed and comprehensive articulation of the environment and our surroundings.
    : )

    Best wishes,

    Hi, Caroline:

    Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your perspective.