The Finer Points of Mapping

Diana Shkolnikov - July 6, 2018

Maps hold tremendous power and have significant consequences. We trust maps to tell us what exists out there in the world because we can’t be in all places at once. Think back to how you learned geography and trusted that the world map was a complete, unbiased representation of the physical globe. Think back to when you searched Google Maps for a coffee shop to meet a friend and trusted that if Google didn’t list it, it didn’t exist. Therefore, those who control the map effectively control the way we see the world.

So What’s the Big Deal?

Map misrepresentation has significant consequences that can ripple through an entire community. This effect is true for roads and buildings, but is especially critical with points of interest (POIs): the restaurants, doctors offices, stores, and other establishments we need to live our lives. POI data drives the way people discover the world around them. Those who control this experience control how consumer attention and money flows through the economy. That’s an awful lot of control for a single proprietary entity!

  Tangram  |  © OpenStreetMap contributors  |  Nextzen  Tangram | © OpenStreetMap contributors | Nextzen

“ a society, no one company should have a monopoly on place, just as no one company had a monopoly on time in the 1800s. Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it.”
Serge Wroclawski, “Why the world needs OpenStreetMap”. The Guardian

Currently several companies manage this data and make it available under expensive and restrictive commercial licenses. The best dataset in existence belongs to Google but is not available as a direct data product and can only be accessed via costly and restrictive APIs. Since Google owns the data, they get to decide what’s in, what's out, and in what order. Google also gets to decide what developers can and cannot do with it. The world deserves a more open and accessible alternative.

How Did We Get Here?

After almost five years of building open-source mapping solutions at Mapzen to help create alternatives to these tightly controlled resources, we walked away feeling like the services layer is in a good place. Mapzen built an engaged developer community across search, turn-by-turn navigation (hi Tesla!), map rendering and vector tile services, among other awesome things, which are all now part of the open-source / open-data ecosystem and can be used by anyone who has enough data to fuel them. You can probably already see where this is going... #dataproblems

Sadly, there’s currently no high-quality, open POI dataset to power these tools. Several projects like OpenStreetMap, Who’s on First, and All The Places have made good strides towards this goal but none have succeeded for a variety of reasons. This dataset is very dynamic and requires getting the key conditions just right to create a sustainable, comprehensive solution.

We’ve seen data collection efforts that started strong but failed to engage contributors over the long-term due to lack of compelling incentive models. Others focused on incentives that appealed to a narrow group of contributors or only applied to a handful of contribution scenarios, so the resulting data was incomplete. We’ve seen open data projects struggle with concerns over trust and validity of the data. And we’ve been entirely underwhelmed with quality and coverage analysis of existing POI data across the industry. There are few tools out there for driving targeted contributions based on statistics and even fewer that allow the consumers of this data to have insight into where and what data exists.

How Do We Get There?

  Tangram  |  © OpenStreetMap contributors  |  Nextzen  Tangram | © OpenStreetMap contributors | Nextzen

The StreetCred team has set out to build a system for creating and maintaining the most comprehensive and objective map the world has ever seen. We’re focusing our attention on one layer of the map, specifically the POI layer. From years of experience in mapping, we know the problems inherent in this dataset well. Other layers on the map, such as bodies of water, country borders, and road networks are relatively static; they rarely change and are easy to observe using satellite imagery or street view. POIs are unique: they open and close all the time, it’s hard to tell how many there are in a building just by looking at it, they may not have websites, their hours of operation change regularly... you get the idea. There is currently no truly representative, complete dataset containing all the POIs in the world, including restaurants, gyms, doctors' offices, daycares, landmarks, and many other places you’d want to search for and navigate to. StreetCred is going to build this dataset and we’re going to do so by focusing on the areas where other projects have stumbled.

We’re focusing on attracting a broad and diverse contributor base using accessible tools and approachable materials that will bridge the gap between technology and the general public. A comprehensive and representative map can only be created by a diverse and equally representative pool of contributors, like your cousin and your mom and all their friends.

We’re focusing on removing barriers to keep the data free of bias and avoid censorship. We believe the world must be allowed to represent itself, without gatekeepers or restrictions on the types of truthful data that gets included. Objective, observable ground truth is not subject to opinion and must aim only to represent reality. We’re striving to ensure that the data is contributed and validated by those who are right there next to it, wherever the place may be.

We’re focusing on providing insight to our contributors and data consumers alike into current quality and coverage. Contributors can only create a comprehensive dataset with sufficient awareness of the gaps that need filling: whether regional gaps, such as a rural neighborhood in India, or those in different categories of data, such as gynecologist offices or locksmiths, or shortcomings in data freshness, where records have gone months without updates.

With these principles at the core, we’re laser focused and excited to build this new map in the open with your help! We hope you’ll follow along as we continue to share more of our vision and thinking along the way.