Bad maps.. really a search problem

So now everyone knows making a map of our little planet to make available to users of mobile devices everywhere that is both accurate, up-to-date and detailed is hard. And with the benefit of hindsight and industry expertise we can smile knowledgeably at the mainstream tech press falling over themselves debating and theorising over Apple Mapgate !

But are we all missing the point, I have seen very few comments in the specialist or mainstream tech press that really address the true issue here.. Making maps work well on a phone is not actually a cartography problem.. yes you can use poor maps or conflate content from various sources without care producing a poor map, and people might get lost… but the reason we all use maps on our phones is that they help us find stuff – maps on smartphones are interfaces to local search.

Local search has all the issues of web search plus the added complication of needing to explicitly locate relevant information in relation to the location of the user.. To be successful you need a geocoded search index of places, an algorithm to identify terms that relate to places and of course some maps to put it all in context.

To be fair to our friends in Cupertino the maps are not that bad, all maps have some mistakes, but the bigger issue is the lack of a true geocoded search index of places and the search algorithms that sit around it.

Local search is in many ways what makes smart phones smart, because the users location and the location of things around them provides a set of contextual pointers to relevant information. If you are a lucky owner of a Jelly Bean powered android smartphone have a used Google Now, just think about how many of the information cards are related to location.. weather, travel information etc.

To make good maps that are globally consistent, accurate and up-to-date is hard and takes lots of people as well as clever software, as it is a business of relationships with many different providers of local data, and potentially local community groups. Transit directions are a case in point, they are not difficult to do technically, but the number of organisations that you must partner with to obtain data runs into the thousands   – it really does take years..

To understand local search is much harder you need the maps from above, plus the ability to crawl, create, maintain and understand a geo search index, and to query it in ways that provide value to you end users – that takes decades…

Maps on smartphones are so powerful and useful because they are far more than a digital version of an A-Z street atlas.

Written and submitted from home (51.425N, 0.331W)


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