Earlier this summer, with little advance notice, Google Maps enacted a substantial price hike for developers that use its services—as much as 1,400 percent for certain search products. Companies that were once able to embed Google’s geographic search tools on their websites more or less for free now had to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of month to keep the service.
Small business owners flipped out.
“We [would] either like to switch off our website or find another solution,” one hotelier who uses Google Maps on his booking platform told the tech publication Gadgets 360. “We are definitely not going to continue with Google Maps. Our revenue can not absorb the costs.”
When it comes to bars, restaurants, businesses, parks, transit stations, and countless other types of address-based destinations you might search for, Google Maps has a virtual monopoly. It stores the largest number of these “points of interest” in the world. Compared to its competitors, the company boasts the most accurate and up-to-date information. Their data goes beyond business names and addresses—anyone who’s used Google Maps’ mobile app has seen opening hours, phone numbers, website links, wheelchair accessibility, and busy times listed there, too.
Developers, government agencies, and companies can subscribe to Google’s points-of-interest dataset through online interfaces for $17 to $40 per 1,000 page loads. But as this summer’s episode showed, that’s becoming restrictively expensive, especially for small and medium-sized businesses.
Right now, few direct alternatives to Google exist. But a new startup wants to pioneer a different way of creating and distributing place data—by paying you to map. With $1 million in seed funding, Streetcred is building a business model based on the blockchain, where digital tokens called Ether—a Bitcoin-esque cryptocurrency with a fluctuating dollar value—would be paid out to contributors anywhere in the world to populate maps with new points of interest.
Think of it as the mapping industry’s move into the gig economy. “We’re hoping that the income can be similar to driving an Uber,” said Randy Meech, the CEO of Streetcred and the former CEO of the now-shuttered open-source mapping firm Mapzen.
The service isn’t available yet, as the company is still refining its business model. “We’re creating something that doesn’t exist right now,” Meech said. In the meantime, the company is trying to test the assumption that people will map for pay. Next week, it’s launching an app-based competition called MapNYC, which will ask New Yorkers to fill in a blank map of New York City with all the place data they can, competing for $50,000 worth of Bitcoin prizes.
Much as Mapzen pursued open-source mapping platforms as an alternative to Google Maps, Microsoft’s HERE maps, and other private mapping giants, Streetcred’s crowdsourced place data would be available for anyone to use, too. After the data is entered and validated by Streetcred’s network of self-starting mappers, anyone would be able to download and store it for free, be it small businesses, government agencies, local tour guides, insurance companies, or tech behemoths.
To pay the mappers, the startup hopes to get data-hungry companies—think Uber, Apple, or Niantic, the augmented-reality developer that built Pokémon Go—to “sponsor” particular regions or industries that aren’t as well-mapped by other services. That could include developing countries, or tricky datasets to nail down, like doctor’s office opening hours.
Some alternatives to Google Maps do exist. There’s Open Street Map, the free and open Google Maps competitor. There’s the listing app Foursquare, which sells subscriptions to a large POI database at a hefty monthly rate. The data and mapping companies HERE and Factual—which powers parts of Apple Maps and Uber—do, too.
Streetcred, Meech said, would distinguish itself from the others in a few ways. First, it’s focusing on points-of-interest data alone—not routing or maps themselves. Second, whereas other POI datasets gets stale quickly, it’s hoping its network of contributors, trained on specific locations or POI categories, can keep up in real-time. And third, it’s going to provide access to this data directly, free of charge, with a target on mapping parts of the world or industries that others haven’t yet. Map coverage of India has always been spotty, for example—if a new ride-hailing company wants to launch its services in a city there, it could finance Streetcred mappers to build a database of places there.
Other companies are attempting incentive-based crowdsourced mapping—Premise, for example, is a consultancy that pays “local experts” to confirm marketing insights drawn from location data. But Streetcred would appear to be the first business that pays contributors to build a free and open dataset.
“There are a lot of platforms where the data collection is open, but the data itself is closed,” said Abhishek Nagaraj, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who researches the economics of the mapping industry. Anyone can upload geotagged reviews onto Yelp or Foursquare, for example—but the data remains owned by those companies. “What makes these guys interesting is they’re flipping that model on its head.”
It remains to be seen, Nagaraj said, if businesses will be willing to pay Streetcred contributors to collect data that will eventually be free and open for everyone—including their competitors—to use.
Another question is what type of mapmaker such a model would attract, Nagaraj said. Currently, there’s no shortage of crowdsourced efforts for the cartographically inclined to get behind. Volunteer mappers can devote their hours to drawing street vectors on Open Street Map, flagging traffic jams on Waze, tracing bus routes on Moovit, or photographing street views for Mapillary.
All of these platforms have large communities of altruistically motivated contributors, working for no real recompense but the pleasures of knowledge creation. There’s something lopsided about that, since the companies who own or license these maps make money off that free labor. But it’s not always helpful to introduce money into volunteer projects, Nagaraj said, pointing to a famous study that found paying people to give blood turned out fewer donations than encouraging people to do it for moral reasons. With Streetcred’s mapping model, “you might turn out more mercenary types who aren’t inherently motivated,” he said.
On the other hand, that might not be a bad thing. Research has shown that, over time, volunteer contributions to open-source data efforts such as Wikipedia wane over time; it seems that people lose interest in the work as the scope of significant entries left shrinks. Nagaraj believes there are similar dynamics at play with Open Street Map. But starting with a blank map and paying people to fill it in, as Streetcred is proposing, could refuel interested mapmakers—and keep them going once the work gets boring.