How To Make Money From Maps In A World Dominated By Google

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Jon Maron from INRIX says you can still run a maps business, as long as you don’t focus on navigation

Last month, Google finally confirmed long-rumoured plans to acquire Waze, an Israeli developer of popular navigation app for iOS and Android. The deal is currently under investigation by the FTC, due to concerns it could stifle competition in a market that is already dominated by Google Maps.

The deal, if it goes through, will help Google cement itself as the king of the online map world. Apple’s recent fiasco with Maps for iOS serves as a vivid reminder that developing navigation software requires much investment and experience, out of reach for most would-be challengers. And even then, if you manage to pull the necessary resources together, you need to find genuine differentiators.

Just recently, in the space of a week, Apple agreed to buy not one, but two map-related start-ups – Locationary and HopStop – to improve its own offering. But only time will tell if iPhone owners will uninstall their Google Maps.

Maps © Vadim Georgiev , Shutterstock 2012You could think that this particular market is fully saturated. However, there are still plenty of opportunities in the space where navigation crosses paths with analytics.

Like Google and Apple, INRIX develops a mobile navigation app, but it claims the services it offers go a lot further. “We are not a navigation company, we are an analytics and Big Data company,” Jon Maron, VP of marketing and communications at INRIX, tells TechWeekEurope. The US-based business is developing several innovative uses for GPS data, proving that maps can do much more than simply take you from point A to point B.

Bigger data is better data

According to Maron, most people wrongly assume  they need navigation all the time. But you don’t need maps to get to your workplace, or to drop kids off at school. What you need is information about the conditions of the road, and the traffic.

“Regardless of your income, there are a few things in life that you feel powerless to do anything about – weather, taxes and traffic. The truth is, you actually can deal with traffic, but people don’t know that the tools are available to them. Our goal as the company is to become the trusted name in traffic [analysis], the same way AccuWeather is the trusted name in weather forecasts.”

INRIX, founded in 2004, collects information about roadway speeds from nearly 100 million anonymous mobile phones, trucks, delivery vans, and other fleet vehicles equipped with GPS locator devices. As a result, its maps display traffic jams, road closures, accidents, cultural and sports events and anything else that can impact your journey. The mobile app can even predict the speed of traffic based on historical data.

INRIX also provides traffic information to the BBC and 130 radio stations around the UK.

Maron explains that most navigation service providers collect their data in one of two ways. Google, Apple and Waze get their data from a handset, so the information they receive is limited to the direction and speed of the vehicle. Some companies, notably Waze, also crowdsource their data, but that relies on users taking the time and entering accurate information using their smartphone. This means there’s always the chance of someone abusing the system.

“They get the ‘what’, but not the ‘why’,” says Maron. “We get the ‘why’ because we get handset information, and like Waze, we get crowdsourced information. But we also get information from big fleets on the road: truck companies, taxi cabs, emergency service vehicles, car dealerships. Ford, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Toyota and Lexus send us information every day.”

INRIX has built its business on analysing this information and selling it back, often to the same car manufacturers.

The versatile GPS

INRIX app on AndroidThe company is something of a specialist in developing new uses for navigation data. For example, its mobile app features a comparison service for fuel prices, which will find the closest and cheapest petrol station trough the power of crowdsourcing and analytics.

With parking, the INRIX app can tell users where exactly the entrance to the parking garage is, whether there are any spaces left, whether it accepts credit cards, and even provide a price list.

But it gets better. INRIX also works with a certain marketing company in the US to change how the industry measures impact of billboards. Traditionally, the impact is quantified in “eyeballs” – the number of cars that went past the advertisement.

“Just because you drove past it doesn’t mean you actually looked at it. What we are measuring is traffic density, speed and direction. We can say, ‘OK, at 3:30 in the afternoon, the cars are shooting past that billboard at 60-70 miles per hour. Nobody is probably looking at that thing. But at 8:00 in the morning, cars are going at 20 miles per hour, and they are probably reading that billboard’.”

“This is going to be important as the advertising companies change from static billboards to dynamic billboards, and now they can sell that time at a different rate, just like adverts on TV.”

Another use for navigation data is in the area of real estate. A lot of people look for a place to live in a certain radius from their workplace. However, even if the property is nearby, there is no exact way to establish how much time it will take to get to work, other than actually taking the journey. According to Maron, the number one reason for “buyer’s remorse” is being too far away from work, not in terms of distance, but in terms of time.

“We’re starting to work with real estate companies in the US, and we’ll eventually do this in the UK. If you go to the website, you can say ‘here’s my work address, show me houses in a 20 minute radius at 8:00 in the morning’. It takes “buyer’s remorse” out of the equation, but more importantly, it shortens the sales cycle for the estate agents, because they are not driving around showing people houses that they don’t want to buy because they’re too far away. Nobody else has ever done that before.”

These examples show how, by using Big Data, a company can make maps more useful, or even build a business on top of Google’s popular application. “If you’re trying to make money, don’t bother with navigation. I don’t need navigation to tell me how to get to work every day, I can do that in my sleep. What I need to know is what’s in front of me, and that’s what Google doesn’t offer,” concludes Maron.

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