TomTom is preparing to launch Maps Platform, a cloud-based service that will integrate OpenStreetMap (OSM), the open-source mapping platform that is updated by its community of users, as well as data from sensors in cars and other sources. According to CTO Eric Bowman, this will allow the Amsterdam-based software company and its customers to create more detailed maps that update much faster and support a wider range of data types.
“There was a real vision of using the Internet of Things from SatNav devices and using that feedback loop to create a much better map,” Bowman said, adding that the new map platform is the culmination of many years of R&D. “Recently, we added super sources, or sensor-derived observations, which help us understand road signs and hazards in real time.”
TomTom is probably still best known as a provider of consumer GPS systems; it released its first satellite navigation units a few decades ago. In the years since, cloud services including Google Maps and Waze have eaten away at that market, but Bowman insists the new Maps platform will open up a whole new range of use cases and map types. , without becoming a walled garden like these examples. Open data is a big part of this plan.
Maps Platform, due for release in 2023, combines TomTom’s own data with sensor data from connected cars (the “super sources”), GPS traffic information from vehicles and open source mapping data from OSM . It is also extensible to other map data sources. The goal, according to the company, is to create “the smartest map on the planet”.
The new platform-based mapping services will initially be aimed at delivery and ride-sharing businesses, “like last mile delivery and all those businesses, they really only work with the best and latest maps” , Bowman said. This is because these services are highly optimized and any new road works or localized delays can reduce profits. By integrating data from car sensors, which can recognize road signs, including those indicating speed limits, these local maps can be updated in near real time.
Car fleet builders are another target market, and existing TomTom partners such as Apple and Microsoft are also likely to be early adopters of the platform.
OSM data is covered by the ODbL open source license, which is a “share-alike” system. Under this license, anyone can use OSM data to create a map and can offer that map under any license they choose, as long as they share any data enhancements they have made to OSM. TomTom’s mapping data and code are proprietary and likely will remain so, Bowman said, but the company will improve OSM by contributing to it.
One area that could be improved is search, for example, where Google makes good use of its advertising business to provide street-level addresses. Another is coverage, which on OSM can be spotty in less populated areas; a third area is scaling map updates.
“We see a lot of value in contributing to OSM and making it better for everyone and then standardizing more and more on something that’s like the very core of how OSM represents the base map. We see that as a creator of innovation in many industries. There is a fragmentation that we now see between Google Maps and other forms of maps, where they are all different and closed. Starting to open up the basic infrastructure of the map, we see this as a tremendous generator of value for our customers, for us and for the OSM community. It’s a kind of win-win-win.
“A profound technical breakthrough”
The TomTom map database is a chart. Graph databases are great for creating links between entities, but difficult to reason about, Bowman said, adding that TomTom has made “a significant architectural breakthrough” in this area.
“For a social network and for a search engine, it’s okay if you can’t see everyone you need to see or if everything can’t be found. But when it comes to representing the world, it’s a harder problem because these kinds of simplifications can actually damage the map and it could have commercial ramifications, or mean someone won’t be rescued.
“But at the core, we’ve had, I think, a very significant architectural breakthrough and what I think is a very new architecture that will allow us to adapt how people add to the map, basically ad infinitum. We we don’t really see a limit, where before it was a big bottleneck for all mappers, we had a pretty deep technical breakthrough, which we think our competitors will have a hard time replicating.
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