A friend who recently returned from a trip to Russia mentioned the popularity in that country of an app I’d never heard of called Maps.me. I’ve spent the last few days exploring its features and I’m impressed by its level of detail and by some key differentiators that make Maps.me seem like a fresh approach to mobile navigation. Indeed, I can see the app eventually finding favor in the U.S. marketplace despite the dominant position of incumbents like Google and Apple. Even before that happens, local marketers may want to take note of a mapping app that is likely already in the pockets of many European travelers.
Launched in 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland by former Google Maps engineer Yury Melnichek, the company behind the app was acquired by Russian internet giant Mail.ru in 2014. Recent press coverage in multiple countries including Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, France, Italy, and the U.K. attests to the widespread attention the app has received outside the U.S., where it is frequently described as a popular alternative mapping solution.
The primary data source for Maps.me is OpenStreetMap, the collaborative mapping project founded in the U.K. in 2004 that provides data to Foursquare, Apple, Mapquest, and others, and has some 2 million worldwide contributors who voluntarily work to improve its detail and accuracy. Earlier this year, Maps.me announced new functionality allowing its users to modify OpenStreetMap data directly within the app, either by improving existing information about local businesses and points of interest or by adding new locations not yet depicted on the map.
Though OpenStreetMap has provided the same capability for years to its contributors, the friendlier editing interface of Maps.me combined with the convenience of mobile suggests the possibility of a crowdsourced mapping solution that could potentially rival the granularity of Google. In fact, Maps.me sometimes surpassed Google’s level of detail in the informal tests I conducted, showing me for instance the numbers of the classrooms and the precise location of the parking lot at the public school down the street, as well as the exact locations of the holes at a nearby golf course. As with Wikipedia, collaborative platforms with an active user base can perform feats of data collection no centralized repository could rival.
Maps.me also recently released its own codebase to the open source community, a move designed to make it easier for developers to integrate the app’s mapping and navigation features into their own projects and to create additional entry points in order to expand the OpenStreetMap contributor base.
Aside from its open approach to mapping, what sets Maps.me apart is its offline-first orientation. When you request information about a particular region, Maps.me prompts you to download a map for that region to your phone and conducts all search and navigation services locally, only relying on GPS tracking to monitor your location. Though Google and others offer the ability to save maps for offline use, the offline-first orientation of Maps.me creates a notably different user experience, providing fast, responsive maps that don’t require cellular data.
For travelers, given the expense of international data plans, this offline-first orientation can be a lifesaver. So too, domestic travelers in the U.S. are hampered by the fact that there are still many remote or mountainous areas of the country where no signal is available. On a summer camping trip to the Sierras, for example, I found out the true limitations of Google Maps in remote areas. If I’d known of Maps.me at the time I would have gratefully made the switch. Moreover, Maps.me prides itself on a proprietary compression technology that ensures its downloaded maps will take up as little space as possible on your phone.
An open-source orientation and an unconventional approach to offline data delivery are far from obvious guarantees of success, but the international following Maps.me has already garnered suggests it has hit on a winning combination of services. I’m especially intrigued by the potential of a massively crowdsourced mapping solution. Despite OpenStreetMap’s impressive achievements thus far, most users of navigation apps have never heard of it. An app that catches on with consumers could bring OpenStreetMap to the mainstream and could bring about a real paradigm shift in local data.