Local Mapping Services and the Public Trust

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Apple got some particularly harsh press this week when Australian police warned users to avoid using Apple Maps for safety reasons, due to cases when users searching for the town of Mildura were erroneously directed to a remote desert location. The underlying data source may truly be at fault in this case, but it’s Apple that will have to absorb yet another hit against its troubled service. As a direct result of issues plaguing Apple Maps since its September release, iOS 6 users have been turning to third party services for local search, leading to an unexpected surge in attention for some companies that had previously flown under the radar.

This week, TechCrunch asked its Facebook followers to name the best mapping app. As of this writing, there were 530 responses, twice as many as for a post on the Gmail outage and far more than any other post in the last several days. Clearly this is a topic that people are deeply invested in, which is not surprising, given the extent to which smartphone users rely on their phones for search.

Along with casting multiple votes for Google, TechCrunch followers nominated Waze, TomTom, Bing, Mapquest, Nokia, Foursquare, OpenStreetMap, Rand McNally, and several other apps. One can assume that Android users on the whole favor Google, while it’s the iOS 6 upgraders and iPhone 5 owners who are casting about for a reasonable alternative from third parties. The good news is that the field is wide open and there are several reasonable contenders. The bad news for users is that no one has emerged with a silver bullet for maps on iOS 6, and many users would appear to be merely treading water until the Google app finally appears.

The towering presence of Google in the mapping world today might be thought of as a testament to the company’s success in product development, but I think it’s an indicator of something else as well. People don’t think of maps as a product to be consumed. I know it’s a stretch, but it seems to me that at times we think of mapping services as a public trust.

Certainly when users need to be warned about the safety risks of a service, that’s a strong indicator that we’ve begun to rely upon it in matters that may have life-or-death consequences. In 2006, when CNET reporter James Kim died after getting lost in the Oregon wilderness, it was reported that he’d been led astray by Google Maps. That report turned out to be false, but at the time, it was not all that shocking to consider that a new and somewhat cutting-edge service such as online maps would be rife with significant errors. People used them at their own risk. Now six years later, we have the Australian police report as a touchstone for how our attitudes have changed. Personally, I would say that I rely on my phone for mapping almost as much as I rely on it to be a phone.

A public trust is any resource so important that we agree it should be preserved and maintained for public use. Usually this means government protection, but one can make the argument that in the case of Internet-based services the line between public and private has become blurred. Private companies like Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Facebook, and Apple play wide-ranging public roles in a multinational sense and drive the form and method of communication for millions of people and scores of U.S. government entities. Putting aside considerations of whether they should be compelled to do this, I think it makes sense for such companies to assume responsibility for the critical services they provide beyond their obligations as businesses to their customers.

Assume for a moment that mapping services should indeed be thought of as a public trust, and you’ve helped to define the difference between Apple Maps and Google. By taking on the mission of organizing the world’s information and executing that mission brilliantly, Google as a whole has fought hard to become something akin to a public utility. Did you know that the U.S. Department of the Interior and 45 states use Google cloud to power email and collaboration? By contrast, Apple is essentially a consumer electronics company. It’s not so surprising in that context that the company chose to focus on the bells and whistles of its mapping service — 3-D mapping and voice navigation — while assuming it could contract out the supposedly commodity-level task of providing basic data.

This is not a naive plea for profit-driven companies to suddenly become altruistic. If anything, the accomplishment of being accepted as a public trust lends a long-term stability to a company that goes far beyond the importance of quarterly sales figures. What I’m cautiously suggesting is that it might be time to begin thinking of local search in that context. This goes beyond making it easy to find a local plumber; it’s about access to the basic information we need to manage our daily lives.

Damian Rollison is VP of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached on Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.