The Return of Paper Maps, Again

Every so often we see a story about how paper maps are making a comeback. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of paper maps have been going up in recent years—a story that NBC’s Today show picked up yesterday. One of the appeals of paper maps, these stories note, is that they provide context—the “bigger picture,” as the WSJ article puts it. Something that can be lost when focusing on getting to the destination.

I’m not remotely surprised that paper maps refuse to go away, that they keep showing signs of renewed life. I have a thought or two about this, and about the perennial question of paper maps in the digital age. There’s a reason this question keeps coming up—which these stories do get at. It’s that every new technology that supplants the old does so imperfectly and incompletely.

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The Rationale Behind Overture

A couple of links regarding the Overture Map Foundation announcement (previously) afford some context and background. James Killick chalks up the decision to launch Overture to a combination of needs to control costs and maintain control while ensuring interoperability: “the reasons for the birth of OMF seem to be valid and defensible.” Meanwhile, the Geomob Podcast interviews geospatial veteran Marc Prioleau, in which (among other things) Marc observes that the companies behind Overture (including Meta, where he’s currently at) and OpenStreetMap are not on the same page: OSM’s focus does not serve the companies’ needs, and changing that focus would harm the OSM community. (Since “why not just use OpenStreetMap?” is a recurring question.)

Update, 3 Feb 2023: Tom Tom is running with Killick’s take.

The Overture Map Foundation

Announced earlier this month, the Overture Map Foundation is an initiative founded by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Meta (i.e. Facebook), Microsoft and TomTom to build an ecosystem of interoperable open map data—an ecosystem, note, that does not at the moment include Apple, Esri or Google, so presumably this is a way for smaller owners of map data (at least for TomTom values of smaller) to form Voltron punch above their weight by making it easier to combine and share resources. From the press release:

Multiple datasets reference the same real-world entities using their own conventions and vocabulary, which can make them difficult to combine. Map data is vulnerable to errors and inconsistencies. Open map data can also lack the structure needed to easily build commercial map products and services on top.

Making it easier to combine data—one of Overture’s aims is to create “a common, structured, and documented data schema”—sounds an awful lot like a way to address James Killick’s complaint about the geospatial industry’s lack of common data standards (previously). It also sounds like TomTom’s map platform, announced last month, is part of something bigger.

Given the talk about open map data, it’s not surprising that the OpenStreetMap team has some thoughts about the announcement, and about how Overture and OSM might work together in the future.

‘Geospatial Data Is Stuck in the Year 1955’

James Killick’s blog, Map Happenings, looks very much like one worth following. Killick’s been around the block more than a few times, working at Mapquest, Esri and most recently at Apple’s Maps division. He’s seen things, in other words. In his latest post, he decries the geospatial industry’s lack of common data standards, which he compares to the shipping industry before container ships.

The lack of common, broadly adopted geospatial data exchange standards is crippling the geospatial industry. It’s a bit like going to an EV charger with your shiny new electric vehicle and discovering you can’t charge it because your car has a different connector to the one used by the EV charger. The electricity is there and ready to be sucked up and used, but, sorry—your vehicle can’t consume it unless you miraculously come up with a magical adaptor that allows the energy to flow.

James produces a couple of counterexamples—standards for transit data and indoor mapping developed by Google and Apple, respectively—and points to Esri as a possible force for data standardization.

Previously: Immersive View and the Death of Consumer Maps.

The TomTom Maps Platform

TomTom corporate logoEarlier this month, at its investor meeting, TomTom announced that it was launching something called the TomTom Maps Platform. The announcement was, because of where it was made, long on investor-focused jargon: growth, innovation, etc., so it’s not immediately clear what it will mean.

Basically, TomTom is building a map ecosystem that can be built on by developers and businesses: an apparent shot across the bow at the Google Maps ecosystem. And indeed that’s how The Next Web sees it: an attempt to “wrestle control” of digital mapping away from Silicon Valley.

TomTom plans to do so by combining map data from its own data, third-party sources, sensor data, and OpenStreetMap. I’ve been around long enough to know that combining disparate map data sources is neither trivial nor easy. It’s also very labour intensive. TomTom says they’ll be using AI and machine learning to automate that process. It’ll be a real accomplishment if they can make it work. It may actually be a very big deal. I suspect it may also be the only way to make this platform remotely any good and financially viable at the same time.

Esri Pays $2.3 Million in Back Wages to Resolve Pay Discrimination Case

Esri has agreed to pay $2.3 million in back wages and will review its compensation system and provide training as part of a conciliation agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor, the department announced yesterday. The case dates to 2017, when, in the course of a federal compliance evaluation, the department alleged that Esri engaged in systemic pay discrimination, paying 176 female employees less than their male counterparts. Esri entered into the conciliation agreement voluntarily.

Union Accuses Mapbox of Retaliation

I don’t think the Mapbox unionization story is over. Last week the Mapbox Workers Union accused Mapbox of retaliating against union organizers, several of whom, they say, have been abruptly fired. Retaliation is against U.S. labour law, and they’re filing unfair labour practice charges in that vein.

Previously: Mapbox Union Drive Fails; Mapbox Employees Trying to Unionize.

Esri’s New Giant Globe

“When you are a global Geographic Information Technology company with a globe in your logo, you don’t shy away from the opportunity to have a great big glorious 8.5-foot diameter illuminated rotating globe in your new office building. But what sort of globe cartography do you design? How should this gigantic model of our lovely home planet appear?” John Nelson and Sean Breyer explain the design and construction process behind Esri’s new globe—a custom Earthball manufactured by Orbis World Globes.

The Mother of Landsat

Virginia Tower Northwood is sometimes called “the mother of Landsat” for her invention of the multispectral scanner that was launched aboard Landsat 1. An alumna of MIT, she is the subject of this long profile by Alice Dragoon in the MIT Technology Review, which looks her entire career, which prior to Landsat involved radar and antenna design—including, notably, the transmitter on the Surveyor 1 lunar lander. See also this profile on NASA’s Landsat Science page.

Mapbox Employees Trying to Unionize

Bloomberg: “Employees at Mapbox Inc., which makes mapping tools used by Instacart Inc. and Snap Inc., have announced their intention to unionize, making them the latest group of tech workers to embrace organized labor in a traditionally nonunion industry.” Two-thirds of Mapbox’s 222 U.S. employees have signed union cards; in an internal statement Monday, Mapbox declined to voluntarily recognize the Mapbox Workers Union—which presumably means that there will be a government-supervised vote on whether to unionize.

OpenStreetMap’s ‘Unholy Alliance’

OpenStreetMap, says Joe Morrison, “is now at the center of an unholy alliance of the world’s largest and wealthiest technology companies. The most valuable companies in the world are treating OSM as critical infrastructure for some of the most-used software ever written.” Corporate teams, rather local mappers, are now responsible for the majority of edits to the OSM database; Morrison speculates that their participation is about “desperately avoiding the existential conflict of having to pay Google for the privilege of accessing their proprietary map data.” In the end, he argues that we’re in a strange-bedfellows situation where corporate and community interests are aligned. (To which I’d add: for now.) [MetaFilter]

Previously: OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads; OpenStreetMap ‘In Serious Trouble’.

Seeger Map Company to Close

Angie Cope reports that the Seeger Map Company, the Wisconsin-based publisher of hundreds of city, county and state maps, many for the American Automobile Association, since the 1970s, will be closing down at the end of the year. “At the height of the company’s success in the mid-1990s, they employed 27 people and produced 2 million maps a year.” [MAPS-L]