Standardizing location data to advance today’s digital economy

A container ship loaded with shipping containers.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Over the past decade, new technology built around geospatial data has opened the door for a plethora of new business models and industries. Now, there is an insatiable demand for accurate geospatial data and modern mapping technologies to help us make sense of the world around us.

Location data is everywhere. But often they remain locked in their own platform and it is difficult for users to add their own data much less make them work with other systems. Instead of creating applications and solving problems for customers, developers are forced to invest time and money in simply making sense of location data and figuring out a way to make it all work together. This lack of interoperability in geospatial data continues to cost the geolocation industry millions of dollars a year.

We asked ourselves, why is location data locked away in proprietary platforms? Why is it so hard to add your own data? And how can we unlock the vast amount of ideas on location data and location applications that have not been fully brought together to date? Everybody felt that there must be a better way, where map data becomes more accessible and usable to all, breaking from its historical lock-in. Just imagine the competitive advantage that comes from making location data accessible and easy to use.

To give you a better idea of what this looks like, we often tell people to think about shipping containers. It’s a simple invention but makes for a great metaphor to show how standardization can revolutionize an entire industry. The global logistics industry would be nothing without the interoperability of shipping containers, which changed how goods are moved between continents. This is what modern, global digital mapmaking needs today.

Willem Strijbosch

VP Product Management for Maps at TomTom.

Key learnings from innovations of the past

Malcolm McLean, a businessman from California, invented the standard shipping container in 1956. Despite its simplicity, it's proved to be one of the most significant inventions ever made. With McLean’s invention, cargo could be efficiently loaded into containers, standardized in size and design, and easily transported and loaded onto ships using uniform machinery. This dramatically reduced the cost of transporting goods across the globe.

But McLean’s visionary approach extended beyond the invention itself. He made the patents for his creation available through a royalty-free lease, meaning shipbuilders, port operators and logistics companies could use the designs to make boats, trucks, equipment and tools that worked with these containers. As more people started using these shipping containers to transport their goods, global logistics became more efficient and less costly.

What geolocation tech companies do with location data can be likened to loading and unloading non-standard cargo from their non-standard ships to non-standard ports. They must analyze every piece of cargo, and understand its destination, and where and how it needs to be stored, manipulated and shared. Furthermore, they need to fit this within the system of their ship and ensure that what comes out makes sense and isn’t lost or damaged along the way.

Looking at the industry in this light, it is clear there is a need to standardize how location data and digital maps are transported and moved from system to system (or ship to ship). More importantly, it should be done as McLean did: in an open fashion that anyone can adopt or start working with.

The business case for standardization

Modern digital maps are complicated. They're made up of masses of data and can be customized based on what they're needed for. One way to think of them is in a series of layers: at the most foundational level is the base map, on top of this other data about traffic, visualizations, routing and POIs can be projected.

As a result, engineers must gather geospatial data from hundreds if not thousands of different places. With no industry standards, each source maintains its data in different formats and structures. Even when sources report the same information about the world, there’s no guarantee they’ll follow the same conventions. Gathering and compiling all that information is an obvious challenge, but engineers must also consolidate its differences and make it all work together.

Standardization is the clear solution to this problem, but with mapmaking and location tech already being an expensive and complicated game, how can we make the standardization of geospatial data less costly?

The solution is a common base map for the world - pool resources, and build a reliable, easy-to-use and interoperable location database that any service provider or developer can use and share through an open data license.

A single reference point that the entire industry can build on will save time, money, resources and stress. Where companies used to face the difficult challenge of getting different services to work together or choosing a single map vendor, they now have the opportunity to access a base map that is free and open. At the same time, the location industry will no longer distinguish itself solely by its base map but will focus more on the map layers built on top of it - that is, on the layers and services that create value and are incredibly useful to today's demanding location-focused tech companies.

This all comes together to create a system which puts location tech companies leaps ahead of where they’d be if they had to do and build everything themselves. They’re not wasting time loading cargo onto their ship and putting it in place and making it work. Instead, they’re getting it on with ease and getting down to building their core system and moving their ship to its destination.

Through standardization and interoperability, shipping got easier, and trade boomed. Location tech developers could experience similar gains. If geospatial data was organized with more structure and interoperability, around an openly communicated and shared global standard, location tech companies would be able to move data into their products with greater ease and simplicity. Engineers would be freed up to work on their core products, rather than data normalization, and the whole industry and end users would benefit from better and lower-cost location products and services.

Today’s digital economy relies on our ability to harness more agile and accurate mapping solutions than ever before. Through greater standardization and enhanced interoperability, the location tech industry can worry less about making their own maps and focus on turning location data into something useful – having the space, time, funds and resources to innovate, spur growth and remain competitive.

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Willem Strijbosch, VP Product Management for Maps at TomTom.