Hello, Dear Readers! I’m back, and excited to share this post with you. I’m curious to hear your feedback, and do share if so inclined.
In my family, I’m notorious for my lack of geography skills. My geography failures would be less pronounced if my husband and brother weren’t uncannily good at everything related to geography, maps, and navigation. Oddly they both won their middle school geography bees. I spent my formative years moving (see the places I’ve lived in a Felt map below), but growing up, maps never piqued my interest.
After all these years, I started to get more intrigued by maps and geography - particularly how they shape politics and our world order. I started reading more about the topic. In Rethinking the Power of Maps by Dennis Wood, Wood captures the essence of what we’ll explore today:
Maps are engines that convert social energy into social space, social order, knowledge.
Why are maps important now?
We’re experiencing a boom of startups building on, with, or for maps. A mapping renaissance, if you will. Interestingly - many mapping startups are located in Europe - this could be the result of sharing location data by default, a mode made possible by initiatives such as the Open Data Directive.
↗️ Data: In general, more real-time data than ever before can be layered on top of maps due to the sensors embedded in all parts of our lives. As a result, mapping startups are more appealing to consumers, because these companies can add value by displaying relevant data (think Google Maps’ Popular Times feature), or by pulling users into experiences (think PokémonGO). Eric Gundersen, the former CEO of Mapbox, underscores the importance of data in the consumer age:
Every time you touch the map, the map is learning.
🌳 Largely Greenfield: Historically, consumers haven’t been empowered (from a tools perspective) to build and share maps themselves. Mapping tools of the past were cumbersome and difficult to learn.
👩💻 Technology: Form factors of maps are diversifying - volumetric maps are enabled by Lidar and HD imaging sensors (VoxelMaps), social maps connect people, and capture the spirit of places (see LivingCities CEO, Matt Miesnieks’ post). Varied form factors enable maps to provide horizontally valuable interfaces - from video games to enterprise applications. Again, per Wood:
The map is nothing but an assertion of the state of the world desired by its makers.
🎓 Entrepreneurial Alumni: Dominant mapping shops of the last decade - Mapbox, Google Maps, and Foursquare have entrepreneurial alumni seeking to build companies of their own. Foursquare, for example, has dozens of alumni-founded companies (Radar, Unfolded, LivingCities, and 46 others, per Crunchbase).
⭐ Find an Airtable of promising early-stage startups and open source projects in the mapping space here. Note: Some of the companies listed have overlap with the companies in The Promise of Govtech.
I’ll call out one startup from the list in particular. Felt - I’m excited to have invested in Felt’s Series A financing round. Felt is a collaborative mapping tool that allows users to “use the Earth as a canvas, and information as paint.” Co-Founders Sam Hashemi, former CEO and Founder of Remix, and Can Duruk, had the insight that while maps remain read-only, the rest of the software industry is being democratized, allowing users to access, edit, share, and even own bits and bytes (see web3 reference below). The Felt team envisions a world in which crucial data is accessible, and consumers are empowered to create and share maps with this data.
In the same way parts of the web have moved into a web3 paradigm (read-write-own), maps are moving from “read” to “read-write.”
📖 An Aside | Definition
The terms “read” and “write” come from database nomenclature. 📕Read means the user can read / consume the data, but not change it. ✏️Write means a user has the ability to modify data.
Use cases for map companies cut across the fabric of society:
Climate: As climate change awareness increases, topics of sustainability and environmental preservation become a larger part of societal conversations. As a result, maps, and data on our oceans, atmosphere, vegetation, and natural disasters, that we can layer upon maps, become crucial to our understanding of how the climate is changing.
Business: Mapmaking is a critical function at the most important companies - news organizations, for example, use maps to keep the public abreast of elections, pandemics, and global conflicts.
Transportation & Deliveries: We need hyper-accurate mapping and location data for transportation and deliveries, and want this technology to support the democratization of new means of transportation and delivery - things like autonomous driving and drone delivery.
Travel: Lodging companies like Airbnb see cartography as core to their businesses (article on one of their cartographers, what3words profile).
Maps A History
For those looking to understand how we got here, find a brief history of key mapping companies in the last 50 years.
Esri was founded in 1969 and is the largest GIS software company in the world. GIS, or geographic information system, organizes, analyzes, and displays data in relation to location, as defined by Unearth. GIS evolved from the need to build maps that can handle large amounts of complex data.
Esri helped bring location data online and make it workable. OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, and Mapbox are key players in democratizing the power of maps for consumer and developer use.
OpenStreetMap (OSM) offers crowdsourced geographic data as a free and editable map used by Facebook, Tesla, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and others. The OSM initiative was started in 2004.
Google Maps is a closed source developer and consumer mapping product with an extensive feature set (navigation, reviews, various views, rich APIs, offline functionality). Google Maps was launched in 2005, and now has over 1 billion active monthly users (A Look Back at 15 Years of Mapping the World).
Read Google Maps’s Moat, an excellent piece by Justin O’Beirne, for more on Google Maps.
Mapbox powers the maps and location services used in many popular apps. It was founded in 2010 and offers a developer-centric approach, customizability, broad integrations, and great rendering performance.
We’ll see what the next paradigm in mapping looks like! Like the team at Felt, I expect it to be more accessible and consumer-oriented. Like the team at LivingCities, I expect it to be increasingly immersive and social.
Thank you for reading, kind friends and family! I’m still quite new to this space, so don’t know that I did it justice. As I learn more in the coming months and years, this post may merit an update. Your feedback on this first take is very welcome in the comments or via email! Please share this if you enjoyed! 🪐
⭐ Google Maps’s Moat by Justin O’Beirne
⭐ The Secret Language of Maps by Carissa Carter
This book has a brief section on color. A deeper exploration on color (not related to maps, but to art history: Color Scheme: An Irreverent History of Art and Pop Culture in Color Palettes by Edith Young
Nobody Wants Your Fancy Algorithm by Joe Morrison
Esri Can’t Be Stopped by Joe Morrison
Unbundling Google Maps by Christopher Beddow
Rethinking the Power of Maps by Dennis Wood
The People Who Draw Rocks: The Alps’ Glaciers are Melting and these Swiss Cartographers Have Work to Do in the NYT
This list of ArcGIS categories is helpful in understanding the topics used to categorize geospatial content.
Thanks for sharing this thesis! Very promising field indeed. Excited to follow the work of data-centric mapping companies.