Geotagged at the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105,13.38521)

Knocking Down (Geo Data's) Brick Walls

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Cian O'Sullivan for GoMo News as part of the run-up to the Location Business Summit in San Jose. The interview is now up on the GoMo News site and is reproduced here with permission.

Ovi Places: Mobile Navigation needs to knock down its brick walls

When Ovi Maps launched at the start of this year, it really shook up the navigation industry. The free software gave everyone with access to Nokia's Ovi Store a perfectly serviceable Personal Navigation Device (PND), completely for free. But Ovi Maps is just the first exposure of the Nokia branch called Ovi Places. Recently appointed Director of Ovi Places, Gary Gale, took some time to talk to GoMo News about the state of mobile navigation ahead of his appearance at the Location Business Summit, USA, 14-15 September, San Jose.

Most people know about Ovi Maps, but a lot won't have heard about Ovi Places. What is it, exactly?

It's the slightly unglamorous name for a set of back-end systems that understand what people are looking for. Within the Ovi Maps client, on both mobile and internet, there's the ability to look for what the industry calls Points Of Interest - or POIs. But we prefer the term "places" - because POIs comes laden with preconceived baggage. Our colleagues in Japan consider anything that isn't nailed down as a POI, including bus stops, park benches or traffic lights. That can lead to too-much data, an overflow that can't be easily consumed. People tend to think of these kind of location and navigation services as a yellow pages business listings - which is certainly important for the classic LBS model of "where am I, and what's around me". But Ovi Places takes into account local information, colloquial information, landmarks and places you'd want to go to as a tourist. For example, where I am in the Nokia office in the middle of Berlin, we've got the really common tourist POIs showing up - like the Brandenburg Gate, for example - but Places also refers to an excellent restaurant in the courtyard below me, and a local coffee shop.

If there were more signs like this.......

Where do you source that info? Are there Places fact finders or do you buy the info?

It comes from a variety of sources. Some of it comes from commercial data providers - this is actually one of the main reasons we acquired NAVTEQ, and why TomTom bought TeleAtlas. Digital mapping companies have a rich set of data above and beyond the normal PND stuff. But there are also a whole variety of specialist premium partners that we do deals with; we're talking about regional specialists that we talk to on a country-by-country basis in order to gain their local insight.

There is no "one true" source of data - you need to make a lot of partnerships to get the best local data available.

At the moment, Ovi Places really only powers the Ovi Maps application. Are there plans for more services to exist under a Places umbrella?

At the moment, it's exposed only through Ovi Maps. For the future... I can't say anything specific, but watch this space!

How do you plan to make mobile location more personal to the mobile user?

Actually, the mobile user is probably the easiest use case for navigation. Your device has lot of options available to it to determine your location. From there, services like Places can provide rich experiences. The key problem is whilst all of this is pretty much mainstream now, there is a "Bay Area bubble" where a lot of the products and services coming out seem to think your user will always have a smartphone, and will always have a GPS lock with an excellent data connection. That may be fine for San Francisco, and even Western Europe. Sometimes even areas you think would be well served are awful. I recently went on a trip to Calais - when I got off the ferry and the GPS took 15 mins to pick up a lock. So you have to realise that there can be patchy 3G data coverage in even highly developed countries, and then look at areas which have growing economies and even worse connections. There are places in Africa and Asia that won't have 3G data in the next 5 or 10 years.

You mentioned that mobile users are the easy use cases - what would you consider to be a challenging case?

The challenges arise when you've got infrastructure problems. Consider some of the poster child location services, like Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp. Lack of 3G data infrastructure doesn't appear to be factored into the business models for these companies. Try using one of them in Africa, or India, or Asia. The infrastructure isn't there to address these needs. The populace simply don't have access to these services.

Is Places doing anything to address that problem?

We're looking at potential handsets that don't need a dedicated on-board GPS or AGPS. They don't need the typical app store economy. We're able to tap into cell tower triangulation, where local laws and legislation permits it. It may not be as accurate as a GPS lock, but it's better than nothing.

Is that really important for a developing country? How worried is a resident really going to be about their location services.

I think the best answer to that is from an article by Dr. Tero Ojanperä (Executive Vice President of Services, Mobile Solutions, Nokia). He said that the target is less about producing a device that runs apps than it is about creating a really useful platform - it's more about producing a context-aware device, that gives you the best relevancy depending on the services available to it.  "It's about devices that offer truly connected services and learn your habits so well that they can give you what you want". That means you have a service that will provide good services to every customer, no matter what the state of their local infrastructure is.

Last month I was at the GeoLoco conference in San Francisco, talking on a panel about the challenges the industry is facing. An audience member asked "what advice would the panellists give to someone who is trying to establish a foothold in location?" I felt my answer got the most responses, at least on the Twitter back-channel. which was "I come from Europe - don't forget that we exist! There is a market outside of North America that is different in its needs and infrastructure".

Services like TeleAtlas and OpenStreetMap (OSM) make a lot of use of crowd-sourced info. Does Ovi Places allow for that?

Very much so. We already have this kind of functionality built into the newer handsets, allowing you to add corrections and updates while you are on location. Crowd sourcing is very much a part of this industry's future - but I don't think it's the panacea that people think it might be. It's a vital additional source, but not the best thing since sliced bread until; at least, not until the industry gets together and comes up with a way to verify and editorialise new info. It's a benevolent technological anarchy - because there's no formalised control over how you tag a place, a consumer has to accept that finding out how to use the data will take significant time and revenue investment. If your local authority is trying to map its assets, you want to make sure those assets are exactly where you claim - because taxation and revenue streams can be assessed on that. If you get that wrong, it will lead to the kind of bad press a local authority doesn't want. Especially if emergency services are trying to get to a specific street address - you need that data to be 100% accurate.

What do you think the main challenges facing mobile navigation are?

I think there two main challenges.

First is the privacy angle. People don't quite understand what it is that they're giving up to use the latest LBS app. You need to make sure that people understand the value proposition on the table when they're giving up their location to gain relevance in their local search. The public as a whole needs to understand this. And it will probably be driven by tabloid headlines - some celebrity who gets divorced because a location service proves they weren't where they said they were. And it would be better if it didn't happen that way. I hope the Industry is open and transparent about it as much as possible. It will be to our detriment if we don't expose this kind of information, and something sensationalist does happen.

Second, there's a need for people to talk to one another. We're all building loads of very rich data sets - OSM is doing it, Facebook, Foursquare, government services, NAVTEQ - but at the moment, to unlock their potential, they need to talk to each other. The current licensing set up means location data is still stored in a series of vertical silos which aren't allowed to work with each other. And the actual industry moves so fast that even those who are involved in it find it hard to keep up with developments. So keeping the legal and licensing system up-to-date with it must be nightmarish. It's getting increasingly more difficult to get solid patents in this area - and patents being wielded by the patent troll houses are being used in a way they were never intended. In order to work around this, I think the future will have to be less about aggregating these data silos, and more about synchronising the end-point exposure. If you have an identifier in one data set that corresponds to an identifier in another data set, they can sync up and present a united service to the end user... without having to share protected data.

Plant on Brick Wall

Gary Gale will be speaking at the Location Business Summit, 14-15 September, San Jose, where he'll be further addressing the issues surrounding the "silo problem" and licensing issues.

Photo Credits: William Warby and Ajith Kumar on Flickr.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user