I see you, I know you: maps as a window into our lives.

On 10 August, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi from Apple talked to Fast Company in a very interesting interview. I discuss some of the strategic timing of the interview here, but this article is a focus on the Maps part of the discussion, where the two talk about the underestimation, and cost, of doing Maps well.

It’s a frank acceptance of failure, and they bring up the amount of work needed to run a maps business – the team size, the amount of detail, the constant fact checking. It’s a solid investment, and having worked on maps projects in the past, rings true even for a relatively small project. The effort to scale that to a global level blows my mind, especially when thinking about the amount of depth needed to ensure a trusted user experience.

As users, we have an assumption that a map is a source of truth and not only that, but a necessarily simple, logical and methodical source of truth. Maps are possibly the greatest source of truth in our history. We may dispute events, literature, and the sucesses of historical characters, but very rarely do we dispute maps beyond a political battle over state lines. A map needs to translate between languages, cultures and industries with a level of simplicity that can be necessarily simple, or needlessly complex, through the use of information overlays.

Any failure of these overlays can quickly lead to distrust of the entire maps system. Apple encountered this in a big way when Apple Maps was launched. It clearly struck a nerve and stayed there, and Apple are keen to rid themselves of their failures and present Apple Maps as a reliable source of truth and a solid part of their overall services offering.

The time and work needed to gather, and check, and update, a business location on a map, is very easy to underestimate, and if quality is paramount, is very difficult to automate. It’s remarkable just how human the creation of a map has to be, and something they discuss at length – the use of device GPS to track changes in maps, the role of maps as records of the physical world, and the various ways that are used to validate changes – from an online search to a phone call or physical drive by (oh if only Apple was working on cars…oh wait).

What I really like about the interview, is just how close Federighi and Cue come to discussing the real human power of Maps. It’s a concept I’ve been trying to evolve from pure concept into a real world possibility. It’s difficult to really define, based on the legacy utility of maps, so follow me here:

Maps are our most personal way of telling a story.

That is it in a nutshell. Think about it – a map of our lives can tell us almost everything that makes us who we are because maps are not only a record of the physical world, but also a timestamp of that world. The most efficient way to watch the impact of political, population, climate and many other changes, are through maps at a mass global level. If you turned this onto an individual, it becomes a record of their behaviour. We’ve seen some examples of this, with law enforcement agencies having used map tracking for…well, for as long as they’ve been tracking people.

It’s been noted that in the US, about 99% of people can be individually identified from 4 locations they visit regularly. This is extremely easy to test – just cross reference the number of people on your home street who are likely to go to the same work address, the same travel time/route to work, the same school to drop off kids, and the same supermarket/gym etc. It would be a tiny number, if more than 1 (you).

When you visit Google Maps Timeline and see your history of locations mapped out by date, it’s like seeing your autobiography unfold – every location you visited has a story. And every person who visits that site will, if they have a Google account tracking them, automatically see something unique to them. The first time I used this and looked back to a work trip I took in London, it had not only mapped my locations visited, but also mapped the photos I had taken on a device connected to my Google account. Boom – the date I was in London, the address of the hotel I stayed, and the photo of the room I shared with my family over SMS.

Google has been trying to push this humanisation even more lately by promoting their Local Guides program. This encourages locals to add photos, reviews of places they’ve been (based on Google’s location tracking) and then socialises these by suggesting ‘questions’ about those locations to make them more useful to users and bringing in Street View photos and more. They have also added new features such as Area of Interest, which boosts the discoverability of business on Maps by highlighting popular areas with potentially new restuarants and bars to discover.

Apple’s iOS isn’t lagging much behind. Their location services built into the phone helps enable so much of Google Maps’ power, as well as other business like Facebook, and their own work. Recently, on a Saturday afternoon, I jumped in the car to run errands around 4.21pm. My iPhone notified me that the time and traffic conditions to drive to my mother in law’s house, where we usually spend our Saturday afternoon/evenings. It was eerie, and interesting – if my personal story hadn’t deviated from the norm that day, I would have likely skimmed and then ignored this notification as an almost expected experience from my phone.

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Who are the storytellers?

I read this amazing piece on Wired recently. The piece itself is not deep, but the opening is fantastic.

SIJ BIG DOESN’T exist, but I can picture it. Judging from the map, this coastal nation boasts a dense, old-growth rainforest and a lush island where fishermen dive for abalone. The weather is cool and damp, but the whale watching is spectacular.

This is inspired by a new bot that a cartographer has created to generate random fantasy maps. Going to the original site, you can create your own, and alter the grid and points to tweak the randomisation. It has been tweeting a new map at roughly 1 per hour.

That opening from Wired encaspulates the storytelling nature of maps perfectly. It’s a common feeling with maps in fantasy work – the maps of Middle Earth are etched into many memories, and the oft-copied Game of Thrones opening credits is an art form matching Westeros’ map to the conceptual complexity of the ‘Game’ central to the narrative. Military obsessives could probably draw terrain and gun emplacement maps of D-Day from memory.

These maps are inseparable from their stories. How are we telling stories in our world, beyond history making events?

Law enforcement tries to find and use a suspect’s story. General Robert B Neller, Commandant of the US Marines, said recently that he wants US Marines to put away their phones because a connected and device-active marine unit also becomes a GPS tracked and mapped unit, that is revealing its position.

Nike has always led in the consumerisation of maps, with its amazing Nike+ running clubs that blend fitness, competition, community and geo tracking. Every month brings more apps and startups that try to connect community and users through maps and geolocation enabled services.

Oddly enough, travel brands are close to understanding the power of maps, but it’s a brand and marketing cliche, often to get us to buy tickets and ‘create our own story’. Oh, I don’t doubt the honesty behind some of these projects. There’s something amazing about the encouraged storytelling inherent in an amazing journey. It scratches the surface of what is possible by limiting the maps to the inspiration and the utility of showing you how to ‘find something’.

There is real power in harnessing the everyday stories of ‘being found’ within maps. Cue and Federighi touch on this when they discuss using the power of devices to track how maps change due to real world conditions – traffic flow changes indicate changes in environment, that could mean a change in the map. Golf searches in a location could mean a new golf course.

These are stories about the physical changes that happen in our worlds. But they are also stories about people.

The inseparable relationship between maps and people is actually best told by Pokemon Go. Pokemon Go is of course the most obvious recent success for Maps. People have focussed on the use of the maps Places of Interest and the AR side of Pokemon Go. That’s actually not the most interesting part for me – for me the real success is that Pokemon has successfully made combined maps with story. Players who use Pokemon Go are building stories about where they visited, what they found, who they were waterbombed by, and most importantly, which Pokemon they captured there. The technology was nothing new, the app was buggy as all hell, but the reason it is so popular is because it basically IS the Pokemon story. Obsessives travelling to distant locations to catch innocent animals and force them into a fight club is the essence of the Pokemon story. It’s the stuff kids cartoons are made of (and don’t I still LOVE it).

Apple’s big investment into AR following Pokemon Go is an indicator more about the power of location, than gaming or virtualisation.

 

I see these as small, indicative outliers still – the small waves that are the prelude to the big one – the significant shift in how Maps and our stories connect. As these waves build, and more major business invest more in maps, the waves build bigger.

In an industry that was estimated between $150 billion and $270 billion in 2013, this is going to be a big wave when it hits.

It’s a 10 year wave effect, perhaps.

Disrupting something as utilitarian as maps, as culturally generic as maps, is not easy. The perception of maps as intrinsic to the way we view the world could be a long tail disruption. We’ve said that before about industries now being thrown over a cliff, but are maps in need of disruption? How much does that matter?

It really does come back to the concept of experience perception. What do we expect from maps? A map is currently seen as a utility – a reference point in support of something else that’s happened, or it’s an inspiration for something that hasn’t happened yet (in the case of travel). But how often – can it be – inseparable from the story itself (outside Pokemon Go)?

We’ve already seen the traditional story and reading structure be disrupted by the move and mobile as studies discover that people are starting to interact with pages in a much more non-linear fashion (a fascinating discussion to continue in another time and place), so how does this reflect on maps – maps currently support a narrative, but this will be changed as maps become the narrative navigation. Maps, by their very design, support both linear and non-linear navigation from a visual perspective. They can be used in pursuit of a single path, or by priority (I need to stop because I need a toilet). They’re also visually contextualised already – the physical world has a recognisable narrative context that is recognisable, even when coming from bot created fantasy maps.

Sometime in the future I think there will be a convergence as we see more of our personal stories overlaid onto the map to help us navigate our daily lives, and vice versa, more of the maps overlaid on our daily lives as a record of our stories.It will challenge the way we interact and see others, and objects as physical structures overlaid onto a virtual map.

It also points to another convergence between AR and maps – the investment in AR is much more interesting when it can be used to virtualise our stories onto the real world that we see through our device camera.

But there are questions, of course

There are serious questions that need to be asked as the wave begins to gain momentum. The very concept of overlaid stories initially crosses that uncanny valley of privacy and intrusion. Just how much, and how easy IS it to know my stories without me choosing to tell them (hint: it’s VERY easy), by using maps data.

This then opens questions about data sharing and profile sovereignty. Our legal understanding has barely begun to establish and agree on the real impact of profile and user sovereignty in a truly cloud based data world, let alone governance, privacy and security issues. To own a map of a person’s life is to be able to understand their life story. If we are identifiable from a mere 4 weekly locations, our options for privacy are even more limited.

From a business point of view, it’s also a very expensive area to be involved in. Mapping services are not cheap. Neither are the resources needed to make them powerful – whether these be development integrations or warm bodies cross checking locations. There are obviously some very powerful open source and readily available services like OpenStreetMaps, which help level some of that playing field. However, the hard costs are there.

But then, so is the opportunity. I am not sure if I have a solution in mind yet. I see the patterns, the small waves, but the big one hasn’t really identified itself yet. It’ll be very fun coming back to this idea over the next little while.

Life finds a way, as they say. And indeed, the way is there for someone to uncover for the rest of us…

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Cue Jeff Goldblum…

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