Towards An Open Database of Places: Location Autodiscovery

A short while back I read a challenging article titled t’s Time For An Open Database Of Places. There, Erich Schonfeld notes:

A long list of companies including Twitter, Google, Foursquare, Gowalla, SimpleGeo, Loopt, and Citysearch are far along in creating separate
 databases of places mapped to their geo-coordinates. These efforts at creating an underlying database of places are duplicative, and any competitive advantage any single company gets from being more comprehensive than the rest will be short-lived at best. It is time for an open database of places which all companies and developers can both contribute to and borrow from.

I agree that there is duplication of effort but this is what happens with many competitive technologies (look at now many online maps are available today). Each company tries to add a competitive advantage to its offering while providing the same core functionality as the competition.
Update: I started this post back in April and a lot of developments recently only enforce: this point. (Check Facebook Places and Google Places for more info).

I like the idea of an open database of places. Any company could build value-added services on top of it and sell them while they are not concerned about issues that come with building and maintaining such database like geo-location/address accuracy and duplicate place resolution to name just a few. Techcrunch’s Schonfeld adds another issue: who can a place and who should be in control of it, suggesting that anybody can update the database and “the best data should prevail”. This is hard and suggests a wiki-like approach for better or worse.
I’m not a fan of centralizing such database. Since there are such great market forces at play, it may become a playground for fights (my data is better than yours), a committee will attempt to regulate it just to push it into oblivion while everybody will get their toys and go build their own database.

I have a different idea (and it’s not new either).

Businesses have a great deal of interest in such database. It puts them on the map. They don’t particularly care who is using their place as long as the data about their business is correct and their customers easily reach their venue. The experience with using a mobile routing software to get to a place in real world is the equivalent of not waiting more than four seconds for a webpage to load. It just has to route the customer precisely to a location.

Why not letting the business to own their own geo data? All it takes is for them to have a website and add a bit of information to it to allow for auto-discovery; it’s called geotagging. It’s the same idea that Matt Griffith had back in 2002 that allows RSS feed autodiscovery applied to geo. The real win is for small businesses that adopt geotagging. All they need to do is add a small bit of metadata on their homepage and let web indexers do the job of collecting this data. Oh, and it’s free.
This brings a double win: companies in the mapping business access accurate geo information about businesses. The business themselves are happy that their customers can precisely find their physical location by means of address and/or geo-coordinates. Moreover, the accuracy of the data is maintained by the businesses since they want their customers to find them even when they move. A Places database that aggregates this type of data can mark these places as “verified” since they come directly from merchants. It even provides more accurate means of building forward and reverse geocoding tools.
Going forward with this model, the competition will shift their efforts from building a database of places to adding value to a (more or less) common Places database like local promotions and building great mapping products to allow us, the customers to find them.

The hard part is promoting this model. If say, half of the brick and mortar small businesses with a web presence embed geo metadata on their website, then the big players take notice. How to get there is the real challenge.

Image via Flickr/bryankennedy

Posted in software