We create more than 150 million digital maps daily… Meanwhile, you only use Google Maps

Our ability to compile location-based data and create accurate maps is one of the most underrated achievements of humankind. Many of us assume that after the “official” World Map was completed and after Google Earth was released to the masses, that everything about mapping was completed. This could not be further from the truth.

Every day, more than 150 million digital maps are created – from mapping Ebola outbreaks to visualizing how poverty is distributed.

Location-based data tells the story of humans and how we exist in our environments. It brings color to the relationship between man and environment. We’ve only just begun bringing this rich story to life. Truthfully, there are very few companies and organizations that won’t benefit or be affected by digital mapping, cartography, or geographic information systems.

Digital mapping is a massive opportunity, whether the goal is to:

  • Design better cityscapes to accommodate a growing population
  • Prospect the next physical store locations that will thrive
  • Get passengers from point A to point B
  • Provide environments for virtual and augmented reality spaces
  • And even eradicate diseases

As we venture further and further into the metaverse, incorporating more technology into our lives, we’re going to bring more and more location-based data into our lives.

So how did we get here?

A Brief History of the Web Map.

We frequently thank WordPress, Shopify, and Squarespace for making it extremely simple for small businesses to come online. But, let’s not forget that most companies’ first web presence was on Zip2, Cityguide, TripAdvisor, Yelp, or the dozens of other web mapping companies out there.

Back in 1995, Elon Musk was one of the first to show us the possibilities of online city guides. Zip2 was a local search engine he founded which essentially was the digital version of Yellow Pages. Elon convinced Navteq, one of the premier digital mapping companies at the time that their maps needed to exist online. They agreed, and shortly thereafter, Zip2 started helping newspaper companies offer maps, directions, and business listings to their online readers. Just 4 years later it sold to Compaq for $307 million.

Nearly a decade after the start of Zip2, one of Elon Musk’s Paypal co-founders, Russel Simmons, would launch Yelp – the online Yellow Pages we all came to know and love. I think we can all agree that life wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t find the nearest and best shoe repair shop, accountant, or Chinese restaurant.

It makes me wonder how much of our economy would disappear if maps were never brought online? How much more business have restaurants, furniture stores, and dry cleaners collectively brought in thanks to location-specific, online listing sites?

Although it’s hard to put an exact number to this, Google put a few estimated numbers to the value of digital maps in our economy:

Digital Maps have supported more than $1 trillion in sales for businesses. [Additionally,] Geospatial services directly create 4 million jobs – and more than 8 million indirectly.

Not to mention, three of the most successful startups of the 21st century (Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft) all exist because web mapping is a thing. Think about how far we’ve come since the humble beginnings of Mapquest and printing off directions.

However, digital maps are far more important than getting us from point A to point B or helping us find local businesses. Some of the cooler uses cases of Google Maps are:

  • Falling Fruit helps city-dwellers forage for fresh produce in their area
  • Trulia presents home buyers, sellers, and renters visual data about schools, public transit, nightlife, environmental and natural disaster risks, property valuations, and sales trends
  • iVEDiX is fighting the HIV epidemic in Kenya through location-based apps
  • Enevo and Vagabond are optimizing waste disposal routes and vending machine upkeep with sensors and location trackers
  • Environmental Defense Fund is mapping methane leaks to curtail climate change
  • Among many other interesting Google Maps Customers

As you can see, to look at digital mapping and only cover how it has helped us consumers is extremely narrow-minded. It’s like talking about Michael Jordan and not ever saying anything about Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the Chicago Bulls.

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Location Data Is Human Data.

Perhaps the most promising area of digital mapping is GIS (Geographic Information Systems), which is basically the field of creating visual maps and aesthetic presentations of geographic/location data. It’s a mix of analyzing data, making sense of data, and disseminating data in a way that people can understand. It may sound super nerdy, however, it’s actually the opposite – creating simplicity from complex data. You can see below:

isualizing the Opioid Crisis by Esri and NSC

With 40% of the GIS market share, a company called Esri provides software that makes digital mapping of all kinds extremely simple. Led by Jack and Laura Dangermond – two of tech’s lesser-known billionaire moguls – Esri has been changing the digital mapping game for over 50 years.

Its technology is used around the world by some 350,000 businesses, government agencies and NGOs, which collectively create 150 million new maps every day.

Miguel Helft, Forbes

Some of the biggest names in non-profit and government orgs – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, FEMA, and thousands of others – use Esri software to help visualize and combat the world’s biggest problems, such as:

Esri and other GIS software companies excel at helping key stakeholders understand the seriousness of situations and create courses of action. It’s like the evolution of PowerPoint.

One of the areas of technology that has gone further than I ever expected is mapping, and we have Jack Dangermond to thank, in large part, for his pioneering efforts of almost 50 years. He’s one of a kind.”

Bill Gates told Forbes

You shouldn’t undercut the value of GIS just because it doesn’t sound that “futuristic”. Honestly, the most futuristic thing we can do is use what’s around us to solve the most pressing human problems. And this is exactly what Esri and other GIS software companies empower.

The Future of Digital Mapping.

When you ask where the future of digital mapping is going to take us, you’ll quickly find that it’s actually simpler to ask where it won’t take us. Because digital mapping plays a monumental role in the further development of so much of our digital livelihood.

We already saw Pokemon Go use digital mapping to upgrade their legacy brand into a futuristic experience (which we’ve yet to see an AR game surpass). Although, Google Maps has shown us what the evolution of their navigation system looks like, with an augmented reality twist.

There’s a whole host of people eager to take Google Maps to the next level and map every indoor space on the planet.

John Hanke [Founder of Google Earth and Niantic Labs, the creator of Pokemon Go] is interested in what he calls “human-scale mapping of the pedestrian world” – all the indoor, private spaces you can’t see on Google Earth right now. These are the maps that are going to be necessary to support a future dominated by augmented reality – one Hanke believes will be dominated by augmented reality glasses.

Katharine Schwab, Fast Company

In theory, this would allow us to explore anywhere we’d like from a digital connection. Imagine how life-changing that would be for virtual reality creators if they could replicate the indoor environments of any place in the real world and create experiences that feel like the real thing? Cartography and digital mapping will lay the groundwork for a metaverse that people can live in and escape the dregs of reality.

Naturally, there are also applications of digital mapping for logistics.

When we consider designing the airways for thousands or even millions of delivery drones, cartographers will be at the center of designing 3D route maps keep the drones safe and secure. Companies like Amazon and Walmart already use cartographers and GIS specialists to optimize the logistics of their massive operation of warehouses (and store locations).

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the value of creating and owning these comprehensive digital maps is a major strategic advantage. We already saw how Google phased away the Yelp reviews from their Google Maps platform and replaced them with their own Google reviews.

The fact that Google is so far ahead of everyone in digital mapping worries people.

When it comes to self-driving cars, each company that deploys self-driving cars needs to rely heavily on extremely accurate maps. They can license Google’s great maps, but that isn’t wise since Google is in the self-driving game themselves. And nobody wants to find themselves in a similar predicament as Yelp.

This is why Uber is investing $500 million in the creation of their own maps. It’s why Audi, BMW, Daimler, and Intel created a mapping consortium called HERE Technologies to create maps for their self-driving future.

And on a final, much more futuristic note, there’s an international research project known as the Human Genome Project which aims to map the purpose of every gene in the human body. It’s going to be interesting to see the digital maps which GIS specialists create to distill this vital information.

The irony of this entire topic is that the word “map” invokes such a feeling of archaism. The accordion-style pamphlet occupying space in your glovebox probably comes to mind. Yet, maps are the key to powering some of the most futuristic visions out there today.