Has mapping ever changed?

When you look at the last, say, 40 years of mapping in the United States it’s hard to see that the central problem of mapping has changed. The consumer wants to get to work on time. That’s about it.

We can nudge that scenario in to “…wants to get home” or “…wants to see the ball game”… or whatever you want. But, centrally, all I care about is getting from A to B. Where A or B tend to be something like my home, my office or someplace else like my kids school. Only rarely are A and B some other random thing unrelated to my daily life.

What’s changed in the last 40 years is the technology. We can imagine that in 1973 the hot technology was paper, as it had been for about the previous two-thousand years. Paper is incredibly cheap, lightweight, hardy and high-resolution.

Somewhere in the suburban time frame radio traffic reports emerged. This was a great way to make me tune in to certain radio stations. Now, I not only have a framework for figuring out a route (paper), I also have some approximation of the time it will take. Thus, I can choose which route to take.

Let’s pause and emphasize that. The primary piece of information I need to know is binary. Do I take route 1 or route 2 home today. That’s it. That is the major, most important use case for mapping. Everything else, checking in, finding a McDonald’s and so on is far less important compared to the one thing I need every day.

Radio reports are a pretty crappy ways to convey the nuance of traffic information. But then, I don’t care. My route to work has two or possibly three variations. So crappy (low density) information is fine. The problem kicks up with frequency. Is information every 10 or 20 minutes useful to me? No, so they give traffic reports every five minutes which makes them super repetitive. A vast infrastructure emerged to include helicopter traffic reporters.

What happened next? The world exploded, approximately. We’ve seen a bazillion different mapping apps and services, most have died, most are trying to do the same old thing; tell me how to get to work on time.


TrafficGauge for the Bay Area

Enter TrafficGauge. Founded in 2001, a full six years before the iPhone shipped. The screen shows traffic, the button looks like it was a backlight. What’s noticeable about the product post-hoc is how damn simple it was. A screen and a button. That’s it.

Using the pager network, the device magically showed you where traffic was bad for something like $80 per device and $5/month. They shipped in something like five markets in the US. This is all a little sketchy because, shockingly, there is no wikipedia page. I’ll link to where it should exist one day though here.

So we’ve gone from paper to radio reports. Now we have in-car devices which explode thanks to TomTom and others and in a sense died with the launch (and quick death) of Dash.

Dash, the in-car connected GPS PND

Dash, the in-car connected GPS PND

Dash, like TrafficGauge, was a beautiful device but far easier to spell. It included a radio, like TrafficGauge, but this radio could transmit things as well as receive. What did it transmit? Primarily, your position. But, it also meant you could do searches and other stuff. By using your position, Dash could in theory figure out the traffic speed around you. It used you as a probe in the outside world and then could tell drivers behind you how bad the traffic is in front of them.

Why do we need this vast infrastructure? There are two reasons. One is, traffic data is kind of monopolistic and expensive so having more sources is a good thing (where good means cheaper). The other is that the cutting edge of traffic information was induction loops.

Induction Loop. Pretty, isn't it?

Induction Loop. Pretty, isn’t it?

Induction loop is a fancy term for “piece of wire buried in the road” which, with a little logic, you can use to sense cars. At least, until carbon fiber cars become the norm. Various governments install these things in every lane down a freeway every mile or so and can thus detect flow rate of vehicles. After a lot of work, you get to know which freeway you should take home.

Putting probes out in to the world would be better, so long as we have sufficient numbers of probes. Thus Dash died under the weight of product development, hardware engineering, software and also having to sell enough units to be self-sustaining.

As Dash died, the iPhone and friends took over. That meant waze, google maps and much more.

Google Maps on Android with traffic

Google Maps on Android with traffic

Look how the information density has crept up on us from audio reports over the radio, to TrafficGauge, to the vomit-on-a-screen above.

The industry went so far beyond the required information, and got so slap happy with the available tools, it reminds me of when laser printers came out. Leaflets using every available typeface and color were normal for a year or five, then we regained our brains and sense of information design.

Think for a second what I actually need to know when navigating. It’s basically down to two modes – unambiguous and ambiguous path decisions. When I’m on a freeway at 70mph I only, really, need to know unambiguously if I’m coming off at the next exit or not. That can be conveyed with an arrow, and maybe some confirmation data like the exit number or name. I only really need confirmation data because the map data might be wrong, or we slip in to a complicated exit scenario like the following city example: When I’m in San Francisco and I have traffic everywhere, bad GPS reception and I’m eating a burrito, things become more complicated. The GPS is telling me to turn left… Does it mean this left or that left? At this point a map is suddenly very useful, in a limited infographic kind of way, to disambiguate the device, reality and my mental model of where I should be going. Snap, when all three of those agree good things happen.

Who is the above map useful for? Nobody. As a pedestrian I don’t care much about the traffic. As a driver, the information isn’t condensed enough to things like left or right turns. What it is (and it’s not just Google, everybody makes online maps like this), is an exercise in punishment-by-brogrammer. Look! I can add colors!

So, here we are 40 years later and I still have the same problem. Which route do I take home today? Only now I’m overloaded with information and the solution costs infinitely more than it used to. The radio traffic report was approximately free, TrafficGauge was $120 ish fully loaded and now an iPhone costs $2-3,000 fully loaded over the life of the contract.

Yes, your iPhone does so much more. These devices have hoovered up entire industries. Where I used to own a camera, GPS, phone, mp3 player and video recorder I now have an iPhone. Let’s divide the cost in five, and we still end up with $400+ for the mapping functionality. Therefore the costs have jumped two orders of magnitude, the problem I’m solving remains the same, and the density of information has jumped – overshot – to a point far beyond my actual needs.

You can buy a brand new GPS for $150 with lifetime new maps and live traffic. We can wave our hands and call that half the cost for the same services delivered by an iPhone. We can get similar things far cheaper on eBay. If you’re at all rational, a GPS is the better choice for your car.

When I see terms like “lifetime maps and traffic” I feel that there is some level of desperation out there. Here they are giving you the farm; the device and all that data and updates for less than a third of what the device alone used to cost. Your cell phone on the other hand is giving you less distilled information, for more money. It would appear inevitable that the pendulum will swing the other way and we will get simpler interfaces, cheaper, with more distilled information. Perhaps the new Google Maps is a leading indicator of that.

Deep Breath

Red Dot Fever

Red Dot Fever: The cutting edge of how to find the nearest McDonald’s

When maps were made out of dead trees, they needed to show every street. They only show every street today, because that’s what we did back in 1846. There is no actual reason to show every street on a mobile device if you’re attempting to accomplish some task.

For entertainment purposes, please, add every street. When I’m browsing around, or finding my bearings, this is useful.

But as soon as I want to achieve something, a map is just information design. I don’t want a map. I want to find McDonald’s, or I want to get home on time. A map is just a crappy tool to help me achieve these tasks.

We can make much better tools than exist today.

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