Think of it as the hive approach to car navigation systems: One driver, like a worker bee, finds the quickest way from Point A to Point B and then shares that route with other drivers. It's the basic idea behind all crowdsourcing, the sharing of free user-generated content to create information such as restaurant ratings and contractor recommendations.
Now it's poised to become the main strategy for keeping the maps of route-guidance systems current. Fortunately, you don't have to wiggle and buzz to join in — just use your smartphone.
For the first time, according to Telenav, a navigation-services company, an established program is switching from maps that are professionally produced to ones that are crowdsourced. The maps use data and updates provided by volunteer contributors.
Telenav, which uses TomTom maps in its Scout navigation app, uses crowdsourced maps from OpenStreetMap in the iOS and Android versions of its navigation software.
Until now, most makers of navigation apps have bought commercially available maps such as those produced by TomTom and Nokia's Here (formerly Navteq). To verify the map data, those companies sent cartography teams on the road, marking name changes and speed limits, correcting intersection errors and noting routes that close during snow or monsoon seasons.
By contrast, OpenStreetMap is based on information provided by amateur users who send in corrections and road changes. The fixes are submitted two ways: manually by users or automatically by voluntary GPS traces that track drivers' smartphones as they travel, much the same way that many apps track users' locations. The maps are in turn available free for anyone to use on websites or in software.
"It's the first time an open-source map has been deemed high-enough quality to be used in a commercial navigation product," says Steve Coast, founder of OpenStreetMap and now head of OpenStreetMap at Telenav.
Coast argues that rather than worrying whether a navigation app based on crowdsourced information will steer them off a pier, users should consider OpenStreetMap to be more accurate and up-to-date than commercial maps because of the 1.6 million contributors providing knowledge of roads.
To add new road and map information, registered volunteers draw and label new roads online at the OpenStreetMap site. Whenever a change is made, volunteer editors familiar with particular locales are alerted; they can correct discrepancies such as a restaurant that is displayed on the wrong side of the road.
Telenav adds an additional layer of verification to OpenStreetMap by having professional editors conduct spot checks. Changes involving road deletions, for example, will draw an editor's attention, and route segment changes are compared against GPS traces. Maps are updated monthly, but Coast says he hopes that weekly updates will be available soon.
Telenav's shift in strategy may signal further disruption in the navigation market. Google paid nearly $1 billion last year for Waze, another crowd-based traffic and navigation company. The main advantage of Waze is that as the number of users increases, so does the accuracy of its live traffic reports, which are based on real-time speed and location data from users' phones.
However, not all navigation information is generated by users. In the United States, for example, Waze uses Census Bureau data for streets and addresses, which is then laid over the maps for navigation. Even so, the volunteer community of users is important, says Di-Ann Eisnor, head of growth for Waze.
"There's that core community that really cares a lot," she says.