The Center for Data Innovation talked with Eric Gundersen, CEO of MapBox, about unexpected use cases of his company’s technology and why he bet big on open-source. MapBox builds open mapping tools and uses them to create custom maps.
Travis Korte: MapBox is a great case study in putting open data to work. Can you talk a little bit about some ways data producers can maximize the re-use value of their data?
Eric Gundersen: MapBox Streets is based on OpenStreetMap’s open source data; it’s like Wikipedia but for maps. That means OSM is a free, community-edited map that no one company owns. If someone edits a street on OSM, the changes are reflected on MapBox within minutes. The OSM community is constantly growing. In 2012 there were over 124,000 contributors to the map; that is 25% more than Waze. Just last month there were almost 20,000 people adding data to the map. Our main goal right now is to make adding data to OpenStreetMap even easier so that the data is more accurate. We recently designed a new map editor for OSM that makes it even easier to to trace satellite imagery. You just look at imagery and trace where there are roads or buildings.
TK: Regarding MapBox’s work in satellite imagery, you once said that “traditional satellite companies don’t get it…you have to be a software company to leverage big data.” Can you expand on that?
EG: Our work with imagery from satellites is just getting started. Traditional satellite companies have tons of amazing imagery — unfortunately a lot of it is hard to get access to. We have been partnering with some of the most forward looking teams in the imagery space — folks that want to sell more than just pixels, and together we’re building tools to do more than just look at heavy imagery files on proprietary GIS desktop systems. Right now we’re working on this on two fronts: Cloudless Atlas — a seamless, pristine view of Earth, and MapBox Satellite Live — satellite imagery that’s only a few hours old. All of this work across our satellite team means running a lot of algorithms across huge sets of imagery; we are talking about terabytes of imagery being processed daily.
TK: Talk about some of the use cases for your technologies that you found particularly imaginative, or that you thought pushed the frontiers of what mapping is capable of.
EG: You never know what people are going to use MapBox for – we are a platform company and it is wild to wake up, look at Twitter, and see a developer or designer do something beautiful with our mapping platform. For example, the iOS app “Silent History” – this real time novel meets map – really surprised everyone when it came out. It’s a work of fiction that relies on MapBox’s maps to tell a larger story of a generation of children who were born without the ability to understand language. Depending upon where you are, you can read or hear more parts of the story. Now from literature to crazy games, one of my favorite releases was “Map of the Dead,” which dropped in our iOS tools to create an immersive real world game with a sinister looking map – you literally walk around the city with a hammer killing zombies. Looking at more mainstream media, we get a lot of traction from news outlets including everyone from NPR to the Financial Times. Most recently The Washington Post used our maps to visualize the effect of the government shutdown across the United States. Furloughed workers could add a pin to a map and leave a comment about how the shutdown affected their livelihood. The combined visual of everyone’s story on a map localized this huge national drama better than your typical news article. More importantly if journalists are using MapBox, it shows that we have tools that are fast – like even people on crazy deadlines can use our tools.
TK: Tell me a little bit about how you initially developed the vision of a company driven by and giving back to open-source.
EG: We are making better tools because of our involvement with the open source space. Currently we have over 150 different public repositories on Github that cover a lot of different ideas that we are playing with. Our open source tools let you do everything from designing custom maps to making your maps go offline on your phone. Not only can you use our code, but you can view the source and push changes. Open source makes better code.
TK: You’re coming into a fresh round of funding; aside from expanding your staff, what will you be able to do that you couldn’t before?
EG: This is a serious investment for us and we are stoked to be working with the Foundry Group, these guys get how we work. This is all about investing in our team. Wait till you see what we’re releasing in early 2014 😉.