Think about it: Maps are fundamental to human evolution, exploration, innovation.
Since the first maps were drawn up in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, we have used them to guide ourselves across land, ocean, space (and someday maybe the Earth’s very interior).
And today, map data is voluminous and vast; the modern world relies on it not just for navigation, but for local search, routing, logistics, data visualization and other emerging innovations — including autonomous driving.
Still, the sourcing and curating of up-to-date, high-quality, fine-grained map data from often disparate sources is expensive, difficult and time-consuming. Data can be inconsistent, vulnerable to errors and based on unique conventions and vocabularies (thus making it difficult to combine). And often, existing open map data lacks the strong foundation on which new products and services can be built.
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To help usher in the next era of map building — particularly with the dawn of the metaverse, the rise in augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) and the many other platforms and worlds not yet conceived — the Linux Foundation today announced the formation of the Overture Maps Foundation.
Founded by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Meta, Microsoft and TomTom, the effort will develop interoperable map data on an open-source methodology. It will be open to all communities with a common interest in building open map data and strengthening mapping services worldwide.
“We’re at a place where maps and map data can be built together by a community — and it needs to be,” Mike Dolan, SVP and GM of projects at the Linux Foundation, told VentureBeat. “No one company can actually do it all. We have to work together.”
Democratizing map data for the future
The Overture Maps Foundation’s goal is to create reliable, easy-to-use and interoperable open map data, according to the Linux Foundation. Members will combine resources to build data that is complete, accurate, and refreshed as the physical world changes.
The project aims to complement existing open geospatial data and integrate with existing open map data from projects such as OpenStreetMap and city planning departments, along with new map data contributed by members and built using computer vision and AI/ML techniques.
Overture will provide:
- Collaborative map building: Data will be incorporated from multiple sources including Overture members, civic organizations and open data sources.
- Global entity reference system: Overture will simplify interoperability with a system that links entities from different datasets to the same real-world entities.
- Quality assurance processes: Data will undergo validation to detect map errors, breakage and vandalism to help ensure that map data can be used in production systems.
- Structured data schema: Overture will define and drive adoption of a common, structured and documented data schema to create an easy-to-use ecosystem of map data.
“There is demand for exceptionally high quality data, data that is updated very regularly,” Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told VentureBeat. “By collaborating on this, we will be able to provide that.”
However, he emphasized, “Overture won’t be a mapping service. You’re not going to log in and ask how to get from point A to point B.”
Dolan, for his part, noted that the project follows the growing trend of “democratizing data” so that it can be updated, modified and reused.
“It’s the continued evolution that we have seen of sharing software source code,” he said, as well as the rise of open standards and participation models. “It’s open to anyone, and anyone can contribute back.”
A giant flywheel of participants
As Dolan pointed out, industry leaders have had conversations on the complexities around mapping since around 2016.
“This is just insanely hard to build,” he said, “and it’s only getting harder.”
Thousands of engineers who have spent decades working on mapping have struggled to collect and maintain accurate quality data, he said.
“Without reliable and modern maps, they just can’t build other products and services and capabilities,” said Dolan.
The availability of open map data can empower developers and map creators to build next-generation location-based applications, said Zemlin. Then there are the societal benefits: rich map data can support research entities and government agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Building high-fidelity mapping requires a giant flywheel of participants who are consuming and providing data that is accurate and high fidelity,” he said. “This is the power of what we’re doing.”
Endless possibilities with open map data
Overture expects to release its first datasets in the first half of 2023. Initially, this release will include basic layers such as buildings, roads and administrative information, according to Zemlin. The project will then steadily improve the coverage, resolution and accuracy of existing data, as well as introduce new layers such as geographies, administrative boundaries, border routing and, eventually, 3D building data.
And then what?
It’s really a matter of where the community decides to take it, said Dolan. The open community can address features, functions and capabilities that haven’t even been considered or anticipated yet.
“Where’s this going to go? I’m not entirely sure,” said Dolan. “We’ve got a really good starting point. I think it can only get better. These open-data projects don’t go backwards.”
And, the uses and benefits of the project for the evolving metaverse are dramatic, said Jan Erik Solem, engineering director of maps at Meta. In the not-so-distant future, map services will power augmented reality applications that merge digital and physical worlds to deliver immersive social, gaming, education and productivity experiences.
“Immersive experiences, which understand and blend into your physical environment, are critical to the embodied internet of the future,” said Solem. “By delivering interoperable open map data, Overture provides the foundation for an open metaverse built by creators, developers and businesses alike.”
Mike Harrell, VP of engineering for TomTom’s new maps platform, described the project’s implications in no small terms: “Overture’s open and interoperable base map is fundamental to bringing the world together to create the smartest map on the planet.”
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