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Despite Focus In Location Imaging Tools, Mapbox Still Emphasizes The Data

Forget about “on-demand” and “Uber of X,” says PM Tyler Bell. It’s the “geo-data moment” that’s behind the renaissance of local commerce.

Mapbox growthMuch like the location marketing industry that has sprung up around it, street diagram design subscription service Mapbox has been particularly active the past few months. It has partnered with Verizon/AOL’s MapQuest on developing its visual overhaul and followed that with the opening of Mapbox Studio for cartographers who want to create seamless projects for all screens.

And within a matter of days of unveiling those two projects, Mapbox also hired former Factual Product Manager Tyler Bell as its first Product Manager with the goal of making the company’s data and visuals even more appealing to the wide ranging industries, including real estate, agriculture, social media, and cretail, among others.

The more recent activities also show the San Francisco company embarking on a hiring spree, adding Starfish Retention Solutions’ Chris Kottke this week, while also investing in DigitalGlobe, an international provider of commercial “high-resolution earth observation and advanced geospatial solution.”

While the company prides itself on the aesthetic qualities it uses to power maps by the likes of Foursquare, Evernote, Pinterest, Uber, and many others, Bell is squarely focused on the data that underlays the shapes and navigation tools that consumers rely on.

GeoMarketing: How do you see the perception of Mapbox’s services in the marketplace and how does that inform your focus on heading up product development?

Tyler Bell: Mapbox does maps beautifully and with great skill. We’re known for our map rendering, custom styling, and visualizations, but our geocoding, directions/nav, and analytics products are a huge and important part of our product portfolio. Our hidden gem is our satellite coverage, which simply shines.

Mapbox's Tyler Bell
Mapbox’s Tyler Bell

What is special about what Mapbox does?

A number of things. But the big focus is vector maps, where we are working with map “data,” rather than “images” of the data, as in most mapping applications.

This is somewhat technical, but what it means is that vector maps allow our developers to customize how the map is rendered on their app, down to the finest detail: Data can be hidden and revealed, styling can be tied into sensors (such as how close you are to a destination or how fast your heart is beating), and the map becomes designed to accommodate the function of your application. We have a lot of very clever, very interesting, very powerful tools that take mapping and map rendering into the next generation of carto-visualization and interactivity.

How does the addition of DigitalGlobe benefit Mapbox and its clients?

I mentioned our satellite layer as our hidden gem: in it we combine imagery at different resolutions from 10-plus different sources to present a seamless, zoomable, and cloudless coverage of the globe. We have worked with DG (Digital Globe) since 2012, but this most recent deal does two things: (1) it gives us access to a massive amount of high-resolution 30cm imagery — we’ve not had this previously, and (2) it provides Mapbox with “ownership rights” to the imagery.

This second point is most interesting because it means that we can offer digitization rights — tracing features to create map data from images — under our own terms, which you do not get if the imagery is leased.

You can trace Mapbox imagery now for free to improve OpenStreetMap, for example, and we can now work with (say) advertisers who want to create from our imagery polygons of major mall complexes, statia, or urban centers.  Our owning the data is the gateway to others creating more data from it. All very exciting.

What led you to join Mapbox after five years at Factual?

The reason I joined Mapbox is not for the attractive maps — it’s for what I’ve come to learn about their backend systems and their data processing pipelines.

Mapbox believes — and understands — that there’s going to be so many devices that are roaming the world: not just mobile phones, but increasingly we are seeing drones, heads-up displays, watches, automotive consoles — really anything that moves has become a device for data “capture,” not just data consumption.

Mapbox has positioned itself as a platform that creates value for the developers and for their customers. At the same time, Mapbox collates and enriches the data these things throw off to improve our products: better maps, better geocoders, better turn-by-turn directions. The whole suite of geo-technologies is improved as more people use their products. It’s exciting to be a part of that large-scale data play.

In addition to your hire, the company also unveiled its Mapbox Studio. Will you be working on that offering as well?

Mapbox Studio was released in private beta shortly after I joined, and I didn’t have any involvement in bringing it to fruition. The product is a hugely impressive undertaking, and critically important to Mapbox because this is where our developers first encounter the power of vector maps. Branding is critical, yes, but maps are now templates upon which people affect their lives, and Mapbox Studio is the workshop in which these next-generation maps are built.

What does that mean for consumers and brands from a practical standpoint? How will the creations coming out of Mapbox Studio work in the real world?

Location is such an important and ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Mapbox Studio is the incarnation of Mapbox’s belief that a single map is ill-equipped to serve the needs of how location is used so diversely across Mobile, Social, Navigation, Sports, Driving, Drones, Logistics, and Asset Tracking.

We take our brand out of the map so it can be customized for “your” needs. Our message to brands, in-part, is stop letting Google get between you and your customers.

So many of our technologies at Mapbox are focused on helping you collect data from disparate sources, making sense of it, updating it quickly, and giving you tools to make it look beautiful. Being able to do that as a developer really opens up a whole new world of interactions of how consumers can engage with your application in exactly the manner you intend.

There’s a tremendous amount of activity from acquisitions to investments, to partnerships and, yes, hiring, going on in the location space right now. What do you attribute all this to? Is it really just about mobile and the on-demand economy or is it something else that’s going on that’s driving all this development?

It is certainly due in-part to the advent of mobile phones, but it is also a result of the incorporation of geo technology in so many other devices — and this is what I find most exciting.

Tesla cars, for example have been described as “data centers” on wheels, and I think this is a great shorthand for the direction the sector is moving — all of these moving, mobile things are collecting information about their geographic context and their environment; we are moving into a world where geo-related devices are collecting 10x as much geo data as they are consuming — this read/write world opens all kinds of doors to new products, new opportunities, and new business relationships.

Geo is becoming less about putting dots on maps, and much more about how you collect intelligence in the backend, then render that intelligence out in ways that your consumers or your decision-makers can understand.

What about the idea of the “Uberization/Uberfication of Everything?” Is the on-demand, app-based focus of consumers making this moment particularly propitious for location services?

If you ever hear me say “Uber for X”, hit me over the head. This moment is not about the on-demand economy. This moment is about the ubiquity of geo data, and the technology with which we can access and manipulate it.

The combination of open data, accessible platforms, and big data technologies are really giving birth to a whole new range of geo-enabled businesses that are not in the geography business. And these things are happening everywhere.

As you get settled into the product manager role, are there any particular goals or initiatives that you’ll be immediately diving into?

I look forward working across all of our products: Studio, Mobile DSKs, Routing and Nav, Geocoding, Vector Maps, and our gorgeous and powerful Satellite layer. Where I hope to help most is tying these things together, aligning requirements across Sales and Product Development, and generally helping the gears mesh.

The best product managers look to eliminate both uncertainty and friction where they exist, and simplify where possible the lives of their development and outbound teams with aggressive prioritization. However PMs are agents working on behalf of the team; there is no place at an organization like Mapbox for product-management-by-diktat.

Perhaps most of all, I look forward to telling developers and businesses about what we do at Mapbox, how we do it, and why (the “why” is usually the most telling aspect of what makes a company special). Mapbox has a great view of the world and an extremely informed perspective on the role of geo technology in our shared future; I’m excited to reveal more of what’s coming.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.