As a veteran player in digital mapping, MapQuest has amassed a vast amount of location data over the years. Elise Neel, the head of MapQuest for business, says the company has evolved to meet not only the needs of marketers and other clients, but the demands of its owners.
Verizon acquired MapQuest’s parent, AOL, in 2015 — and with that change came a new set of responsibilities focused on location data. Neel spoke to Street Fight about the ways marketers now regard and value location data, the role mixed reality may play in mapping, and what it means for MapQuest to operate under Verizon’s ownership.
How are mapping services and mapping technology evolving when it comes to local marketing?
The level of sophistication that we’re seeing from local marketers is really unprecedented, specifically when it comes to not only the application of geospatial tools, like classic maps and geocoding, but their knowledge based around location data specifically and what they can do with it. We had the initial surge of social and social marketing. Then the next big wave for marketers was around mobile. We’re at this apex for local marketers, specifically around location data and understanding what’s happening in the geospatial space.
We’re seeing two key trends in that area. We work with almost 100,000 different developers today through our APIs (application program interfaces) and SDKs (software development kits) and the developer network. Each of our developers put them in everything from enterprise accounts down to small-to-medium businesses.
What we see happening is — the first trend is they understand the value of the data. No longer are these the days where someone is looking through a contract, understanding ownership of data but not paying attention to it. They’re interested in saying: “If I’m going to use your SDK to track and observe location in the background so that you can use that for advertising purposes, to inform your map stack, then I want a cut of my data because I’m not interested in you making a whole bunch of money off of my user base. I want the opportunity to do that myself.”
We basically reworked our business plan to enable those things to happen. Any data that we receive, our customers also have access to, specifically on the location data side. That should send a fundamental change, not only in how we engage with customers but in their knowledge and understanding.
The second thing is they’re really looking to pack a lot more punch into their experiences themselves. There continues to be a little bit of a fight, specifically among small-to-medium businesses that are looking to engage and grow their business through other experiences. If I’m a restaurant and I want to engage with customers coming to the restaurant, I also want to tell them what the other things to see nearby are. I want to add travel components; I basically want to become what would have naturally been considered a navigation component by providing them driving directions.
Now that I understand how valuable my data is and how valuable my customers are, I want to keep them and hoard them. So I am going to pack in as much of that end-to-end experience, whether that be to come dine at my restaurant, come shop at my store, come visit my point of interest. My apps are getting richer, my Web experience is getting much richer to maintain that data.
As voice-based search takes hold, where do you see the role of mapping fitting into that equation?
The emergence of voice command and natural language processing is really interesting. Many of those services are very binary; it is an almost two-dimensional experience. What we see happening is not only classic voice prompts in terms of how do people navigate, and how do we enable a safer experience through voice over using your hands, because that provides a better experience. That can include rerouting during navigation or command prompts to take you to a different place. We see a convergence between augmented and virtual reality with voice search and voice components.
There is something very interesting there, where you can begin to give a command and the response you get back is visual. You can see some of the work Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are doing in that area, to take that two-dimensional component and bring that into three-dimensional and even four-dimensional components for the user.
Especially in relation to location, classic command control components are very binary. But if I were to describe to you how to get from Point A to Point B, I can do that. Many people need or desire a visual reference. I don’t think the visual map is ever going away.
Do you see augmented and mixed reality playing a role in mapping going forward?
Absolutely. AOL owns the brand RYOT, which does a ton in augmented and virtual reality. Verizon has made a huge play in virtual reality as one of the critical pillars for this year from a strategic perspective. For location and how that fits in, in the travel arena that’s huge. If I am new to an area and I want a safe experience, but I don’t really know how to get there, I can preload the route and directions and simulate the route via augmented reality or virtual reality component.
We’ve have some interesting work within our emerging technology group, which basically looks at blended augmented reality. So you can use your phone to project effectively a heads-up display. You can see the speed limit, you can look at lane guidance, and you can see additional arrows for navigation and components. This opens up a huge realm.
If you were to put on a VR headsets and explore Paris, the places that you walk towards and the things that interest you make up another contextual framework for me to better understand who you are, how you like to travel, what are your tendencies, and types of POIs that draw your attention. There’s so much there and I think it will pave huge component.
How have things evolved since Verizon acquired MapQuest?
AOL owned MapQuest since 1999, but particularly over the last four or five years, they began reinvesting in the brand doing full facelifts and product overhauls. The impetus of that was they understood that mapping to some extent is a commodity. It is a utility to consumers. It was under that guise that they said they could provide additional experiences, for the purposes of increased eyeballs, advertising experiences that fit into the overall AOL strategy. The underbelly of that is the foundational geospatial stacks, the APIs and SDKs, which really was the cash cow of the business.
When AOL was purchased, Verizon was using 10 different geospatial stacks across the company. It was an opportunity to refine that. Once they peeked under the hood, it turns out we have some pretty amazing technology.
This prompted an interfamily swap out from under AOL and directly into Verizon. It basically means 100 percent direct investment from Verizon into MapQuest. The area within Verizon we are nestled under is called product innovation and new business, led by Marni Walden who is crafting extension opportunities outside of the core business of Verizon, into areas like telematics, smart communities, smart cities, IoT (Internet of Things), and advanced device technologies.
Our integration into each of these business units has been pretty phenomenal. We now power Verizon telematics for all the geospatial stacks for their fleet business. We also power ThingSpace from a location perspective, so all of the IoT asset management and tracking has location as a component to it. They announced the acquisition of Skyward; we’re working on some advanced drone routing components. Now that direct connect and funding component more readily flows, it means more responsibilities and investment and some exciting expansion opportunities.
MapQuest has been assigned as a center of excellence, which is now responsible for the ingestion of all Verizon location data globally. Anything that has a location signal coming from it, whether that is an agricultural sensor, telematics data, tower data, or all of the AOL bit stream data. You can imagine the terabytes of data that come in every day. We’re responsible for ingesting it, normalizing it, adding contextualization components, obviously advanced security, and then provisioning it back out to the business. This undertaking is just one of many examples of Verizon saying it is serious about location and it chose MapQuest to be the platform of record for the company when it comes to anything location and geospatially oriented.
Joao-Pierre Ruth is a Street Fight contributor.