Amazon Web Services, Meta, Microsoft and TomTom have come together, as founding members, to form the Overture Maps Foundation, an open-data project that aims to build “reliable, easy-to-use and interoperable open map data.” The Overture Foundation is being established under the Linux Foundation, which first shared the news yesterday, and will define a new standard for mapmaking. With this news, TomTom galvanizes the next phase of its plan to build “the smartest map on the planet.”
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen an explosion of world-changing location-based technologies. Navigation, ride-hailing, ETAs, live traffic information — and many other features — are now vital to the smooth functioning of our society at large. Demands of location-based tech have never been greater, and the industry is on a path to grow substantially over the next decade. It’s challenging and expensive to keep up with. More challenging still, for companies that rely on location tech and digital maps, is the lack of choice.Navigation and routing tools like this have become essential for the modern world. Individuals and delivery businesses alike use them to ensure they get themselves and their things where they need to be on time.
Generally speaking, location tech companies build their map stacks on a single base map. On top of that, they build a complex array of layers and services often from multiple providers, these include things like map visualization, live traffic, lane information, speed limits and road characteristics.
While each map has its own strengths and weaknesses, they all have one thing in common: they are all proprietary, and interoperability across platforms is virtually non-existent. In other words, getting a base map from one supplier to work nicely with real-time traffic information from another, is a mammoth headache. It will be time consuming and very difficult, if it’s possible at all. That’s one challenge.
The other challenge is for the mapmakers themselves.
The world is constantly changing. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, this became unavoidably clear; we saw businesses close and new ones spring up. Store opening times had to change with little notice. Traffic patterns changed. Cities reallocated space overnight, changing roads into bike lanes and closing some roads to traffic entirely to make space for people.
“Mapping the physical environment and every community in the world, as they grow and change, is a massively complex challenge that no one organization can manage. The industry needs to come together to do this for the benefit of all,” Jim Zemlin, Executive Director for the Linux Foundation, said in yesterday's announcement.
On top of this, making map services work together, at the moment, is a nightmare, and resolving all the differences across different base maps is something that can only happen if the whole industry works together. As TomTom’ers say, “it takes the world to map the world.”
That’s where Overture comes in. As Harold Goddijn, TomTom’s CEO, said in the announcement, “Overture’s standardization and interoperable base map is fundamental to bringing geospatial information from the world together.”
In the most basic sense, the Overture Foundation is aiming to bring resources of the world together to work on a better base map. One that every map service provider or developer can use and can be shared simply through an open data license. More specifically, the Overture Foundation is set up to ensure its base map is simple, easy-to-use and interoperable for the systems of its users.
The foundation’s members will build this data, primarily, by pooling relevant resources. Michael Harrell, VP of Engineering at TomTom, explains: “members can contribute anything that improves the base map. It’s not about members sharing all the location data they have, but instead choosing what they share and contribute to improve the base map for their needs.”
And while the base map is important, Harrell stresses that we don’t forget about the governance and standardization the foundation will define. These standards will be collectively defined by its members and will set a new, and unique, map standard.
The foundation’s base map will be simple but powerful.
In its first iteration, Overture’s base map will include the road network and its geometry (provided by TomTom), building footprints and some basic POI information. However, as this will be built from many sources and standardized, it’ll be a powerful record of ground truth with some of the best global coverage the industry has ever seen.
Data will also undergo some quality assurance processes to ensure map errors and breakages are caught before they create any problems or find their way into finalized data.
As the Linux Foundation announcement explains, in many cases, multiple datasets reference the same real-world entity using their own rules and language, which makes them very difficult to combine. Numerous companies then waste time reinventing technologies to do similar tasks, as there’s little standardization across the industry.
Overture aim to fix this by creating a consistent and shared record of ground truth, so that when two map services reference a location in the world, they reference the same reality and use the same set of standards.
Any time open data and business are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s sure to draw some quizzical looks. It sounds like an oxymoron; how are companies going to function if they give data away for free? Data is the new oil, right? Not entirely.
The point of differentiation in mapmaking and location tech today isn’t strictly in the base map, it’s becoming more about the layers above. It’s in the speed limits, one-way streets, road restrictions, routing, ETAs, search, building entry points. It’s in services built on top of the base map. And it’s in the APIs and SDKs developed that allow engineers to build with those layers of data.
Overture doesn’t compete with the industry, it complements it. The industry will begin to compete based on what they build on top of the base map; the big difference now is that the doors to innovation are wide open and collaborating on location tech is a whole lot easier.
Establishing itself as a key founding member of the Overture Foundation is a major step in TomTom’s recently renewed direction, and it’s plain to see why.
At the start of November, TomTom announced its new Maps Platform. This approach will result in a new map, a data sharing ecosystem and mapmaking platform. All will be built on Overture’s base map at a foundational level and will see TomTom add its own high value data to serve its customers’ specific requirements.When TomTom unveiled its new direction, it also unveiled a new logo. It waved goodbye to the hands of old and says hello to a more focused and mapping oriented wordmark and identifier.
As per the release, the TomTom Maps Platform will provide its customers and partners with map services such as visualization, search, routing, navigation, traffic information and TomTom’s Digital Cockpit for carmakers. These services will be offered with easy integration and interoperability, and high levels of quality control — all the things TomTom is known for.
In Goddijn’s words: “TomTom’s Maps Platform will leverage the combination of the Overture base map, a broad range of other data and TomTom’s proprietary data in a continuously integrated and quality-controlled product that serves a broad range of use cases, including the most demanding applications like advanced navigation, search and even automated driving.”
Anyone can use the Overture base map as it will be free and open. However, it really comes to life when it becomes part of the TomTom Maps Platform and is used as the canvas for many highly valuable, proprietary layers.
TomTom’s proprietary map layers are things like one-way streets, speed limits, curvature, gradients, more detailed POI information and lane information. Crucially, these are part of TomTom’s mapmaking platform, which allows customers and developers to package, combine and output these layers and project them onto the base map in navigation, ride-hailing apps and many other use cases. Customers can also build their own layers and services unique to what they need, using their own data. If they want, they can even license them to other location-tech companies.
As Harrell explains, The TomTom Maps Platform allows any company to associate, license and commercialize map content using these independent layers. Companies from across the world, big and small, will be able to collaborate and utilize the capabilities of the TomTom Map, while licensing the additional services or content they need. Developers will no longer need to spend time getting various location technologies to work together. Instead, they have more time and freedom to focus on the innovations and requirements specific to their customers and end users.Modern digital maps are complicated. They're made up of masses of data and can be customized based on what they're needed for. One way to think of them is in a series of layers, at the most foundational level is the base map, on top of this other data about traffic, visualizations, routing, POIs and so on, can be projected.
This might all sound quite abstract for those not familiar with modern mapmaking and location tech, but for those that are familiar, it should sound like music to their ears.
Having a single point of reference that the entire industry can build on top of saves time, money, resources and stress. Where companies were once faced with the tough challenge of getting numerous services to work together or having to pick one map provider, they now should see opportunity and freedom.
The location industry will no longer differentiate itself solely on its base map, it will put more focus on the map layers built on top of that — on the layers and services that create value and are incredibly useful to today’s demanding location-tech companies. This won’t be the only area of competition, though.
It will also compete on who can package, combine and publish maps made of many layers the best. It will be a competition of who can produce the smartest, most universally applicable and most useful map, not just who has the most accurate base map. Surely, the best map will be the one that’s easiest to build with, has the most robust record of ground truth and the most diverse array of additional services and features. With the openness of Overture, the TomTom Maps Platform is ripe and ready for this.
The foundation expects to begin delivering its first data in the first half of 2023. When it does, it takes the first step to realizing its goal of creating the industry’s first commercially oriented base map. For TomTom, its new Maps Platform will take a big step forward.
The biggest names in tech coming together to make Overture, and its data is going to be incredibly powerful. Not just because it will create a base map with the broadest coverage and highest level of accuracy we’ve ever seen, but because it’s going to standardize the commercial mapmaking and location tech world. It’s going to open the doors to innovative newcomers and for those already in the industry working with location tech will get easier and more cost efficient.
If we’re going to build the smartest and most useful map possible, the industry needs this to happen; as Goddijn says, collaboration is the future. And as more organizations join the foundation it will continue getting bigger, better and more powerful still, and TomTom is there from the very start — an overture, indeed.
If you’re interested to learn more, you can check out TomTom’s own press release here.Keep checking back to the TomTom Editorial Newsroom too, we’re going to be following this story over the coming months.