Google Maps packs in the data with LTA and Quantum Inventions

November 19th, 2009 | by Aaron Tan

LTA and Google representatives posing for the media

Yes, Google has spoken… when it comes to improving its map’s accuracy and ease of use, it’s going to haul ass as it brings in multiple data streams quickly.

At a press conference held in the basement level of the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station in Singapore, LTA and Google announced a new data partnership between the two which promises to help LTA reach its goal of creating a “people-centred land transport system that shows the commuter how to commute seamlessly”, according to Mr Yam Ah Mee, LTA’s chief executive.

Are homegrown online maps being side-lined?
However, it’s interesting to note that this visualisation of the “penultimate” transport network will not be stewarded by homegrown online map providers like gothere (lauded by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a national speech) and Singapore Press Holdings’ Rednano search engine.

Fellow Techgoondu, Chan Chi-Loong, also pointed out during the press conference that Singapore already has plenty of competing products to Google Maps.

Yet oddly, this boat will be manned and captained by a US company for a start.

However, both Yam and Mr Andrew McGlinchey, the product head for Google Maps in Southeast Asia, were quick to point out that this partnership is non-exclusive, fairly open-ended and is intended to last as long as possible.

It’s a pretty open statement and leaves plenty of room for verbal maneuvering. When queried on future map partners LTA has lined up, Yam instead pointed out LTA has partnered with many local firms before, but made no mention on who is next. It remains to be seen whether other map providers can get their hands on the same data that was handed to Google.

According to Yam, LTA’s broad vision is to make public the virtues of Singapore’s land transport network and thus hopefully entice motorists to explore the public transport system and increase its usage by commuters. Yam cited the availability of similar public transportation information on non-map entities like onemotoring, PublicTransport@SG and LTA’s own hotline number.

In line with this vision, LTA claims it will be partner-agnostic, but until we see more local map partners gaining the same data, it remains, at best, a statement.

So what’s new at Google Maps?
With the influx of new authoritative geospatial data, Google Maps, both on the web and mobile phones, is now able to whip out a host of new features built on top of LTA’s data.

For one, users can now choose to navigate by car, public transport (MRTs, LRTs and buses) or simply to walk. For public transport, Google will display, where feasible, different combinations of transit modes a commuter can take to reach his destination.

On the motoring end, Google will manifest prevailing live road traffic conditions identified by coloured lines—green for smooth flowing traffic, yellow for average and red for congested roads. Using historical data, Google users can also determine how congested a selected road will be.

However, unlike what we predicted, that Google can intelligently avoid congested traffic when it plans out a route for the motorist, McGlinchey admitted in an aside with Techgoondu, that the system cannot provide this at the moment, though there are plans to blend the two in the future.

Google also introduced the use of mapplets, a platform which allows third parties to create additional POIs (points of interest). Mapplets will be loaded as an additional layer on top of the map whenever the user requests it.

At launch, there will be mapplets depicting bicycle trails, ERP (electronic road pricing) gantry location and road report incidents. When queried on the ranking of mapplets, McGlinchey revealed that such ranking (display on the front page) will be manually determined by Google based on how useful a particular mapplet will be to the commuter.

Who’s really powering it?
The heart of this lies with the corporation between three entities: The Land Transport Authority (LTA), Google Singapore and Quantum Inventions (a company that processes LTA’s raw traffic data).

Google essentially draws data from two sources: LTA for bus scheduling, GPS locations of bus stops and bus routes. An upside for Google is that it will stand to benefit from LTA’s research collaboration with IBM to improve its predictive accuracy for bus arrival times.

Quantum Inventions, on the other hand, will be handing out live traffic data (traffic flow, traffic incident and ERP) to Google. It is of note that internationally, Google relies on crowdsourced information when mobile users leave the Google Maps application active while commuting. Google aggregates and averages the speed at which these users are travelling to derive overall traffic speeds for a particular road.

McGlinchey told Techgoondu that in Singapore, this solution is not possible as yet since there are not enough handsets and users for Google Maps. Instead, Singapore’s Google Maps will be relying mainly on Quantum Invention to facilitate this feature for the moment.

So, yes, Google is hauling ass all right, but all that muscling may just crush out homegrown talents lacking support from their own government.

Disclosure: The writer is a product manager at Rednano.

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