We are often asked, why can't I use my iPhone or Android phone to collect data for the map, and why did Hivemapper build and design its own dashcam? This was not an easy decision to make. But after attempting to use iPhone and Android devices to collect map imagery, we ultimately decided that while it sounds good to say “use your iPhone/Android to map” in a Tweet in reality it’s a flawed approach that doesn’t scale over an extended period of time and creates lower quality data.
Customers care about high quality and trustworthy data with high levels of coverage that is updated frequently. While contributors want an easy and passive experience — a set it and forget it experience. Finally, from a mapping network perspective, it’s critically important that contributors don’t churn, so that you have a stable and consistent set of contributors. With this in mind, let’s dive into the rationale that led us to design and build the Hivemapper Dashcam.
1. Customers love consistent imagery
We always start from the customer and work backwards. Customers of the imagery love standardized imagery, as they often feed the imagery to machine learning algorithms to detect objects (signs, lane markings, and so forth). If we were to allow contributors to use their own iPhone/Android, we would be dealing with endless image variation which customers dislike as it increases the amount of work they need to do to use the imagery.
2. Customers really like accurate maps
It turns out that customers really like accurate maps. The GPS in your phone is not accurate enough for mapping. You have likely experienced this with Google Maps / Waze. It often thinks you are on a service road when in fact you are on the highway.
We will continue to improve the positional accuracy of the imagery in forthcoming firmware releases and new dashcam models.
3. Customers need to trust the data
The GPS in your phone can be easily spoofed. As a map, it’s critical that we trust the collected data, without the trust things break down quickly. We have built multiple layers of location verification security into the dashcam, and may add more overtime.
4. Set it and forget it experience for contributors
Most people use their iPhone/Android while driving. If they mount their phone properly, they can't listen to music, take calls, while driving. Their phone becomes hostage to mapping and they quickly give up. With the dashcam, you can mount it and forget about it. Not only is this ideal for contributors, but from a network perspective it reduces contributor churn helping it maintain a stable and consistent set of contributors in each region over an extended period of time.
5. Able to map in extreme weather conditions
If you have ever left your phone near your dashboard on a hot summer day in Arizona, you will find that it quickly overheats and automatically turns itself off. The dashcam is designed to withstand very hot summer days and keep doing its thing.
6. Leverage to reduce mapping costs (on our timeline)
Reducing the cost to map, so that we can increase freshness is core to what Hivemapper is building. By building our own dashcam it provides us with more flexibility to do onboard object detection (signs, lanes, construction, etc.) as we control how much compute each dashcam will have. The last thing we want to do is pay huge cloud computing bills, as that makes the data more expensive for customers and reduces our ability to refresh the map frequently. By building a dashcam, we set the roadmap and timeline for executing onboard map processing. This allows us to dramatically reduce mapping costs and to deliver more value to customers for less.
7. Exterior mounted dashcams produce higher quality data
Exterior mounted dashcams produce high quality imagery and positioning accuracy. Mounting an iPhone or Android phone outside of your vehicle is not for the faint of heart to put it gently.
8. The Play Store Risk
We are building a global map and it’s no secret that one of Google’s crown jewels is Google Maps. The expansion of our mapping network and growth of our map is something Google would probalb not be thrilled about. And they'd likely do something to protect their investment in Google Maps.
If our primary mode of collecting data was via an Android app, Google could begin to nefariously delay update approvals of our Android app on the Play Store or worse yet remove it from the Play Store entirely.
To be clear, this is not the primary reason we built the Hivemapper Dashcam, as it's a low probability scenario. By building an independent dashcam, we eliminate this long term risk to the project and businesses that depend on it.