The Story Behind the Global Data Alliance that is Mapping our World
Marc Prioleau had a big idea. As a long-time veteran of the digital mapping industry, he knew this idea could have massive implications.
Marc had learned from his years working at start-ups that large companies have not just the resources - but also the will to do big things. Since he had landed a job at Facebook, Marc decided to take a shot at his big idea.
As he recently told me:
“Big companies encourage their people to think out of the box but most of what happens is incremental. Having spent most my career at start-ups, it seemed like too good an opportunity to waste.”
Marc’s Big Idea
Marc’s big idea was an alliance of companies that would collaborate to build map data. Map data - the digital representation of the physical world - powers location apps that are critical infrastructure for consumers and many enterprises.
But map data is also an insanely expensive dataset to collect and then maintain.
Given that expense, many companies are largely dependent on Google Maps for their map services. Google has invested billions of dollars over many years to assemble the single most robust location dataset in the world.
But what if other companies agreed to pool portions of their data and resources? This shared dataset would be the largest collection of location data anywhere and unlock new innovations for the companies participating in the alliance.
Marc’s VP at Facebook was skeptical.
Would companies really agree to collaborate with location data?
The Key Insight
Marc knew that the process of creating maps had evolved. For many years, location data was collected manually. During this era individuals actually drove around and wrote down the names of stores and their addresses.
But the mobile era changed that. Our world is now filled with digital sensors that scoop up location data at massive scale everyday.
Traffic patterns, for example, can now be collected using cellphone sensors (e.g. Verizon). Location data can be detected by rideshare drop offs (e.g. Uber), social media posts (e.g. Meta) or package deliveries (e.g. Amazon).
But Marc believed there were portions of location datasets that companies would be willing to share in exchange for the right benefits. For example, if joining a data alliance could enrich each company’s proprietary data or help them access more regular data updates, then they might agree to work together.
Other portions of their data they would never agree to share.
Turning an Insight into Action
Marc validated this idea when he saw colleagues at mapping industry conferences. He would describe the alliance he envisioned. And the feedback he got was overwhelmingly positive. But there was no clear path forward.
Marc drafted a proposal for the mapping data alliance that he envisioned and circulated it among Facebook’s leadership.
Facebook’s leadership gave Marc the green light to gauge interest from other large companies who had an interest in mapping data. If he could assemble a coalition of companies to provide the resources, Facebook would be in.
Global Ambitions Start Small
So Marc approached his colleagues at Microsoft, Amazon and TomTom.
Together, these companies agreed to join Meta (Facebook) and provide the funding, technical resources and - critically - the data needed to launch what is known today as the Overture Maps Foundation.
Overture’s mission is to power current and next-generation map products by creating reliable, easy-to-use, and interoperable open map data.
Since its launch last year, over twenty other organizations have joined Overture, including Hyundai, InfraMap, Nomoko, SafeGraph, Niantic Labs, Uber, Precisely, Nearmap.
Marc is now Executive Director of the Overture Maps Foundation.
The Key Lesson
Marc’s story is a reminder that transformative partnerships and alliances begin with one person who takes initiative. Marc took a swing knowing that he might not succeed. But he tried anyway.
Marc succeeded in turning his idea into an industry alliance, I believe, because of 5 key ingredients:
5 Key Ingredients That Led to Overture’s Launch
Domain knowledge - Marc’s 20 years of experience in the mapping industry gave him an understanding of the data, how it is collected, how it is valued, how it is used. This knowledge proved essential.
Relationships - Marc had more than knowledge, he had relationships with the key mapping leaders at numerous companies. This enabled him to get feedback on how to structure the alliance.
Clear value exchange - Marc approached the founding companies with a clear value proposition for a new mapping industry alliance. Overture helps its members avoid costs for location data. Doing so, opens up new innovations, new products and new businesses. Overture serves as an independent body to help clarify for members which datasets are for open sharing versus those that are proprietary.
Organizational support structure - by leveraging The Linux Foundation, the Overture Maps Foundation was able to quickly launch a legal entity with the certifications and contracts necessary to operate. That is exactly why the Linux Foundation exists - their mission is to provide a neutral, trusted hub for developers and organizations to code, manage, and scale open technology projects and ecosystems.
Seed funding - even the best ideas cannot gain traction without some seed funding. Marc was able to secure buy-in from a few innovative companies with deep pockets who understood the opportunity of a mapping industry alliance.
More to come
The Overture Maps Foundation is not the first alliance in the mapping industry. But it is one of the first open data project launched by private sector companies. Open data projects are an emerging type of organization that you can learn more about from This for That.