I’d like to invite you to head over to Varanasi with me today. I don’t mean actually going to the most hectic place in India (nobody should go without several days of meditation to prepare) but rather a virtual visit. We’ll travel to the Ganges on Google Maps. Let’s head to this precise set of co-ordinates and pop into Monu’s Family Paying Guest House.
Google has an address for the place: D 8/4 Kalika Gali, Near Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple), Dashashwamedh, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001.
The address is as good as useless. In fact, Monu’s own website doesn’t even bother with the address. Here’s an extract from their location page:
Yes, we are difficult to find on your own. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, 4000 years since Vedic times, so it is full of twisty alleyways. Cars, autorickshaws, taxis cannot reach us directly. They drop you far up over there on the road and then you will have to walk 10 minutes from the road in twisty alleyways which is not easy for first comer.
Fantastically old-school directions then follow for the intrepid explorer. It tells you to walk east from the taxi drop-off point, and then start looking for landmarks. You’ll find the guest house (theoretically) via a bakery, a temple, another temple and, finally, a posse of policemen.
Having taken on this adventure myself, I can offer another piece of important advice: don’t wear open shoes. There are plenty of cows stalking around these alleyways. I’ll leave you to make the connection.
Suffice to say that this part of Varanasi is a labyrinth. Not a place to start a career as a postman, that’s for sure.
What I’m getting at is that things on the ground are nowhere near as simple as Google Maps suggests. We had to hand-draw our own maps to help us find our way back to Monu’s every day. At the time — just three years ago, to be precise — it was the most sensible way to navigate.
Whether that’s a bad thing, or a fun travel thing, is an interesting topic. All I’m saying here is that there are places on earth that the big map-makers haven’t quite got to yet. Although HERE WeGo makes a better attempt at the alleyways on my PC, but it’s still patchy. I’m not sure about Apple or TomTom without owning the relevant device, but I have my doubts.
While Varanasi’s alleyways might not technically be classified as streets, there are any number of reasons why it might be useful to map them. Not just for clueless travellers, but for emergency services and deliveries too. And mapping the vehicle-friendly parts of the city will be essential for the arrival of autonomous driving in India: a traffic-choked country whose dangerous roads could benefit more than most from self-driving technology.
But while opportunity awaits for autonomous vehicles in places like India, the critical question of high-detail maps is still unanswered, says Jan Erik Solem, founder of crowd-mapping startup Mapillary.
“If you look at what mapping providers like HERE, TomTom, Google or Apple, and where they have coverage, they all have the same,” Solem told me from his home in Malmo. “Pieces of Europe, the US, mainly East and West Coasts. They might have Brazil and they might have Russia, but somewhere around there it ends.
“There’s a top-down problem for them,” adds the 40-year-old Swede. “They have a fleet of vehicles as their main collection tool for getting map data. And it just doesn’t scale. At some point you have to de-prioritize countries, regions, cities or neighbourhoods, because you can’t cover them all with these vehicles.”
It’s hard to blame the map-makers for this. Anyone who has been to Varanasi would be pretty keen on a spot of de-prioritizing when it comes to maps. A vehicle couldn’t fit inside those alleyways, for one thing. Nor can any such model cope with rapidly-changing neighbourhoods such as those in South Africa’s townships, where dwellings and entirely new streets might spring up on a daily basis.
Naturally enough, the priority instead goes to richer and more developed countries, where detailed navigation functionality is more profitable in the short term. But developing countries need maps as much as America does. And after all, won’t the day come that a lucrative autonomous vehicle market opens up in them? That can’t happen without maps. Could the answer be getting communities involved in their own mapping? Solem certainly thinks so.
“We’re mapping the world with the help of photos, to automatically extract map data. Data that you can use for better navigation, for addressing, for updating roads and their properties. Right now it’s being done through expensive vehicles driving around with expensive equipment, capturing this data, and then it’s being manually edited by humans.
We’re trying to let anyone contribute with whatever image solution they have, then automating the extraction. For most people it’s just download the app, and then take pictures with your phone as you’re walking or biking or driving. Then the rest is automatic.
If you live in an area where roads and infrastructure are poor or non-existent, as in many parts of Africa for example, where you don’t even have roads or you don’t have an addressing system, then this is a way to fix it yourself.”
Mapillary’s concept has been used to map parts of Dar-es-Salaam, Santa Catalina Island in California and also the entire Faroe Islands. Greenland, another place where complete mapping has thus far been ignored by the large map-makers, is now also interested in the crowdmapping tool.
For now, though, visitors to Monu’s will probably need to keep going with the hand-drawn maps. But if the people of that ancient city are willing to jump on the crowdmapping train, then it might not be long before your phone can take you there.