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9/24/2009
05:13 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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DEMOfall: Crowdsourcing Brings New Life To Mapmaking

Two of the vendors who flaunted their wares at DEMOfall 09 are looking to use crowdsourcing to extend Internet mapping. Micello is looking to create maps for people getting around by foot, in shopping malls, university or office campuses, and city downtowns. Meanwhile, Waze offers a free turn-by-turn directions app built by outsourcing.

Two of the vendors who flaunted their wares at DEMOfall 09 are looking to use crowdsourcing to extend Internet mapping. Micello is looking to create maps for people getting around by foot, in shopping malls, university or office campuses, and city downtowns. Meanwhile, Waze offers a free turn-by-turn directions app built by outsourcing.Micello is a nifty-looking application. Conventional GPS technology from Google, Garmin, TomTom and others are designed primarily for drivers. They have limited usefulness when you're looking for something in a particular shopping mall, university or office campus, or city downtown. Micello is trying to change that:

The company's goal is to become the Google Maps of indoor spaces as its staff of six people is doggedly mapping large public indoor spaces in the United States such as shopping malls, airports and universities. This way, if you're stranded in an airport and craving a cup of coffee or are at a university looking for a particular lecture hall, you'll be able to look up your location on Micello and find out where you need to walk. The maps the company is developing even include a search engine, so you can type "coffee" into a box and have the map point out all the locations in your vicinity that sell coffee.

Right now, they're using hired staff to create the maps. They have three people doing the legwork--literally--and three more doing design work. That enables them to do 10 maps a day. They're starting in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area (naturally), initially focused on universities and shopping malls.

We get the floor plan of a particular place, whether it's from someone going and taking a picture of it or the building itself gives it to us. We then convert the floor plan to a geo-coded, dynamic, personalizable interactive map, so that when you go to a shopping mall, the floor plan on the Micello map will interact with you.

Crowdsourcing comes into the picture later, when users will be able to annotate and update the maps.

I like this application for a couple of reasons. First off, it serves a useful purpose--people get lost in shopping centers, and university and business campuses, and would welcome a mobile app to help them out. Also, it's a business model that starts small and scales up. As of now, it'll be useless to the overwhelming majority of the world that hasn't been mapped with Micello, but if you're in one of the neighborhoods served by Micello, you'll find it useful indeed, and people who use it will help build word-of-mouth. I'm looking forward to it coming to where I live, in San Diego, which sometimes seems to be to made up mostly of shopping centers and office parks (the remainder appears to be taco stands and beaches).

The other really interesting application is Waze, which uses crowdsourcing to generate turn-by-turn directions and traffic updates for drivers. It runs in Windows Mobile phones, iPhones, and phones running Symbian and Android. You leave the app open and running while you're driving, and Waze communicates with the phone's built-in GPS and builds maps of roads. If you're moving slowly, Waze knows about that, and leaves a red trail behind you to warn other drivers of possible traffic slowdown.

Like Micello, Waze looks like potentially a very useful application, but it seems it will have a tougher time than Micello achieving its potential. It seems to depend on the Catch-22 of many social media and Web 2.0 apps: It won't attain usefulness until it's widely used, and it won't become widely used until it's already useful. Facebook and Twitter got around that problem by starting small: Facebook started exclusive to Harvard University, then other colleges and universities, and then the world at large.

Twitter had a less formal route to growth, starting with the social circle of the company's well-connected founders, then the Silicon Valley and Web 2.0 crowd at the South by Southwest conference, and then taking on Hollywood, politicians, and the rest of the world.

Waze is also starting small--it was founded in Israel, and claims to have 91% of that tiny country mapped out, but is Israel a platform from which to scale?

The two vendors who won best-in-show don't seem all that interesting to me: Emo Labs developed "invisible speakers," which can be built into the frames of TVs, laptops and consumer electronics. I just can't get that excited about speakers.

The other best-in-show winner, Liaise, is technology for automatically generating a to-do list from your e-mail. TechCrunch writes:

The application performs semantic analysis to determine which portions of an Email message require an action, and can automatically generate a list of these, complete with different priorities and deadlines. Provided the technology works well this could prove very useful (no more trudging through the Email trenches to figure out what you need to do that day) but to be effective it will need to really work every time - it won't do much good if it only catches most of your to-dos.

I'm not sure this product solves a problem that needs solving. Nobody I know has problems making to-do lists, the problem is prioritizing those to-dos and getting them all done. And TechCrunch is absolutely right--the software needs to be 100% accurate, any less than that and you have to go through your e-mail anyway.

And even if it is 100% accurate you still have to go through all your e-mail just to find information that's important, but not an action item.

Update 7:45 pm EDT: Liaise contacted me, they want to tell their side of the story. We're working to find a mutually convenient time.

So, either way, you're still going through your e-mail, and where's the benefit of Liaise? I could be missing something here--I haven't seen the product, just read descriptions of it.

DEMO has always been a curious mix. Each year, it features dozens of "so-what" and "me-too" applications, along with a few that are interesting, and--once or twice every couple of years--one or two that are breathtaking and revolutionary.

The reason you go to the DEMO conference is to see that occasional lifechanging technology. DEMO was the place where the PalmPilot was introduced, launching the wave of PDAs which begat smartphones such as the iPhone and BlackBerry. The revolution started by the PalmPilot is still going strong today, and probably will continue for the next quarter-century.

DEMO was also the first place I saw or heard of TiVo. As soon as I saw it, my flabby couch-potato heart beat faster (or it would have, if it were not already engorged by fatty junk food). I knew I had to own one. DVRs such as TiVo generated a fundamental change in how we watch TV, one which is only just beginning.

Will DEMO 09 prove to be quite so much a revolutionary event? My gut feeling is no, even though the mapping and other technologies introduced at DEMO look very interesting and useful. But ask me again in a few years, sometimes revolutions aren't obvious until well after they've happened.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on Google's upcoming Chrome OS. Download the report here (registration required).

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