Gojek-Grab battle opens way for US mapping startup

Linda J. Dodson

JAKARTA — Recently, Rezka Sukma has spent a lot of time walking the streets, staring at Google Maps. She isn’t trying to get anywhere, she is trying to find places that aren’t on the app or find elements that are misidentified or out of date.

“There was a place on Google Maps that was labelled as the “As Syifa” drugstore, but now it is just a house,” the 23-year-old university student from Bogor, south of Jakarta, said. “That’s the weakness of Google, slow updates for insignificant places.”

While local drugstores may not have Google’s full attention, they hold value for Sukma, who earns cryptocurrency by spotting “point of interest” data either missing or out of date on Google Maps. StreetCred, a U.S.-based mapping startup also places worth in such minutiae. It holds competitions in American cities to gather data on points of interest. Now it is running a similar contest in Greater Jakarta. Sukma is taking part along with 125 other players competing for a weekly prize of 0.08 bitcoin ($550) split between the top 10 contestants.

StreetCred hopes companies like Gojek and Grab, battling to become the dominant superapp in Indonesia, will find its data equally valuable. The two companies’ services, which include ride hailing and food delivery, rely heavily on accurate maps. Having a better grasp of where your drivers are and where they are going could prove decisive in who comes out on top. And it is a business opportunity StreetCred is keen to exploit, using its crowdsourcing approach to collecting point-of-interest data.

“Staying up-to-date with fast-paced places like Jakarta will require a variety of inputs,” said Nate Smith, head of business, cartography at Gojek. “For example, many restaurants and businesses can move in less than a year, so accurate street view imagery and on-the-ground validation will be critical in keeping our maps updated,” Smith said.

Both Gojek and Grab use Google Maps, which has an extensive database it cobbled together through years of Street View car roaming, satellite data and web scraping. However, the service has limitations.

“Google Maps allows developers to use their hosted services, but they are very restrictive and expensive,” said Randy Meech, CEO of StreetCred. “In particular, Google will not allow someone to get all of the point-of-interest data and store it in their own database. If you’re involved in ride sharing, autonomous driving, logistics and other industries, you really want direct access to the raw data.”

“And sometimes,” said Kertapradana Subagus, head of strategic partnerships at Grab Indonesia, “when you rely on Google Maps, you don’t have the visibility — whether the road is wide enough or narrow for a motorcycle or for a car. Having a higher quality of mapping will help to do that, which will eventually help our drivers deliver better services for our customers.”

To that end, both companies have been building up their own cartography capabilities. Gojek collects street view imagery and has employees and external vendors verify the information. It also uses transaction data generated on its platform. “All the data collected,” Smith said, “is monitored and reviewed on a daily basis, so we can keep our maps updated in real time.”

Grab also collects its own street view imagery. In November it opened an Innovation and Engineering Lab on the outskirts of Jakarta where around 50 staff develop mapping systems. Among the ideas: using drones to detect narrow streets and creating maps of building interiors.

The rivals have also made strategic hires in recent months. Smith joined Gojek in September from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an international charity that works on crisis-response mapping. A month later Grab hired Philipp Kandal, formerly senior vice president of engineering at U.S.-based wireless location services company Telenav, to oversee its map engineering effort.

But collection of cartographic data requires significant investments of time, labor and money. This last is precious now, given investors’ heightened focus on startups’ profitability.

“Many companies have spent money to collect this type of data once, but when they’re done, it quickly goes stale. For example, businesses close, hours change, et cetera,” said Meech of StreetCred. The benefits to “crowdsourcing [point-of-interest data] with an engaged community is that data can be collected and, critically, also be kept up to date.”

The goal for the U.S. startup is to become a marketplace for point-of-interest data. The data is gathered through its competitions, and within four weeks, much information on warungs — traditional mom and pop stores — and other spots that were not previously on Google Maps is created.

StreetCred said they chose this part of the world to collect data “mainly because we were seeing demand in Southeast Asia, where it’s harder in many places to access data like this than in the U.S.” The company added that it expects to have generated 17,500 points of interest in Jakarta by the end of the third week of April. It already has one buyer for the data, with another purchase agreement close. It is also considering extending its data-collection work to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

And Meech believes that with the outbreak of the new coronavirus, companies like his can be of help not just to ride-hailers but to communities. People are depending more on food and grocery deliveries, and accurate, up-to-date point-of-interest data is becoming crucial.

On April 1, StreetCred added a feature whereby point-of-interest information-collectors like Sukma can update the map with coronavirus-related changes, such as changes in operating hours. One local meatball restaurant in Depok, south of Jakarta, for example, has had its business hours changed on the StreetCred map, with a notation that “supplies are running low.”

“As places and cities close down, all the digital maps we have — even the best, like Google’s — were rendered completely wrong overnight,” StreetCred’s Meech said. “This is what we’re seeing in New York City, which has been very hard hit. It’s very important to have the maps updated as quickly as possible for health, safety, economic and so many other reasons.”

Additional reporting by Kentaro Iwamoto in Singapore and Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta.

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