Steve Coast - On his New Employer Telenav, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap

September 16, 2013

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On September 3, a press release announced that Microsoft was down one employee and Telenav, a small company in the personal navigation space, had gained one. Steve Coast, still best known as the founder of OpenStreetMap (OSM) and considered among the most important people in GIS (Directions Magazine, 2009), has changed jobs. Directions Magazine asked Coast, now head of OSM, about his time at Microsoft, his future at Telenav and what’s ahead for OSM, now nearly 10 years old.

Directions Magazine (DM): What do you think are the key changes that have helped OSM grow in size and completeness since its launch in 2004?

Steve Coast (SC): By continually trying new things, OpenStreetMap has been able to grow exponentially since inception. If we’d remained the same as back when we started, we would not have spread internationally or collected such a rich and diverse dataset. It’s only by challenging assumptions and building new tools that we remain an active and vibrant community.

DM: What accomplishment are you most proud of from your time at Microsoft? Why?

SC: Working with the team at Microsoft to allow OpenStreetMap to use Bing’s aerial imagery was the most important thing we achieved. Aerial imagery was a game changer which allowed people anywhere to start editing without having a GPS device, by just looking at a picture and drawing roads and other features on top.

DM: Telenav already has a significant stake in OSM.  For example, Telenav provides suggested corrections via, a tool created by current U.S. OSM board president and Telenav employee, Martijn van Exel. What kinds of things might the company do to push the envelope even further?

SC: There is much more we plan on doing with MapRoulette to improve and allow for new suggested corrections.  For example, last week the team added a new feature called Battle Grid which highlights areas where the USGS TIGER dataset differs significantly from OSM, suggesting that the TIGER data should be moved over to OSM.  
Telenav is also playing a part in the tradition of “Mapping Parties” that created the whole OSM phenomena.  John Novak, a Telenav employee, runs the U.S. quarterly meetups, which take place around the U.S.
Lastly, in under a year it will be a decade since I started OSM.  So we’ll be planning a celebration!

DM: How does the acquisition of Waze by Google (still in government evaluations) change the playing field for crowdsourced traffic information, like that which Telenav captures?

SC: We’re more interested in the power of open crowdsourcing rather than just crowdsourcing.  This is clearly demonstrated through Wikipedia’s success – currently the #6 website in the world.  Compare this with Google and Waze, which are not open. They use crowdsourced data but do not share that data back so that it can be used in new and unexpected ways.
Telenav is committed to community and open crowdsourcing and has created a traffic data feed that’s the only feed compatible with OSM fundamentals and also shared back with the community. We encourage innovation and we believe that OSM and other open systems will be most successful at the end of the day.

DM: What’s the significance of Telenav’s upcoming launch of "the world's first HTML5-based, voice-guided, turn-by-turn navigation service” and it becoming "the first U.S. company to use OSM as a primary navigation source”?

SC: The launch of OSM in our Scout for Browsers navigation service is significant because it is the first time a U.S.-based company has used OSM for turn-by-turn, voice-guided GPS navigation. To date, companies in the U.S. have primarily used OSM for mapping services but, due to our proprietary algorithms and extensive testing, we have been able to successfully integrate the map data in an actual navigation environment. For end users, this means that we can offer detailed map content that is consistently and frequently updated and are not reliant on updates from licensed mapping providers.

DM: There are several relevant stakeholders of OSM such as MapQuest, MapBox, etc. What’s the business model or three-year plan for OSM to keep it viable? Do you envision that it will always be a crowdsource-reliant entity?

SC: The wonderful diversity of organizations involved in the OpenStreetMap ecosystem will keep the project thriving for a long, long time. Each has their own unique place, value to bring and gifts to add to the community. By all working together to improve the map, we’re building a sustainable resource for everybody to share in. As a non-profit we’ve grown fantastically over the last nine years and are set to continue until it doesn’t make sense to use anything but OSM.

DM: What’s your take on how Microsoft managed its location technology properties (Bing, Vexcel camera, etc.) and the potential value realized or unrealized by their investments?

SC: My time at Microsoft was a fantastic learning curve and part of what I experienced was very rational asset allocation across the board. Where some competitors would spend endlessly on consumer mapping experiences, I always saw Microsoft providing value only where the cost/benefit made sense for everyone.


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