digital · leadership

Maps and me

Abbreviated version of a talk I gave to WA Spatial Excellence Awards 2014 last Thursday. You can view these slides on Slideshare.

I love maps. I reckon I first became aware of mapping when I was 10 years old, in a geography class, and we were using those wonderfully drawn British Ordnance Survey maps.

The geography teacher (wonderful old Mr Law) made the subject come alive. I was fascinated by all the detail on those OS maps, the churches (showing whether it was a spire or a tower), the post box, the gradient lines… even where there was nothing, there was detail.

Today sadly people are, as a rule, map illiterate. A recent US poll revealed that eight out of ten want to bomb Syria. Sadly, a similar number cannot locate Syria on a map.

Laughable if it were not so dangerous. I feel much the same every time there’s another report of a lorry wedged in some old alleyway because its driver used sat nav instead of common sense, or when I read that park rangers in Victoria keep being asked for the postcode of mountain peaks.

Who needs a boring old map and compass when you can just tap in the address for Mount Bogong and follow the screen on your smartphone?

As atlas sales plummet so those getting lost rises. Funny that?! According to Mountain Rescue England and Wales, the total number of call-outs in 2004 was 965. Last year the figure was 1,486 — an increase of 54 per cent.

But the real sadness in all this, quite apart from all those idiots with hypothermia and all those stranded juggernauts, is that millions of young people seem destined to grow up without appreciating the sheer beauty of a decent map. I had that joy, and it has held me in good stead.

I am certainly not denouncing all the joys and seismic progress we owe to digital mapping. I am a digital business guy.

It is telling that when the British car industry was designing the new State Bentley for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2012, the designers asked the Palace what sort of sat-nav device Her Majesty would like installed in her state-of-the-art car.

Back came the reply: none at all. The Queen and Prince Philip, it turns out, prefer an Ordnance Survey map. And, as far as I am aware, the State Bentley has never got lost.

I alighted on these West Australian shores 17 years ago, and after doing an MBA here at UWA changed career course, going from being a school teacher to an internet entrepreneur.

Our idea was to put real estate on maps on the internet. After all, property is all about the 3 Ls as someone used to say… Location, Location, Location. Why couldn’t we see properties for sale or rent on maps on the internet? Well, no one had done it before, so we set out to find out how to do it.

Imagine our delight to find that Perth was a centre of GIS expertise – take an isolated mining town like Perth or Vancouver and there ye shall find GIS technology. We knocked on the door of Prof Julie Delaney here at UWA and asked her is what we wanted to create was possible.

Sure it was, she said and gave us a few GIS consultants to go see. 5 months later we launched aussiehome.com, as far as we know, it was the world’s first interactive map based property site.

We plotted the properties on the map, so people could see where they were, alongside the schools, parks, beaches, shops and transport systems. People buy a lifestyle when they buy a house. They buy into the local community. They want to see what’s around, what the neighbourhood is like. Our initial maps were very rinky dink, but they sort of worked. We deployed 4 types of mapping software, and spent $100ks to get them to work.

Our tag line was “putting your home on the map”, which we thought was quite clever. Although it seemed to confuse some, as did our name, as people used to walk in off the streets looking for home loans.

A few months after launching in 1999 a real estate agent rang us up and told us to hide the address of the properties on the site.

“Which bit about a map-based property web site are you not getting?”

Stony silence.

A few years later none of them really worried about showing the address; the era of open information had set in; giving away more info reduced the tyre kickers anyway. It meant real estate agents could spend time with those that wanted to buy; they’d seen everything on the market already.

And so we built ourselves a nice little online business all due to our distinctive mapping, 7 years before Google Maps came along and gave it away. The software, data sets and consulting fees were significant, but it was a worthy investment. It was our sizzle, and to us, we were proud to be pushing the envelope. And when Google Maps came out in Sept 2006, we leapt on them and made them sing.

We were the first to introduce mapping directions to every property, and as far as I know, the still only site to allow users to map their home open route according your starting route and where and when the open properties were located.

When apps came along, we transferred this to the app environment – an obvious move, as people had these devices with them as they went around looking for properties.

10 years went along and we sold the business to REIWA, and my team and I got to run reiwa.com. I stayed for 3 years before moving to my current role at Business News.

2 weeks ago I notice reiwa.com has relaunched with mapping at its core – even the new logo tips its hat to Google Maps. Their tag line “be WA streetsmart” is all about mapping.

At my current position at Business News, I am looking to how we can use mapping to show off our amazing array of data – how about mapping every business in our Book of Lists (4000 businesses and 14000 executives), mine sites, map stories where relevant, show where the public companies are and quantify the market cap of West Perth? All possible.

Where is mapping going into the future?

Presumably more accuracy, more handiness, more mapping will surround us – corrected sat nav, and I hope beautiful mapping will appeal. People of all nationalities intuitively understand what maps are. Mapping is, you could say, an international language; and apart from great music what else is there that can do that?

There will be business opportunities wherever mapping itself helps solve problems. For what I have discovered about business can be distilled into one sentence: if your customers have a problem that you can solve, then you will create value for them; if you create value then they will pay; and if they pay, you’re in business. (It’s amazing how many businesses forget this simple rule.)

I am sure most of you are doing some really cool stuff, and for that I salute you. Keep going, keep pushing the boundaries. We’re living in exciting times and the best ideas are still to be discovered.

Thank you for this opportunity to address your Gala Dinner; congratulations to all of you that work in the spatial industry, and well done to those walking home with awards tonight.

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