|Last week I wrote about the economic power that accrues to map creators, prompted by my presumption that Google Maps surfaces points of interest based on advertising revenue, rather than what it thinks I'm interested in. Many of you replied, so this week here's part two:
How we are seeing Warsaw
Thanks to those who replied with screenshots of your own Google Maps of Warsaw. From a very non-scientific sample, it appears that those nearer to Warsaw (i.e. in the U.K. or Europe) get hotel recommendations; those in Australia and New Zealand mostly get museum recommendations, and those in the U.S. seem to get hotel recommendations if they're current or ex-consultants, and museum recommendations if they're not.
This mostly makes sense — both those in Europe and U.S.-based consultants with histories of frequent hotel use could be presumed more likely to need accommodation in Warsaw, at least more so than those in Australia and New Zealand.
An unsolved mystery: almost everyone is recommended the shopping malls, regardless of location. If anyone knows of any psycho-pedagogical speaking engagements in Warsaw, let me know and I'll report back.
New location middlemen?
Last week, I wrote that most economic activity is rooted in an understanding of, or ownership over, physical locations. A few of you sent through articles (thanks!) on another Interesting Thing that provides another data point to the rule: what3words.
what3words make a business of describing points on maps. They aim to simplify addressing by dividing the earth's surface into 57 trillion three-by-three meter squares, each denoted by a unique address protocol in the format word.word.word. For example, I'm currently in a three-by-three square of an airport denoted 'enrage.outright.interest'. what3words business largely relies on the idea that 'engage.outright.interest' is easier to remember and share than traditional latitude-longitude coordinates, 36.402999, 25.473059.
Of course, we already have old-fashioned addressing protocols that simplify coordinates: try 'house number, street name, suburb, city, postcode, country'. Yet street addresses are useful in places where roads have names, but less so in remote areas or countries with few street names. Consider a story I heard in Timor Leste in 2016: a friend organising a conference was hamstrung by simple organisational tasks like delivering invitations. To deliver 500 participant invitations the organisers needed to employ a delivery person to find each person individually — Timor Leste has few street addresses and no formal postal service. And without addresses, the delivery person has no way to optimise their delivery route. It was expected to take months. (Matters weren't helped when, on day two of delivery, the driver was arrested for some combination of driving without a licence and not paying the requisite bribes necessary to procure one.)
The government of Mongolia, the world's least densely populated country, has contracted what3words to create a bespoke addressing system that might solve these sorts of challenges. In Mongolia, and elsewhere, what3words will generate revenue by holding the keys to these maps, and charging businesses to translate word.word.word addresses into street addresses or GPS coordinates.
Should location protocols be treated as natural monopolies?
what3words have created a convenient alternative to an important problem, and rightly earn revenue from doing so. However, I'd argue location protocols are a utility, and should be kept public or heavily regulated. Two reasons: first, mapping protocols seem to be natural monopoly which suggests public ownership, or utility-style regulation, would be necessary to minimise rent-seeking behaviour. The only key to the dataset of all addresses is a very valuable key: imagine paying a nominal addressing charge every time you wanted to write a postcard? A public alternative will always be required, and as this article on what3words notes, the U.K. is already spending £5 million to rebuild its postcode registry after privatising the rights to its original one. Second, the financial incentives that bear on private companies inevitably create incentives to undermine neutrality of use and/or access. I'm not comfortable with marketising the most basic understanding and navigation of physical space (by extension, I'm in favour of net neutrality principles which limit the marketisation of internet access).
I'm interested in your thoughts here: are there any other utilities this argument could apply to?